Friday, August 7, 2015

“Risk Sharing” Bill is a Covert Tax on Higher Education (Michael Simkovic)

Higher education provides massive benefits to the public fisc.  These benefits come in the form of additional payroll and income tax revenue, less dependence on social welfare, and student lending profits.*  Based on tax revenue alone, the government’s “cut” of the higher education earnings premium is typically far larger than tuition collected by the college that provides the education. 

While there’s a lot of talk about the government subsidizing education, it’s actually the other way around.  The public return on investment in higher education helps sustain the government’s expenditures in other areas that are unlikely to provide much of a financial return, like military spending (roughly 25 percent of the federal budget, including veterans' benefits).  Even taking into account public subsidies to higher education, the federal government already taxes higher education far more heavily than many other investments.

Two Senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Orrin Hatch, want to tax higher education even more, although they euphemistically call their new tax “risk sharing.”   Under their proposal, the federal government would shift some of the downside risk of education investment—delays in loan repayment by some student borrowers**—to colleges, but would not share the upside.***

Risk typically comes with rewards.  If the government would like to “share the risk” of education investment with institutions of higher learning—like a corporation offering restricted shares to its employees—then along with student loan losses, why not offer colleges a proportionate share of the student loan profits and marginal increases in tax revenue ? 

Real risk sharing—on both the upside and downside—would mean a massive increase in public investment in education, not additional taxes on this already overly-taxed sector of the economy.


* Because of progressive income taxes and payroll taxes, the federal government keeps approximately 40 cents of every extra dollar earned because the workforce is more educated.  Federal student loan programs are profitable under conventional methods of accounting because the repayments the government receives exceed financing and administrative costs.  Some have claimed that federal student loans are not profitable by arguing that if the government charges less than private lenders would charge, the government is still “losing” money it could be making.  This calculus typically ignores the effects of lower pricing on boosting enrollment, increasing the volume of lending, and increasing tax revenue.  This argument is the essence of controversial “fair-value accounting” claims, although the argument is typically framed in terms of cost of capital considerations.

** These charges for delayed repayment are not necessarily compensation for losses, but rather an estimate based on non-repayment of loans in the first few years after studies end. This estimate could enable the government to double-dip, charging institutions for delayed repayment in early years while recovering accrued interest, principal and collections costs from student borrowers in later years when their incomes are higher and their employment is more stable.  

*** Some indeterminate fraction of this tax revenue would be returned to colleges that serve low-income students through DOE grants.  However, those same institutions are the ones who are most likely to have students who struggle to repay their loans-and will therefore be the ones to pay the tax.  The grants awarded could be substantially lower than the taxes collected.  The bill is likely to be a drain on resources available for education, especially net of transactions and compliance cost.

Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Of Academic Interest, Student Advice, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink