Key Takeaways from the House Higher Education Act Reauthorization Bill

Majority Republicans on the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce unveiled their draft legislation today to reauthorize the Higher Education Act—the most important piece of legislation affecting American higher education. The Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act checks in at a hefty 542 pages and touches many important aspects of higher education. I live-tweeted my first read through the bill (read the thread here), and in this blog post I am sharing some thoughts on the key themes of the legislation.

Takeaway 1: This bill would undo many Obama-era regulations and salt the earth on future regulations. It’s no secret that Republicans didn’t care for regulations such as gainful employment, borrower defense to repayment, or providing a federal definition of the credit hour. The PROSPER Act would not only undo the regulations, but prohibit the Secretary of Education from promulgating any future regulations (meaning that Congress would have to pass legislation to create any new rules). The Secretary of Education would also be prohibited from creating a federal college ratings system, even though the Obama-era effort to do so was unsuccessful.

Takeaway 2: The federal student loan system would be radically overhauled. Instead of the array of loans that are now available, there would be three flavors of a federal ONE Loan—for undergraduates, parents, and graduate students. The key details are below.

 

  Undergrad (dependent) Undergrad (independent) Parent Grad student
Annual limit (current) $5,500-$7,500 $9,500-$12,500 Cost of attendance Cost of attendance
Annual limit (PROSPER) $7,500-$11,500 $11,500-$14,500 $12,500 $28,500
Lifetime limit (current) $31,000 $57,500 Cost of attendance Cost of attendance
Lifetime limit (PROSPER) $39,000 $60,250 $56,250 $150,000

Note: Medical students have higher loan limits than what is listed above.

Undergraduate students actually have higher loan limits, but the PROSPER Act would also allow colleges to limit borrowing by student major if they feel students are unlikely to repay their obligations. Financial aid administrators have sought this authority for years, which means that students could actually see lower loan limits. Graduate students, on the other hand, would be limited to $28,500 per year and $150,000 overall in federal loans. Given that tuition alone often exceeds this number, expect students to turn to the private market (when possible) to finance their education.

The PROSPER Act also drastically changes income-driven repayment programs. Instead of the range of programs available now, future borrowers could choose between the standard ten-year payment plan or an income-driven plan that would allow them to pay 15% of their discretionary income (over 150% of the federal poverty line) for as long as necessary to repay the loan. There would be no ending date to payments, and payments for married couples would be based on both spouses’ incomes even if they file their taxes separately. (Both of these provisions differ from current law.) The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which was only mentioned once in passing in the entire bill, would also end. However, people in the program now would be grandfathered in.

Takeaway 3: Colleges would be held accountable for their outcomes in new ways. The cohort default rate metric (which I’m no fan of) would be replaced by a repayment rate metric. If a program (not a college) had more than 45% of its borrowers at least 90 days delinquent or in certain types of deferment for three consecutive years, it would lose access to all federal financial aid. This is a more generous definition of repayment for colleges than the College Scorecard’s definition (repaying at least $1 in principal), so I can’t say how many colleges would actually be affected.

Another interesting piece is that colleges would have to repay at least a portion of federal financial aid dollars given to students who left college during a semester. Right now, colleges can try to claw back those funds, but this proposal would limit colleges to trying to collect 10% of the amount owed back from students. This is similar to what Matt Chingos and Kristin Blagg have proposed in a policy brief.

There are so many other interesting points in this legislation, but I think these are the three most important ones that I can speak to based on my experience and research. Keep in mind that the Senate will also introduce a Higher Education Act reauthorization bill sometime in 2018, and that the two bills may differ significantly from each other.

Downloadable Dataset of Marriage Rates by College

I enjoyed reading this recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education that looked at the “ring by spring” pressures that students at some Christian colleges face to be engaged by graduation. I looked into factors affecting marriage rates across colleges in a blog post earlier this year and found a nearly six percentage point increase in marriage rates at religiously-affiliated colleges between ages 23 and 25 relative to public institutions, as shown in the figure below.

