Blog (Kelchen on Education)

Examining Trends in Debt to Earnings Ratios

I was just starting to wonder when the U.S. Department of Education would release a new year of College Scorecard data, so I wandered over to the website to check for anything new. I was pleasantly surprised to see a date stamp of April 25 (today!), which meant that it was time for me to give my computer a workout.

There are a lot of great new data elements in the updated Scorecard. Some features include a fourth year of post-graduation earnings, information on the share of students who stayed in state after college, earnings by Pell receipt and gender, and an indicator for whether no, some, or all programs in a field of study can be completed via distance education. There are plenty of things to keep me busy for a while, to say the least. (More on some of the ways I will use the data coming soon!)

In this update, I share data on trends in debt to earnings ratios by field of study. I used median student debt accumulated by the first Scorecard cohorts (2014-15 and 2015-16 leavers) and tracked median earnings one, two, three, and four years after graduating college. The downloadable dataset includes 34,466 programs with data for each element.

The below table shows debt-to-earnings ratios for the four most common credential levels. The good news is that the average ratio ticked downward for each credential level, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees showing steep declines in their ratios than undergraduate certificates and associate degrees.

Credential1 year2 years3 years4 years

The scatterplot shows debt versus earnings four years later across all credential levels. There is a positive correlation (correlation coefficient of 0.454), but still quite a bit of noise present.

Enjoy the new data!

Sharing a Dataset of Program-Level Debt and Earnings Outcomes

Within a couple of hours of posting my comments on the Department of Education’s proposal to create a list of programs with low financial value, I received multiple inquiries about whether there was a user-friendly dataset of current debt-to-earnings ratios for programs. Since I work with College Scorecard data on a regular basis and have used the data to write about debt-to-earnings ratios, it only took a few minutes to put something together that I hope will be useful.

To create a debt-to-earnings ratio that covered as many programs as possible, I pulled median student debt accumulated at that institution for the cohorts of students who left college in the 2016-17 or 2017-18 academic years and matched it with earnings for those same cohorts one calendar year later (calendar year 2018 or 2019). The College Scorecard has some earnings data more than one year out at this point, but a much smaller share of programs are covered. I then calculated a debt-to-earnings ratio. And for display purposes, I also pulled median parent debt from that institution.

The resulting dataset covers 45,971 programs at 5,033 institutions with data on both student debt and earnings for those same cohorts. You can download the dataset here in Excel format and use filter/sort functions to your heart’s content.

Comments on a Proposed Federal List of Low-Value Programs

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced that they will be creating a list of low-value postsecondary programs, and they requested input from the public on how to do so. They asked seven key questions, and I put together 3,000-plus words in comments as a response to submit. Here, I list the questions and briefly summarize my key points.

Question 1: What program-level data and metrics would be most helpful to students to understand the financial (and other) consequences of attending a program?

Four data elements would be helpful. The first is program-level completion rates, especially for graduate or certificate programs where students are directly admitted into programs. Second, given differential tuition and different credit requirements across programs, time to completion and sticker/net prices by program would be incredibly valuable. The last two are debt and earnings, which are largely present in the current College Scorecard.

Question 2: What program-level data and metrics would be most helpful to understand whether public investments in the program are worthwhile? What data might be collected uniformly across all students who attend a program that would help assess the nonfinancial value created by the program?

I would love to see information on federal income taxes paid by former students and use of public benefits (if possible). More information on income-driven repayment use would also be helpful. Finally, there is a great need to rethink definitions of “public service,” as it currently depends on the employer instead of the job function. That is a concern in fields like nursing that send graduates to do good things in for-profit and nonprofit settings.

Question 3: In addition to the measures or metrics used to determine whether a program is placed on the low-financial-value program list, what other measures and metrics should be disclosed to improve the information provided by the list?

Nothing too fancy here. Just list any sanctions/warnings from the federal government, state agencies, or accreditors along with general outcomes for all students at the undergraduate level to account for major switching.

Question 4: The Department intends to use the 6-digit Classification of Instructional Program (CIP) code and the type of credential awarded to define programs at an institution. Should the Department publish information using the 4-digit CIP codes or some other type of aggregation in cases where we would not otherwise be able to report program data?

