Higher Education Subsidies

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A battle over higher education loans is coming to a head as Democrats consider including the ill-titled Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act in reconciliation legislation. In one corner, we have private education loan lenders who enjoy the generous subsidies and loan guarantees provided by Uncle Sam. In the other, we have policymakers who want to cut out the middleman by having the Department of Education provide direct loans.

Critics of SAFRA correctly point out that the alleged savings of nationalizing student loan subsidies are a sham. The Congressional Budget Office has scored the nationalizing portion of the bill as saving $67 billion over ten years. However, in a letter to Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), the CBO acknowledged that when the cost of default risk is factored in, the alleged savings drop by $33 billion. Yet, taxpayers won’t realize any savings because the legislation adds $80 billion in additional spending for Pell grants and other programs.  

For taxpayers, the unpalatable choice is nationalization or crony capitalism—subsidizing private businesses. The real answer is for the federal government to get out of the higher education subsidy business altogether, as a Cato essay argues.
 
The following are some key points from the essay:
 
  • The effect of subsidy programs, in part, is to impose taxes on blue collar workers—who have not attended college—to pay for the tuition of future white-collar professionals. Why should the government subsidize future high earners at the expense of average working people? 
  • Federal student aid programs transfer wealth from taxpayers to academic institutions. That’s because the rise in student subsidies over the decades appears to have fueled inflation in education costs. Tuition and other college costs have soared as subsidies have risen. College cost inflation induced by federal aid probably hurts low-income families—the people that federal aid was supposed to target—more than others. 
  • Federal aid has probably helped increase student enrollment, but many of those additional students may not have been ready, or suited, for college. This is evidenced by the rising shares of college students who require remedial work, and the fact that institutions have lowered their standards to adapt to the rise in second-rate students. 
  • Increasing top-down control and subsidization of higher education from Washington is creating a threat to the strength of the American system. As we have seen in K-12 education, the growth in federal subsidies is usually accompanied by calls for more oversight, micromanagement, and rising levels of red tape imposed by Washington. 
  • Federal student loan and grant programs have been subject to waste and fraud for decades. The Pell grant program (which SAFRA would enlarge) costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars per year in fraud. Another ongoing problem is the high default rate on student loan programs.