As a data person—and someone who married his college sweetheart only three years after graduation—I wanted to share a dataset that I had already compiled for that piece so people can look through to their heart’s content. It contains data on 820 public and private nonprofit four-year colleges from the Equality of Opportunity Project, with marriage rates for cohorts ages 23-25 and 32-34 in 2014. The three colleges featured in the Chronicle piece all have higher-than-average marriage rates by age 25, with Cedarville University having a 41% marriage rate, Houghton College having a 34% marriage rate, and Baylor University having a 18% marriage rate.

You can download the dataset here, and have fun exploring the data!

A special thanks to Carol Meinhart for catching a silly error in an earlier version of the dataset, where the two marriage rate column headings were switched. It has since been fixed.

A Poor Way to Tie the Pell Grant to Performance

“Groan” is a word that is typically used to describe something that is unpleasant or bad. But in the language of student financial aid, “groan” has a second meaning—a grant that converts to a loan if students fail to meet certain criteria. The federal TEACH Grant to prospective teachers and New York’s Excelsior Scholarship program both have these clawback requirements, and a 2015 GAO report estimated that one-third of TEACH Grants had already converted into loans for students who did not teach in high-need subjects in low-income schools for four years.

Republican Reps. Francis Rooney (FL) and Ralph Norman (SC) propose turning the Pell Grant into a groan program through their Pell for Performance Act, which would turn Pell Grants into unsubsidized loans if students fail to graduate within six years. While I understand the representatives’ concerns about students not graduating (and thus reducing—but not eliminating—the return on investment to taxpayers), I see this bill as a negative for students and taxpayers alike.

Setting aside the merits of the idea for a minute, I’m deeply skeptical that the Department of Education and student loan servicers can accurately manage such a program. With a fair amount of difficulty managing TEACH Grants and income-driven repayment plans, I would expect a sizable number of students to incorrectly have Pell Grants convert to loans (and vice versa). I appreciate these two representatives’ faith in Federal Student Aid and servicers to get everything right, but that is a difficult ask.

Moving on to the merits of the idea, I am concerned about the implications of converting Pell Grants to a loan for students who left college because they got a job. Think about this for a minute—a community college student who has completed nearly all of her coursework gets a job offer with family-sustaining wages. She now faces a tough choice: forgo a good, solid job until she completes (and hope she can get another one) or take the job and owe an additional $10,000 to the federal government? If one of the purposes of higher education is to help students move up the economic ladder, this is a bad idea.

This could also have additional negative ramifications for students who stop out of college due to family issues, the need to support a family, or simply realizing that they weren’t college ready at the time. Asking a 30-year-old adult to repay additional student loans (when he may have left in good standing) under this groan program would probably reduce the number of working adults who go back and finish their education.

If the representatives’ concern is that students make very slow progress through college and waste taxpayer funds, a better option would be to gradually ramp up the current performance requirements for satisfactory academic progress. These requirements, which are typically defined as a 2.0 GPA and completing two-thirds of attempted credits, already trip up a significant share of students. But on the other hand, research by Doug Webber of Temple University and his colleagues finds significant economic benefits to students who barely keep a 2.0 GPA and are thus able to stay in college.

Finally, although I think this proposal is shortsighted, I have to chuckle at a take going around on social media noting that one of the representatives owns a construction company that helped build residence halls. Wouldn’t that induce a member of Congress to support policies that get more students into college (and create demand for his company’s services)? It seems like he is going against his best interest if this legislation scares students away from attending college.

Is There Evidence of the Bennett Hypothesis in Legal Education?

“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…Federal student aid policies do not cause college price inflation, but there is little doubt that they help make it possible.”

In what year was the above quote first printed in The New York Times? Given concerns about college affordability and the ever-rising price tag of a college education, it’s reasonable to assume that the quote comes from the last few years. Yet this quote came from William Bennett (who was President Reagan’s Secretary of Education) way back in 1987. Bennett is now a conservative commentator and occasional advisor to the Trump administration, and his higher education views likely get traction in key federal policy circles.

Since 1987, what came to be known as the Bennett Hypothesis has been vigorously debated in the research and policy communities. As I detailed in two previous blog posts, the evidence to support the Bennett Hypothesis is generally modest among undergraduate students—with stronger evidence at private nonprofit and for-profit colleges than community colleges. However, prior research often looks at small changes in student loan borrowing limits or Pell Grant award amounts since there have been no large-scale changes in financial aid for undergraduate students over the past several decades.