This is my nerdy honey hole, as I have spent a lot of time thinking on these issues. The biggest two issues with student debt/earnings data right now is that some campuses get aggregated together in reporting and that it’s also impossible to separate outcomes for fully online versus hybrid/in-person programs. Those nuts need to be cracked, and then aggregate up if cell sizes are too small.

Question 5: Should the Department produce only a single low-financial-value program list, separate lists by credential level, or use some other breakdown, such as one for graduate and another for undergraduate programs?

Separate out by credential level and ideally have a good search function by program of study. Otherwise, some low-paying programs will clog up the lists and not let students see relatively lousy programs in higher-paying areas.

Question 6: What additional data could the Department collect that would substantially improve our ability to provide accurate data for the public to help understand the value being created by the program? Please comment on the value of the new metrics relative to the burden institutions would face in reporting information to the Department.

I would love to see program-level completion rates (where appropriate) and better pricing information at the program level. Those items aren’t free to implement, so I would gladly explore other cuts to IPEDS (such as the academic libraries survey) to help reduce additional burden.

Question 7: What are the best ways to make sure that institutions and students are aware of this information?

Colleges will be aware of this information without the federal government doing much, and they may respond to information that they didn’t have before. But colleges don’t have a great record of responding to public shaming if they already knew that affordability was a concern, so I’m not expecting massive changes.

The College Scorecard had small changes around the margins for student behaviors, primarily driven by more advantaged students. I’m not an expert in reaching out to prospective students, but I know that outreach to as many groups as possible is key.

What Happened to College Spending During the Pandemic?

It’s definitely the holiday season here at Kelchen on Education HQ (my home office in beautiful east Tennessee). My Christmas tree is brightly lit and I’m certainly enjoying my share of homemade cookies right now. But as a researcher, I got an early gift this week when the U.S. Department of Education released the latest round of data for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Yes, I’m nerdy, but you probably are too if you’re reading this.

This data update included finance data from the 2020-21 fiscal year—the first year to be fully affected by the pandemic following a partially affected 2019-20 fiscal year. At the time, I wrote plenty about how I expected 2020-21 to be a challenging year for institutional finances. Thanks to stronger-than-expected state budgets and timely rounds of federal support, colleges largely avoided the worst-case scenario of closure. But they cut back their spending wherever possible, with personnel being the easiest area to cut. I took cuts to salary and retirement benefits during the 2020-21 academic year at my last job, and that was a university that made major cuts to staff while protecting full-time faculty employment.

In this post, I took a look at the percentage change in total expenditures over each of the last four years with data (2017-18 through 2020-21) for degree-granting public and private nonprofit institutions. These values are not adjusted for inflation.

Changes in total spending, public 4-years (n=550)

Median change (pct)-
>10% decrease58193919
<10% decrease256152141151
<10% increase174318316307
>10% increase62625472

Changes in total spending, private nonprofit 4-years (n=1,002)

Median change (pct)-1.8-
>10% decrease119533522
<10% decrease472494262305
<10% increase340415620595
>10% increase71397973

Changes in total spending, public 2-years (n=975)

Median change (pct)
>10% decrease77457952
<10% decrease353222305330
<10% increase406548488489
>10% increase139160103104

These numbers tell several important stories. First, spending in the community college sector was affected less than the four-year sector. This could be due to fewer auxiliary enterprises (housing, dining, and the like) that were affected by the pandemic, or it could be due to the existing leanness of their operations. As community college enrollments continue to decline, this is worth watching when new data come out around this time next year.

Second, private nonprofit colleges were the only sector to cut spending in the 2019-20 academic year. The pandemic likely nudged the median number below zero from what it otherwise would have been, as these tuition-dependent institutions were trying to respond immediately to pressures in spring 2020. Finally, there is a lot of variability in institutional expenses from year to year. If you are interested in a particular college, reading financial statements can be a great way to learn more about what is going on that would be available in IPEDS data.

A quick and unrelated final note: I have gotten to know many of you all via Twitter, and it is far from clear whether the old blue bird will be operational in the future. I will stay on Twitter as long as it’s a useful and enjoyable experience, although I recognize that my experience has been better than many others. You can follow my blog directly by clicking “follow” on the bottom right of my website, and you can also find me on LinkedIn. I haven’t gone to any of the other social media sites yet, but that may change in the future.

