November 24, 2015

Thankful for the Financial Times (Michael Simkovic)

This Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for the Financial Times.  

While some leading business and financial newspapers have adulterated their coverage to appeal to a mass audience or reduce costs, the Financial Times continues to produce high quality, fact-based reporting about serious business, financial, and economic issues.  The FT's target audience continues to be legal and financial professionals who are prepared to pay a premium for reliable information.  The FT includes a minimum of hyperbole and fluff.  It also offers a more global perspective than most U.S. papers, while still providing strong coverage of important U.S. issues.  

For the last 5 years, I've routinely recommended the FT to students in my business law classes, who are generally more familiar with U.S. papers.  The FT is available on Lexis (with a few days delay), but is well worth the cost of a subscription.  

If you're not a regular reader of the FT, but have been following U.S. newspapers' higher education coverage, you can get a sense of the differences between the FT and U.S. newspapers' approach across subject areas by reading this article about fees at public UK universities exceeding those at U.S. universities.  The article is entirely focused on costs and benefits of education and how those costs and benefits are distributed between students, government, and employers.  There are no unrepresentative anecdotes, no histrionics, only summaries of data.  When advocacy groups are cited, their interests are noted.  This is what journalism can and should be.

Pearson recently sold the FT to Nikkei.  Hopefully the new owners maintain the FT's high quality. 

November 24, 2015 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Of Academic Interest, Professional Advice, Student Advice, Weblogs | Permalink

September 01, 2015

Student loan borrowers with the highest debt levels have the lowest default rates (Michael Simkovic)

August 28, 2015

"Timing Law School" in The Washington Post (Michael Simkovic)

August 27, 2015

Tuition discounting at private law schools? Up to nearly 50% from only 20% a decade ago...

August 10, 2015

Newspapers’ negative law school coverage, 2010-2015 (Michael Simkovic)

In a recent column, the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof confessed, “One of our worst traits in journalism is that when we have a narrative in our minds, we often plug in anecdotes that confirm it.”  The quote is timely, given recent controversy surrounding New York Times’ coverage.

Newspapers tend to emphasize anecdotes over data.  This gives journalists, editors, and their sources tremendous freedom to frame a story.  A few individuals can serve as ostensible examples of a broader phenomenon.  But if those examples are unrepresentative or taken out of context, the news story can be misleading by omission and emphasis.  If you get your information from the newspaper, you might worry more about stabbings and shootings than diet and exercise, but you are roughly 38 times more likely to die from heart disease than from violent crime.

Similar qualitative problems—sensationalism, reliance on extreme and unrepresentative anecdotes, lack of context, and omission of relevant data and peer reviewed research—characterized press coverage of law schools and the legal profession.  (See New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; New York Times again)

Newspapers conflated a generally weak labor market—in which law graduates continued to have substantial earnings and employment advantages over similar bachelor's degree holders (see The Economic Value of a Law Degree; Timing Law SchoolCompared to What? (here and here); Recent Entry Level Outcomes and Growth in Lawyer Employment and Earnings)—with a law-specific problem.  They criticized law schools—and only law schools—for practices that are widespread in higher education and in government. (see competitive scholarships; school-funded jobs, measuring employment / unemployment)   And they uncritically reported research, no matter how flawed, that fit the anti-law school narrative. (see Failing Law Schools' problems with data and citations; a free education as a hypothetical alternative to student loans; and other inapposite comparisons (here, here and here)).

Newspapers' sensationalist law school coverage may have helped their circulation—negative coverage attracts eyeballs—but it mislead students in harmful ways.  Recent research suggests that each year of delaying law school—for example, to wait until unemployment declines—is counterproductive.  Even taking into account the potential benefits of graduating into a better economy, these delaying strategies typically cost the prospective law student more than $30,000 per year because of the high opportunity cost of lower earnings with a bachelor's degree instead of a law degree.  The longer the delay, the higher the cost.

So which newspapers and journalists provided the most negative coverage?  And how has the news slant evolved over time?  For an explanation of methodology, see the footnote at the bottom.*

Net-negative newspapers ranked

The most negative newspapers were the Wall Street journal, the Chicago Tribune, and the New York Times, in that order.  The Wall Street Journal was exceptionally negative—more than 7 times as negative as the average newspaper.  A few newspapers, such as the Orange County Register, were net positive.

Net-negative stories by year

2011 to 2013 were exceptionally negative years, with dramatic reductions in negativity in 2014.