Many graduate and professional students, on the other hand, saw a large increase in their federal student loan limits in 2006 (from $18,500 per year up to the full cost of attendance) due to the creation of the Grad PLUS loan program. This increase, which could be in the tens of thousands of dollars for students, provides a rare opportunity to test how colleges responded to a large change in potential federal revenue. This is particularly salient for students in master’s and professional degree programs, as institutional financial aid is far less common than in PhD programs.

Thanks to support from the AccessLex Institute and the Association for Institutional Research, I have spent much of the last year examining whether professional programs responded to the creation of the Grad PLUS program and the following expansion of income-driven repayment programs by increasing tuition and fees and/or living allowances. I also looked at whether student debt burdens of graduates increased. Today, I am releasing a SSRN working paper examining these questions for law schools, with additional analyses for business and medical schools to come at some point in the future.

In the seven months of tedious data compilation, coding, and cleaning that preceded any analyses (a big thanks to my sharp research assistants Joe Fresco and Olga Komissarova for their hard work!), I fully expected to find a great deal of evidence to support the Bennett Hypothesis due to the entrepreneurial nature of law schools and the sheer amount of federal student loan dollars that became available in 2006. Yet as the graphics below show, there was no immediate smoking gun in the descriptive data (focus on the red line at 2006).

But because graphics do not prove that there is (or is not) a relationship between federal student loan availability and law schools’ prices, I used two analytic strategies to try to draw causal inferences. I used an interrupted time series model that compared law schools before and after the 2006 implementation of Grad PLUS and a difference-in-differences model that looked at the difference between law schools and undergraduate institutions before and after 2006. Both of these models showed generally null or small positive coefficients, suggesting that law schools did not react by raising tuition prices or living allowances by massive amounts. (These findings generally match the conclusions from the literature at the undergraduate level, and are robust across a range of model specifications.) Below are the coefficients for tuition and fees, with the coefficients for living allowances and debt burdens available in the paper.

So why was there far less evidence for the Bennett Hypothesis than I expected to see? I offer three potential explanations.

Explanation 1: Law schools didn’t strategically increase prices in response to increased federal financial aid availability. Yes, law school tuition is expensive, and it’s certainly true that colleges have viewed law schools as potential revenue centers. But law schools may have thought that their price increases were already substantial enough to fund their operations.

Explanation 2: Any law school that increased tuition by more than their competitors may have seen a decline in applicants and/or revenue. This is somewhat similar to the classic prisoner’s dilemma in game theory, in which cooperating with other players (to raise prices) would result in a better solution than going alone. But to collude here would be price fixing—and illegal. Thus law schools stick to the norm of sizable (but not absurd) tuition increases.

Explanation 3: Students shifted from private loans to PLUS loans and thus already had access for loans up to the full cost of attendance. There is some evidence to support this logic, as 36% of law students took out private loans in 2003-04 compared to just 5% in 2011-12. Yet this would not hold for the majority of students who didn’t take out private loans.

I would love to get your comments on this working paper before it undergoes the formal peer review process in a few weeks (it’s already been informally reviewed). Send me your thoughts!

Downloadable Dataset of Pell Recipient Graduation Rates

Earlier this week, my blog post summarizing new data on Pell Grant recipients’ graduation rates at four-year colleges was released through the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center Chalkboard blog. I have since received several questions about the data and requests for detailed data for specific colleges, showing the interest within the higher education community for better data on social mobility.

I put together a downloadable Excel file of six-year graduation rates and cohort sizes by Pell Grant receipt in the first year of college (yes/no) and race/ethnicity (black/white/Hispanic). One tab has all of the data, while the “Read Me” tab includes some additional details and caveats that users should be aware of. Hopefully, this dataset can be useful to others!

A Look at Pell Grant Recipients’ Graduation Rates

This post originally appeared on the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center Chalkboard blog.

The federal government provides nearly $30 billion in grant aid each year to nearly eight million students from lower-income families (mainly with household incomes below $50,000 per year) through the Pell Grant program, which can give students up to $5,920 per year to help pay for college. Yet in spite of research showing that the Pell Grant and similar need-based grant programs are effective in increasing college completion rates, there are still large gaps in graduation rates by family income. For example, among students who began college in the fall 2003 semester, Pell recipients were seven percentage points less likely to earn a college credential within six years than non-Pell students.

