Do Student Loans Result in Tuition Increases? Why It’s So Hard to Tell

One of the longstanding questions in higher education finance is whether access to federal financial aid dollars is one of the factors behind tuition increases. This was famously stated by Education Secretary William Bennett in a 1987 New York Times editorial:

“If anything, increases in financial aid in recent years have enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise their tuitions, confident that Federal loan subsidies would help cushion the increase. In 1978, subsidies became available to a greatly expanded number of students. In 1980, college tuitions began rising year after year at a rate that exceeded inflation. Federal student aid policies do not cause college price inflation, but there is little doubt that they help make it possible.”

Since Secretary Bennett made his statement (now called the Bennett Hypothesis), more students are receiving federal financial aid. In 1987-1988, the average full-time equivalent student received $2,414 in federal loans, which rose to $6,374 in 2012-2013. The federal government has also increased spending on Pell Grants during this period, although the purchasing power of the grant has eroded due to large increases in tuition.

The Bennett Hypothesis continues to be popular in certain circles, as illustrated by comments by Dallas Mavericks owner and technology magnate Mark Cuban. In 2012, he wrote:

“The point of the numbers is that getting a student loan is easy. Too easy.

You know who knows that the money is easy better than anyone ? The schools that are taking that student loan money in tuition. Which is exactly why they have no problems raising costs for tuition each and every year.

Why wouldn’t they act in the same manner as real estate agents acted during the housing bubble? Raise prices and easy money will be there to pay your price. Good business, right ? Until its not.”

Recently, Cuban called for limiting student loans to $10,000 per year, as reported by Inc.:

“If Mark Cuban is running the economy, I’d go and say, ‘Sallie Mae, the maximum amount that you’re allowed to guarantee for any student in a year is $10,000, period, end of story.’  

We can talk about Republican or Democratic approaches to the economy but until you fix the student loan bubble–and that’s where the real bubble is–we don’t have a chance. All this other stuff is shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Cuban’s plan wouldn’t actually affect the vast majority of undergraduate students, as loan limits are often below $10,000 per year. Dependent students are limited to no more than $7,500 per year in subsidized and unsubsidized loans and independent students are capped at $12,500 per year. But this would affect graduate students, who can borrow $20,500 per year in unsubsidized loans, as well as students and their families taking out PLUS loans, which are only capped by the cost of attendance.

Other commentators do not believe in the Bennett Hypothesis. An example of this is from David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (the professional association for private nonprofit colleges). In 2012, he wrote that “the hypothesis is nothing more than an urban legend,” citing federal studies that did not find a relationship.

The research on the Bennett Hypothesis can best be classified as mixed, with some studies finding a modest causal relationship between federal financial aid and tuition increases and others finding no relationship. (See this Wonkblog piece for a short overview or Donald Heller’s monograph for a more technical treatment.) But for data reasons, the studies of the Bennett Hypothesis either focus on all financial aid lumped together (which is broader than the original hypothesis) or just Pell Grants.

So do student loans result in tuition increases? There is certainly a correlation between federal financial aid availability and college tuition, but the first rule of empirical research is that correlation does not imply causation. And establishing causality is extremely difficult given the near-universal nature of student loans and the lack of change in program rules over time. It is essential to have some change in the program in order to identify effects separate from other types of financial aid.

In an ideal world (from a researcher’s perspective), some colleges would be randomly assigned to have lower loan limits than others and then longer-term trends in tuition could be examined. That, of course, is politically difficult to do. Another methodological possibility would be to look at the colleges that do not participate in federal student loan programs, which are concentrated among community colleges in several states. But the low tuition charges and low borrowing rates at community colleges make it difficult to even postulate that student loans could potentially drive tuition increases at community colleges.

A potential natural experiment (in which a change is introduced to a system unexpectedly) could have been the short-lived credit tightening of parent PLUS loans, which hit some historically black colleges hard. Students who could no longer borrow the full cost of attendance had to scramble to find other funding, which put pressure on colleges to find additional money for students. But the credit changes have partially been reversed before colleges had to make long-term decisions about pricing.

I’m not too concerned about student loans driving tuition increases at the vast majority of institutions. I think the Bennett Hypothesis is likely the strongest (meaning a modest relationship between loans and tuition) at the most selective undergraduate institutions and most graduate programs, as loan amounts can be substantial and access to credit is typically good. But, without a way to identify variations in loan availability across similar institutions, that will remain a postulation.

[NOTE (7/7/15): Since this piece was initially posted, more research has come out on the topic. See this updated blog post for my most up-to-date take.

Author: Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.

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