Anna Bahr presents an analysis of the impact of Obama’s recent “Pay as You Earn” legislation, suggesting that it might really stand for PAY Extra. According to Bahr, “PAYE tends to save money only for those low-income borrowers who have incurred an unusually large federal debt.” Bahr offers a few examples of people with more usual loan amounts, who would actually pay more under PAYE than under current rules, because as they repay more slowly they will incur more interest on their outstanding loans.
According to Susan Dynarski and Judith Scott-Clayton, the FAFSA could consist of just 2 questions and more people would manage to go to college and stay there until they get their degree (The Cost of Complexity in Federal Student Aid).
I have a lot of other questions. For instance, what would happen then? Would we have more college grads with good jobs and solid prospects? Or would we have even more young adults with staggering educational debt and a hard time finding a halfway decent job? It’s instructive to consider the post-graduation realities laid out in It’s Official: The Boomerang Won’t Leave. According to that article, “more than half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, meaning that they make substandard wages, in jobs that don’t require a college degree.”
One last question: how do you fix that?
The New York Times ran an interesting op ed on the new rating system Obama has proposed to subsidize higher education for lower income students based on the “value” a particular school offers students: The Wrong College Ratings
Economists suggest college is a great value, as every year of higher education translates on average into 6% more pay every year (see Part I). But if you ask the American public, the answer is not so rosy.
A Pew Research Center survey from 2011 shows that the majority of Americans think college is less than a good value. This raises the question of what informs that judgment. Is it that tuition has gone up without a concomitant rise in quality of the education offered? Is there an underlying perception of unfairness? Do people see other avenues to getting a higher wage? Does the hardship of coming up with the funds during college cause so much pain that future earnings don’t feel like adequate compensation? Do people really think they are subsidizing research that doesn’t actually improve the quality of the education one receives?
Gaining a better understanding of what the real answers are would probably make a big difference to the overall college experience and to the way that colleges can market their services.
Bob Samuels of the AFT has calculated the cost to society of free public higher education. His magic number is a cost of $127 billion annually, a figure offset by a variety of savings. (For instance, we’d see a significant reduction in the cost of student loan programs. And we could reap more taxes by ending tax breaks on on education-related investments, which turn out to be a handy tax shelter for the rich.)
By my calculations Samuels’ total cost, never mind the offsets, would be approximately the same amount of taxpayer money as the cost of war since 2001.
I haven’t got a clue how to calculate the total social benefit of free college tuition at all public institutions of higher learning in the U.S., but I am pretty sure we’d get more out of it than we get out of the war in Afghanistan.