In spite of the federal government’s sizable investment in students, relatively little has been known about whether Pell recipients succeed at particular colleges. The last Higher Education Act reauthorization in 2008 required colleges to disclose Pell graduation rates upon request, but two studies have shown that colleges have been unable or unwilling to disclose these data. This means that before now, little has been known about whether colleges are able to graduate their students from lower-income families.[1]

The U.S. Department of Education recently updated its Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) to include long-awaited graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients, and I focus on graduation rates for students at four-year colleges (about half of all Pell recipients) in this post. I examined the percentage of Pell recipients and non-Pell recipients who graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the same four-year college within six years of entering college in 2010.[2] After limiting the sample to four-year colleges that had at least 50 Pell recipients and 50 non-Pell recipients in their incoming cohorts, my analysis included 1,266 institutions (504 public, 747 private nonprofit, and 15 for-profit).

The average six-year graduation rate for Pell recipients in my sample was 51.4%, compared to 59.2% for non-Pell recipients. The graphic below shows the graduation rates for non-Pell students on the horizontal axis and Pell graduation rates on the vertical axis, with colleges to the left of the red line having higher graduation rates for Pell recipients than non-Pell recipients. Most of the colleges (1,097) had non-Pell graduation rates higher than Pell graduation rates, but 169 colleges (13.3%) had higher Pell graduation rates.

Table 1 below shows five colleges where Pell students graduate at the highest and lowest rates relative to non-Pell students.[3] For example, the University of Akron (which had 3,370 students in its incoming class of first-time, full-time students) reported that just 8.8% of its 1,505 Pell recipients in its incoming class graduated within six years compared to 70.1% of its 1,865 non-Pell students—a yawning gap of 61.3% and the second-largest in the country. Assuming the Pell and non-Pell graduation rates are not the result of a data error that the university made in its IPEDS submission, this is a serious concern for institutional equity. On the other hand, some colleges had far higher graduation rates for Pell recipients than non-Pell students. An example is Howard University, where 79.4% of Pell recipients and just 46.1% of non-Pell students graduated.

Table 1: Colleges with the largest Pell/non-Pell graduation rate gaps.
Name State Number of new students Pell grad rate Non-Pell grad rate Gap Pct Pell
Saint Augustine’s University NC 440 2.7 92.2 -89.5 76.8
University of Akron OH 3370 8.8 70.1 -61.3 44.7
St. Thomas Aquinas College NY 290 20.7 78.3 -57.6 31.7
Southern Virginia University VA 226 20.7 54.3 -33.6 64.2
Upper Iowa University IA 201 27.9 60.8 -32.9 51.7

Ninety-seven of the colleges with at least 50 Pell and 50 non-Pell recipients had graduation rates of over 80% for both Pell and non-Pell students. Most of these colleges are highly selective institutions with relatively low percentages of Pell recipients, but six institutions had Pell and non-Pell graduation rates above 80% while having at least 30% of students in their incoming class receive Pell Grants. All six are in California, with five in the University of California system (Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Barbara) and one private institution (Pepperdine). This suggests that it is possible to be both socioeconomically diverse and successful in graduating students.

As a comparison, I also examined the black/white graduation rate gaps for the 499 colleges that had at least 50 black and 50 white students in their graduation rate cohorts. The average black/white graduation rate gap at these colleges was 13.5% (59.0% for white students compared to 45.5% for black students). As the figure shows below, only 39 colleges had higher graduation rates for black students than for white students while the other 460 colleges had higher graduation rates for white students than black students.

Fourteen colleges had higher graduation rates for Pell recipients than non-Pell students and for black students than white students. This group includes elite institutions with small percentages of Pell recipients and black students such as Dartmouth, Duke, and Yale as well as broader-access and more diverse colleges such as CUNY York College, Florida Atlantic, and South Carolina-Upstate. Table 2 shows the full list of 14 colleges that had higher success rates from Pell and black students than non-Pell and white students.