Did negative press coverage cause a decline in law school applications, independent of the events being covered?  Differences in press coverage can move financial markets, according to research exploiting variation in local coverage of identical national events and local trading patterns, so perhaps press coverage can also affect other markets.  (The leaders of Law School Transparency apparently believe that negative press coverage can reduce law school applications.  One of them explained his efforts to pitch negative news stories in specific parts of the country where he thought law school enrollments were too high.) (PDF here)**   

The New York Times and WSJ both went negative early, but the Wall Street Journal remained more negative for a much longer period of time.  Most of the uncredited (no byline) stories in the NY Times and WSJ about law school were negative.  

The WSJ had an unusually deep bench of anti-law school journalists.  By contrast, most newspapers had a few very negative journalists and otherwise a fairly even mix of slightly negative and slightly positive journalists.  The most anti-law school journalist was Ameet Sachdev of the Chicago Tribune, whose coverage was about twice as negative as either David Segal of the New York Times or Jennifer Smith of the Wall Street Journal.

Net negative journalists

Geographically, the hardest hit areas were New York, Illinois (Chicago), and Washington D.C.  (This is counting the New York Times and Wall Street Journal as New York papers).  Ohio was the only state that saw net positive coverage.  

Net negative stories by state

The pattern of coverage does not seem to have much relationship to the strength of the local legal employment market, but rather seems to turn more heavily on idiosyncratic editorial policies at particular newspapers that happen to be headquartered in certain states.  


*  I asked my research assistant (a third year law student) to gather articles about legal education and the legal profession from the top 25 U.S. newspapers by circulation for which data was available from Proquest back to at least 2010.  My RA then rated each article as "positive", "negative" or "neutral" depending on whether the article would have made him more or less likely to attend law school if he had read it while deciding.  For each newspaper or journalist, the number of positive articles was subtracted from the number of negative articles to arrive at a net-negative count, and newspapers were ranked on this metric.  There are some obvious limitations of this approach--it doesn't measure how positive or negative each article is, it assumes that one positive article can balance out one negative article (negative articles probably have a bigger impact than positive ones), it relies on the opinion of a single third year law student.  It also lacks context—perhaps newspaper coverage about all topics is generally negative.  Perhaps newspaper coverage of all higher education was negative during this period.  Nevertheless, this approach may provide some useful insights.  All editions of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times tracked by Proquest are combined, but identical articles published in different editions are counted only once.  The WSJ blog is included as part of the WSJ.

** Contrary to popular belief, there is little evidence that larger law school graduating class sizes predict worse outcomes for law school graduates, nor is there evidence that smaller graduating class sizes predict better outcomes.  See (Timing Law School and a summary).  In a recent robustness check considering many alternative definitions of cohort size (but not yet reported in the draft paper), McIntyre and Simkovic continued to find no evidence that smaller graduating cohorts predict higher earnings premiums for recent graduates.

August 10, 2015 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Professional Advice, Science, Student Advice, Weblogs | Permalink

August 07, 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.

August 7, 2015 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Of Academic Interest, Student Advice, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink

August 05, 2015

Do increases in the cost of college pay for themselves? (Michael Simkovic)

College costs more than it used to.  It's also worth a lot more than it used to be worth.  The increase in value of a college education exceeds the increase in the cost of a college education by a very wide margin.

How much has the cost of college actually increased?  It may be less than you think.   

According to the Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics, at 4 year institutions, average college tuition is up about $1,900 in real (inflation-adjusted) terms in the five years from 2008-09 ($21,996) to 2012-13 ($23,872).  This is an average increase of less than $500 per year. The real increase during this 5-year period has been higher at public colleges ($2,100) than at private non-profit and for-profit colleges ($1,400).  

That's before taking into account scholarships and grants.  

After subtracting scholarship and grants, according to the College Board, real net tuition and fees at 4 year private non-profit institutions have actually gone down.  Real net tuition and fees increased at 4-year public institutions over the last 6 years by about $1,000, or about $170 per year.

So how much would the value of higher education need to increase to justify this increase in cost?  The increases at public institutions come to around $5,000 more for a bachelor's degree.* 

That extra $5,000 will pay for itself if 4-year colleges spend the extra money in a way that boosts their former students' real annual earnings relative to high school graduates by $220.**  When we take into account increases in college completion rates over time and longer life expectancy, the required increase in annual earnings could be even lower.

