As I am starting to sketch out the bones of my next book, (semi-serious working title: How Tuition Fees Will Save the World ) , I am collecting arguments about the nature and desirability of private contributions to higher education. Most of the interesting stuff on that front right now is coming from the United States, which is of course sui generis as higher education systems go and so not necessarily applicable elsewhere, but its nonetheless vital to understand.
The best bits of the report are the ones that try to get underneath the official data on debt-repayment-to-income. Basically, the problem with using this number as a yardstick for affordability is two-fold. First, the gradual expansion of various types of loan repayment assistance for borrowers in distress means that among borrowers with low repayment-to-income ratio on student loans, it’s difficult to distinguish between those who are flourishing and those who are in trouble. Second, a consistent debt-to-income ratio among borrowers may obscure the fact that aggregate number of borrowers is increasing if conditional borrowing levels are increasing at all levels above $0. It’s also good at showing that debt is a bigger issue for Black students than white ones (though I’m not sure this point was ever really disputed by anyone).
So far so good. The problem is in the bit about debt and labour markets, where the argument gets a little bit hand-wavy. Normally, the argument for private contributions to education is that there is a private benefit – that getting an education raises an individual’s income and therefore justifies their contribution. The authors of this piece don’t dispute this premise so much as simply wave it away. Yes, there are private returns to education, they say, but these returns exist because incomes of the uneducated are falling, not because the income of the educated are raising. It’s not entirely clear why this changes the logic – but it does set up a very different argument.
Basically the authors argue that because graduate wages have been stagnant in the US for many years (a product, they say, of increased monopsony in the economy, a favourite subject at the Roosevelt Institute), the argument that the economy needs more skills must be wrong, and the reverse argument – that it is all about credentialization – must be the correct one. Effectively, the argument is that since education is socially wasteful at a macro level, private contributions are immoral. By going this route, they don’t need to argue about private returns – they just argue that the macro argument trumps the argument about individuals.
This argument has the merit of being novel. It’s not entirely clear to me that the credentialization argument is true (there are a lot of rival potential explanations for stagnant wages). Nor is it even clear what the argument has to do with debt per se. if you think an investment is socially wasteful, it is will be socially wasteful whether it is paid for via savings, current income or borrowing. So, it’s an argument against fees for sure, but not clearly against debt. (That said this habit of confusing arguments about debt and arguments about fees is pretty common in American higher ed writing these days).
The argument also has some odd implications which anti-tuition or anti-debt advocates in other countries might want to ponder. If you’re going to hinge an argument against fees not just on stagnant graduate wages, but stagnant graduate wages due to employer monopsony power , then you must be aware that where those conditions do not hold, then your argument against fees correspondingly disappears. It’s not just that it makes the argument for fees undeniable in developing countries, where graduate wages are indubitably rising, it’s also that it weakens it in places where graduate incomes are stagnant for reasons other than monopsony (for instance, in Ontario, where there is a pretty good case to be made that stagnant wages have had a lot to do with increased access and completion, which has flooded the labour market with new graduates).
In any case: the paper is thought-provoking if not ultimately convincing. Worth a read.