Table 2: Colleges with higher graduation rates for Pell and black students.
Name State Pell grad rate Non-Pell grad rate Black grad rate White grad rate
U of South Carolina-Upstate SC 50.4 34.0 47.3 38.8
CUNY York College NY 31.5 27.3 32.7 28.0
Agnes Scott College GA 71.1 68.3 72.4 62.1
Clayton State University GA 34.0 31.5 33.2 31.0
Duke University NC 96.6 94.3 95.1 95.0
Florida Atlantic University FL 50.6 49.0 50.1 48.5
Wingate University NC 54.5 53.1 60.0 51.4
UMass-Boston MA 45.8 44.7 50.0 40.6
U of South Florida FL 68.1 67.1 68.7 65.5
CUNY City College NY 47.2 46.3 52.8 45.6
Dartmouth College NH 97.2 96.5 97.3 97.1
CUNY John Jay College NY 44.1 43.4 43.5 42.4
Yale University CT 98.2 97.7 100.0 97.6
Stony Brook University NY 72.5 72.3 71.3 70.5

The considerable variation in Pell recipients’ graduation rates across colleges deserves additional investigation. Colleges with similar Pell and non-Pell graduation rates should be examined to see whether they have implemented any practices to support students with financial need. The less-selective colleges that have erased graduation rate gaps by race and family income could potentially serve as exemplars for other colleges that are interested in equity to emulate. Meanwhile, policymakers, college leaders, and the public should be asking tough questions of colleges with reasonable graduation rates for non-Pell students but abysmal outcomes for Pell recipients.

Finally, the U.S. Department of Education deserves credit for the release of Pell students’ graduation rates, as well as several other recent datasets that provide new information on student outcomes. This includes new data on students’ long-term student loan default and repayment outcomes and the completion rates of students who were not first-time, full-time students, along with an updated College Scorecard that now includes a nifty college comparison tool. Though the Pell graduation rate measure fails to cover all students and does not credit institutions if a student transfers and completes elsewhere, it is still a useful measure of whether colleges are effectively educating students from lower-income families. In the future, student-level data that includes part-time and transfer students would be useful to help examine whether colleges are helping all of their students succeed.

[1] Focusing on Pell Grant recipients undercounts the number of lower-income students because a sizable percentage of lower-income students do not file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is required for students to be eligible to receive a Pell Grant.

[2] I calculated the number of non-Pell recipients by subtracting the number of Pell recipients from the total graduation rate cohort in the IPEDS dataset.

[3] This excludes two colleges that reported a 0% or 100% graduation rate for their Pell students, which is likely a data reporting error.

New Data on Long-Term Student Loan Default Rates

In recent years, more data have come out on how well students are able to manage repaying their loans beyond the three-year window currently used for federal accountability purposes (via cohort default rates). A great 2015 paper by Adam Looney and Constantine Yannelis used tax records merged with data from the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) to show longer-term trends in default in repayment. Two days later, the release of the College Scorecard provided college-level data on student loan repayment rates going out seven years (even though the repayment rates were initially calculated incorrectly).

Thanks to a lot of hard work by the data folks at the U.S. Department of Education and their contractor RTI, there are new data available on long-term student loan default rates. ED and RTI used NSLDS data going through 2015 to match records from the Beginning Postsecondary Students studies of cohorts beginning college in 1995-96 and 2003-04. This allowed a 20-year look at student loan default and payoff rates for the 1995-96 cohort and a 12-year look at the 2003-04 cohort, as detailed in this useful report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Thanks to NCES’s wonderful PowerStats tool, I took a look at the percentage of students in the 2003-04 entering cohort (my college cohort) who had defaulted on at least one of their federal student loans within 12 years. Many of the news headlines focused on the high default rates of students at for-profit colleges (about 52%!), but this isn’t entirely a fair comparison because for-profit colleges tend to serve more economically-disadvantaged students. So in this post, I focused on racial/ethnic differences in default rates by type of college attended to give a flavor of what the data can do.

As the below chart shows, nearly half of all black students (49%) defaulted on at least one loan within 12 years—more than twice the rate of white students (20%) and more than four times the rate of Asian students (11%). The differentials are still present across sector, with more than one-third of black students defaulting across all sectors while a relatively small percentage of Asian students defaulted across all nonprofit sectors. Default rates at for-profit colleges are high for all racial/ethnic groups, with almost half of white students defaulting alongside nearly two-thirds of black students.