So yes, improvements in the quality of education can easily pay for increases in the costs of education.   If the rising earnings premiums and increase in completion rates within race over the last three decades are caused by increased college expenditures, tens of thousands of dollars in increased expenditures per bachelor's degree have more than paid for themselves so far, and by a very wide margin.***

Slide1 Slide2

The labor economics literature generally suggests that the marginal rate of return to higher education is high, whether the "margin" is defined as upgrading individual education from high school to 4 years, from 2 years to a bachelor's, or from a bachelor's to an advanced degree.  Within a given level of education and category of institution, those with more resources can generally do more to boost their students' earnings.  A high marginal rate of return to education means we should invest more in higher education if we want the economy to grow faster, and invest less in things with lower marginal rates of return. (See here).

Investing more in education without increasing taxes means that tuition will likely increase.  When we consider the benefits education provides, more investment in education is a good thing.  When we consider our political system's allergic reaction to tax increases, increasing tuition may be the only realistic way to get there.  

* Multiplying $1,000 by 5 years (assuming it takes 5 years to complete a bachelor's degree), we get an increase of $5,000 at public 4-year institutions (and a decline in cost at private institutions).  For an individual, the aggregate increase in real net-tuition during 5 years of college might be less.  The idea of the estimate is to compare the aggregate cost of college for individuals who completed college 5 years apart.

** This assumes a 40 year career and nominal (real) discount rate of 6 (3) percent.  The $220 figure is before taxes and represents the aggregate social benefit to the government as tax collector and to the graduate, who will earn higher wages.  If the entire cost is placed on the student, assuming 35 percent tax rates on the earnings premium, real annual earnings premiums would need to increase by $340 to make the student better off after taxes.

*** The differences in earnings in the column charts are raw differences by level of education rather than estimates of causal differences.  However, the change in the raw differences over time may provide a good proxy for the change in the causal earnings premium over time.

August 5, 2015 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Of Academic Interest, Professional Advice, Science, Student Advice, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink

More flawed coverage of student loan working paper (Michael Simkovic)

Over at TaxProf, Paul Caron covers a student loan working paper inaccurately.  Caron's headline is "NY Fed: Federal Aid For College Has Jacked Up Tuition (Especially In Graduate Schools)." (Emphasis added).

I've already discussed some of the methodological limitations of the working paper in question (read the bottom of the post).  Beyond these serious issues, the working paper notably is not the view of the NY Fed (it is the individual work of 3 researchers, two of whom happen to work at the Fed) and it does not make claims about graduate school tuition.  The study focuses on undergraduate tuition.

From the study:

"The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System."

"In this paper, we used a Bartik-like approach to identify the effect of increased loan supply on tuition following large policy changes between 2008 and 2010 in the maximum federal aid amounts available to undergraduate students."

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones manages to do an even worse job than either the WSJ or TaxProf, declaring "As Federal Aid Goes Up, College Costs Rise Enough to Gobble It All Up."  The claim in the working paper is not that an extra dollar of aid increases tuition by a dollar.  The claim is that federal aid is associated with an increase in tuition of between 0 and 65 cents for every dollar of aid--depending on the type of aid and the control variables selected by the researchers--but the study failed to account for the fact that much of that increase in tuition will be returned to students as increased grants and scholarships.

August 5, 2015 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Science, Student Advice, Weblogs | Permalink

August 03, 2015

Public versus Private Student Loans (Michael Simkovic)

John Brooks (Georgetown) and Jonathan Glater (UC Irvine) argue in today’s Los Angeles Times that the Federal Government should raise the borrowing limit on federal student loans so that college students can borrow more from the government and less from private lenders.*

“Banks and other lenders offer so-called private loans, which often have higher interest rates and less flexible repayment terms [than Federal Student loans]. . . Private student loans are usually much more costly for students; a government report from 2012 found interest rates in excess of 16%, and nothing has improved since then. By contrast, the rate on the most widely used federal student loan currently is 4.29%.

[B]ecause federal loan caps have not budged even as tuition has increased, private lending is rising . . . borrowing is going to happen in some form anyway. This is not about whether college is a good investment (although it is), it is about whether students should be forced to take out loans that put them at greater risk of repayment difficulty and possible default.”

Brooks and Glater have effectively framed the student loan debate.  Federal Student loan policy is not a question of how much students should be allowed to borrow, but rather only a question of who they should borrow from, how much they should pay, and when they should pay.  Any government imposed loan limit is the point at which the borrowers will shift to expensive private sources of credit. 

In other words, private student lenders have a strong incentive to scale back public student loan programs.  The less available and less generous public programs become, the larger the market opportunity for private lenders.  (It is possible that higher or lower interest rates could affect the amount that students ultimately borrow—i.e., the quantity of credit demanded may respond to the price of credit—but Brooks and Glater are clearly correct that a federal student loan limit is not a hard cap on borrowing). 