An advantage of the PowerStats tool is that it allows users to run regressions via NCES’s remote server. This allows interested people to analyze the relationship between long-term default rates and attending a for-profit college after controlling for other characteristics. However, PowerStats is overwhelmed by requests by my fellow higher education data nerds at this point, so I gave up on trying to run the regression after several hours of waiting. But if someone wants to run some regressions using the new loan repayment data in the BPS once the server calms down, I’m happy to feature their work on my blog!

Examining Trends in Student Loan Repayment Rates

It’s been a good week for higher education data nerds. The Department of Education released updated student loan cohort default rates on Wednesday afternoon (see my summary here), followed by an update to the massive College Scorecard dataset on Thursday morning. This is the third update to the Scorecard, with this year’s update also featuring a nice new comparison tool on the student-facing version of the site.

In this post, I focus on trends in student loan repayment rates (defined as the percentage of students who have repaid at least $1 in principal) at various periods entering loan repayment. I present data for colleges with unique six-digit Federal Student Aid OPEID numbers (to eliminate duplicate results), weighting the final estimates to reflect the total number of borrowers entering repayment. Additionally, I use the January 2017 data release for the 2012-13 Scorecard data because there appears to be an error in that year’s dataset that results in very few colleges having loan repayment rates.

I begin by show the trends in the 1-year, 3-year, 5-year, and 7-year repayment rates for each cohort of students with available data.

Repayment cohort 1-year rate (pct) 3-year rate (pct) 5-year rate (pct) 7-year rate (pct)
2006-07 61.8 63.5 64.6 66.6
2007-08 53.0 54.2 56.1 59.7
2008-09 46.1 47.9 52.0 56.0
2009-10 41.0 43.2 48.7 N/A
2010-11 36.6 40.7 46.3 N/A
2011-12 32.2 38.1 N/A N/A
2012-13 33.0 38.3 N/A N/A

There are two clear trends from this table. First, repayment rates have steadily dropped for more recent cohorts of students. The one-year repayment rate for students entering repayment in 2006-07 (before the Great Recession) was 61.8%, while the most recent cohort of students had a one-year repayment rate of just 33.0%. Much of this decline is likely due to the growth of income-driven repayment plans (which can allow students to be current on their payments while not making a dent in the overall principal). But economic circumstances also likely play a role here.

Second, repayment rates steadily rise for a given cohort as they have more time in the labor market after college. In the 2008-09 repayment cohort, the seven-year repayment rate was 56.0%, 9.9% higher than the one-year rate. These trends still suggest that it will be a long time before students repay their loans, but this is a step in the right direction.

I also show the distribution of colleges’ repayment rates for the 2008-09 cohort across all of the repayment periods by the type of college (public, private nonprofit, and for-profit). In general, private nonprofit colleges have higher repayment rates than both public and for-profit colleges (in part because private nonprofit colleges are primarily four-year institutions), but all sectors see slight improvements between the one-year and seven-year repayment rates.

Finally, a programming note: I’ll be getting the final page proofs for my book shortly and have to do final checks and put together an index during the month of October. I’ll try to write a couple of short blog posts when the new National Postsecondary Student Aid Study and full IPEDS Outcomes Measures survey come out; otherwise, stay tuned for some exciting new research that I’ll be unveiling in early November.

It’s Time to Move Beyond Cohort Default Rates

Today marked the annual release of data on cohort default rates—representing the percentage of students at a given college who default on their federal student loans within three years. The newest data show that 11.5% of students who entered repayment in Fiscal Year 2014 defaulted during this period, which is up slightly from 11.3% for those who entered repayment in Fiscal Year 2013.

Cohort default rates (CDRs) have been used for decades as an accountability metric by the federal government, with colleges posting CDRs of over 40% in a given year losing access to federal student loans for a two-year period and colleges with CDRs above 30% in three consecutive years losing access to all federal financial aid for two years. This year, six colleges posted default rates high enough to lose all Title IV aid and four more had default rates high enough to lose loan access.