The idea that increases in federal student loan availability or other public higher education funding programs will increase tuition is sometimes called the “Bennett Hypothesis,” and those who wish to scale back public investment in higher education frequently tout it.  However, there is little evidence in the peer-reviewed literature that increases in the availability of public student loans drive up tuition net of scholarships and grants at non-profit and public institutions of higher education (there is some evidence that this might be the case at for-profit trade schools).  The evidence of harm to students is even slimmer when one considers the potential benefits of tuition increases, which can fund better instruction, better administrative support, more modern facilities, and more generous scholarships, and the possible role of public funding in increasing enrollment and completion rates. By contrast, higher interest payments will generally only benefit student lenders, unless higher rates convey useful information about risk to which students respond. For a review of the literature, see here and here.**

Those advocating scaling back federal student loans argue that it is theoretically possible that income based repayment with debt forgiveness could lead to an explosion of tuition growth because, for some students, the marginal cost of additional borrowing will be zero and these students will not be price sensitive.  (See here

However, federal student loan critics have not shown that the introduction of IBR with debt forgiveness, or changes to the terms of these programs, has actually affected the rate of tuition increase net scholarships and grants.  (Indeed, tuition increases, less scholarship, have been relatively mild in recent years).  And this is not surprising—most students do not know in advance whether they will need or qualify for debt forgiveness, and will not know for sure until 10 or 20 years after they graduate.  Most of them will likely ultimately repay their loans in full.  Ex ante and in expectation—when they are shopping for a college or professional school—student borrowers do not face zero marginal cost. 

Similarly, think tank arguments about high costs to taxpayers from income-based repayment and debt forgiveness rely on dubious assumptions such as:

  1. Starting salaries for recent college and professional school graduates will grow at an extremely low rate (much lower than one could reasonably forecast after examining the historical data)
  2. Every single dollar of debt forgiveness is a cost of the debt forgiveness program, because if not for debt forgiveness programs, no borrower would ever fail to repay their loans and the government would collect every last dollar on time
  3. A loan in which the government recoups partial payments with a present value exceeding the amount of the original loan is not a profitable loan; it’s actually a loss
  4. The cost of lending $100,000 and receiving partial payments over the next 10 or 20 years is somehow much higher to the government than the cost of giving away $100,000 today and receiving no payments in return (this is related to assumptions 2 and 3 above, as well as  inappropriate uses of discount rates and growth rates).
  5. Income based repayment plans have no impact on enrollment and provide no benefits to the government in the form of a more educated workforce that pays higher taxes and depends less on taxpayer funded social services

* Brooks and Glater also praise income based repayment plans as a progressive-income-tax-like system of higher education finance in which those who earn more pay more.  These arguments will be familiar to those who have followed Brooks and Glater’s research. (here  and here)

**The Wall Street Journal publicized a recent working paper that claims to have found a possible link between federal student loan availability and tuition growth at undergraduate institutions. While some of the nuance may not have been reflected in the WSJ's coverage, the authors of that working paper note that: (1) They do not have good data that can distinguish an increase in borrowing from a shift between public and private loans; (2) They are only looking at sticker tuition, not actual tuition paid less scholarship and grants; (3) There are many ways in which public funding can benefit students even if it does increase sticker tuition; and their findings do not demonstrate that public funding is a harmful policy; (4) Variables omitted from their analyses could be driving tuition increases and introduction of additional controls dramatically changes their results.

August 3, 2015 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Of Academic Interest, Professional Advice, Science, Student Advice, Weblogs | Permalink

Should we be surprised that Harvard Law School is offering a course on "Nietzsche for Lawyers"?

I don't think so; I've occasionally taught bits of Nietzsche in seminars, though invariably ones cross-listed with Philosophy. What's really shocking is that the description says:

His biography; his “intent”; the phases of his twenty-year career; the context [historical, philosophical] in which he wrote; his interpretation by others; indeed “the” meaning of his writing … all of that fosters erudite avoidance … and so will be out of bounds.   The seminar is for “amateurs” able to take Nietzsche’s passionate, enigmatic words personally – and, so, able to be provoked by them.

Now that's embarrassing that an academic institution offers a course premised on the idea that utter ignorance is a virtue, since basic scholarly knowledge and competence would allegedly lead to "erudite avoidance." 


August 3, 2015 in Faculty News, Of Academic Interest, Student Advice | Permalink