Yet CDRs suffer from two key concerns that make them almost toothless from an accountability perspective—and show the need for better accountability metrics. I discuss the two key points in brief below (and if you like this topic, you’ll love my book on higher education accountability that will come out in January!).

Point 1: Default rates are an almost meaningless indicator of student outcomes. The availability of income-driven repayment programs means that no student should ever default on their obligations (although these programs are still clunky and some students simply don’t ever want to repay their loans). But for students who are able and willing to jump through the hoops of income-driven programs and have very low incomes, they can be current on their loans while making zero payments. Many colleges also adopt default management programs that can encourage students to either enroll in income-driven plans or to defer their obligations beyond the three-year accountability window.

In a recent article (a summary is available here), Amy Li of the University of Northern Colorado and I explored the relationship between default and repayment rates (as defined as paying down at least $1 in principal over a given period of time). We showed that although reported default rates stayed low, the percentage of students failing to repay any principal—a key question for taxpayers—was far higher.

Point 2: Default rate sanctions affect almost no colleges. Ben Miller of the Center for American Progress summed up how few colleges faced the loss of federal aid:

The all-or-nothing nature of potential sanctions gives colleges a tremendous incentive to make sure they aren’t affected. In 2014, the Obama Department of Education agreed to a controversial last-minute change to CDRs that allowed some colleges to sneak just below the 30% threshold. In 2017, a provision appeared in the FY 2018 budget that would effectively void CDR sanctions for colleges in economically distressed areas:

It turns out that Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) inserted the provision, likely to help out Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College—one of the six institutions that is at risk of losing all federal financial aid due to high default rates. It pays to have friends in high places, I reckon.

So what can be done to improve federal accountability policies on student loans? I offer two simple ideas to start. First, move from default rates to repayment rates in order to get a better idea of students’ post-college circumstances. Second, move from an all-or-nothing sanction system to gradual sanctions. I go into both of these points in more depth in a paper I wrote in 2015 on the idea of “risk sharing” for student loans. It is essential to move away from CDRs as quickly as possible, even though some in higher education community may prefer the CDR system that affects relatively few colleges.

Trends in Student Fees at Public Universities

Out of all the research I have done during my time as an assistant professor, I get more questions from journalists and policymakers about my research on student fees than any other study. In this study (published in the Review of Higher Education in 2016), I showed trends in student fees at public four-year institutions and also examined the institutional-level and state-level factors associated with higher levels of fees. Yet due to the time it takes to write a paper and eventually get it published, the newest data on fees in the paper came from the 2012-13 academic year. In this blog post, I update the data on trends in fees at public universities for in-state students to go through the 2016-17 academic year.

It’s quite a bit harder than it appears to show trends in student fees because of the presence of fee rollbacks—colleges resetting their fees to a lower level and increasing tuition to compensate. Between the 2000-01 and 2016-17 academic years, 89 public universities reset their fees at least once (as measured by decreasing fees by at least $500 and increasing tuition by a larger amount). This includes most public universities in California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and South Dakota, as well as a smattering of institutions in other states. Universities that reset their fees had a 115.3% increase in inflation-adjusted tuition and fees since 2000-01 (from $4,286 to $9,228), compared to an 83.7% increase for the 441 universities that did not reset their fees (from $4,936 to $9,068). With the caveat that I can’t break down consistent increases in tuition and fees for some of the colleges with the largest price increases, I present trends in tuition and fees for the other 441 institutions below.

The first figure shows average tuition (dashed) and fees (solid) levels for each year through 2000-01 through 2016-17. During this period, tuition increased from $3,999 to $7,183 in inflation-adjusted dollars (a 79.6% increase). Fees went up even faster, with a 106.7% increase from $912 to $1,885.

The second figure shows student fees as a percentage of overall tuition and fees. This percentage increased from 18.6% in 2000-01 to 20.8% in 2016-17.

This increase in fees is particularly important in conversations about free public college. Many of the policy proposals for free public higher education (such as the Excelsior Scholarship in New York) only cover tuition—and thus give states an incentive to encourage colleges to increase their fees while holding the line on tuition. It’s also unclear whether students and their families look at fees in the college search process in the same way they look at tuition, meaning that growing fee levels could surprise students when the first bills come due. More research needs to be done on how students and their families perceive fees.