Have a safe and wonderful holiday season and let’s have a great 2023!

What is Next for College Rankings?

It’s safe to say that leaders in higher education typically have a love/hate relationship with college rankings. Traditionally, they love them when they do well and hate them when they move down a few pegs. Yet, outside of a small number of liberal arts colleges, few institutions have made the choice not to cooperate with the 800-pound gorilla in the college rankings industry–U.S. News and World Report. This is because research has shown that the profile of new students changes following a decline in the rankings and because many people care quite a bit about prestige.

This has made the recent decision by Yale Law and followed by ten law schools (and likely more by the time you read this) to stop cooperating with the U.S. News ranking of those programs fascinating. In this post, I offer some thoughts on what is next for college rankings based on my experiences as a researcher and as the longtime data editor for Washington Monthly’s rankings.

Prestige still matters. There are two groups of institutions that feel comfortable ignoring U.S. News’s implied threat to drop colleges lower in the rankings if they do not voluntarily provide data. The first group is broad-access institutions with a mission to serve all comers within their area, as these students tend not to look at rankings and U.S. News relegates them to the bottom of the list anyway. Why bother sending them data if your ranking won’t change?

The second group is institutions that already think they are the most prestigious, and thus have no need for rankings to validate their opinions. This is what is happening in the law school arena right now. Most of the top 15 institutions have announced that they will no longer provide data, and to some extent this group is a club of its own. Will this undermine the U.S. News law school rankings if none of the boycotting programs are where people expect them to be? That will be fascinating to watch.

What about the middle of the pack? The group of institutions that has been most sensitive to college rankings has been the group of not-quite elite but still selective institutions that are trying to enhance their profiles and jump over some of their competitors. Moving up in the rankings is often a part of their strategic plans, can increase presidential salaries at public universities, and U.S. News metrics have played a large part in how Florida has funded its public universities. Institutional leaders will be under intense pressure to keep cooperating with U.S. News so they can keep moving up.

Another item to keep an eye on: I would not be surprised if conservative state legislators loudly object to any moves away from rankings among public universities. In an era of growing political polarization and concerns about so-called “woke” higher education, this could serve as yet another flashpoint. Expect the boycotts to be at the most elite private institutions and at blue-state public research universities.

Will the main undergraduate rankings be affected? Graduate program rankings depend heavily on data provided by institutions because there are often no other available data sources. Law schools are a little different than many other programs because the accrediting agency (the American Bar Association) collects quite a bit of useful data. For programs such as education, U.S. News is forced to rely on data provided by institutions along with its reputational survey.

At the undergraduate level, U.S. News relies on two main data sources that are potentially at risk from boycotts. The first is the Common Data Set, which is a data collection partnership among U.S. News, Peterson’s, and the College Board. The rankings scandal at Columbia earlier this year came out of data anomalies that a professor identified based on their Common Data Set submissions, and Columbia just started releasing their submission to the public for the first time this fall. Opting out of the Common Data Set affects the powerful College Board, so institutions may not want to do that. The second is the long-lamented reputational survey, which has a history of being gamed by institutional leaders and has suffered from falling response rates. At some point, U.S. News may need to reconsider its methodology if more leaders decline to respond.

From where I sit as the Washington Monthly data editor, it’s nice to not rely on any data that institutions submit. (We don’t have the staff to do large data collections, anyway.) But I think the Common Data Set will survive, although there may need to be some additional checks put into the data collection process to make sure numbers are reasonable. The reputational survey, however, is slowly fading away. It would be great to see a measure of student success replace it, and I would suggest something like the Gallup Alumni Survey. That would be a tremendous addition to the U.S. News rankings and may even shake up the results.

Will colleges or programs ask not to be ranked? So far, the law school announcements that I have seen have mentioned that programs will not be providing data to U.S. News. But they could go one step farther and ask to be completely excluded from the rankings. From an institutional perspective, if most of the top-15 law schools opt out, is it better for them to be ranked in the 30s (or something like that) or just to not appear at all on paper? This would create an ethical question to ponder. Rankings exist in part to provide useful information to students and their families, but should a college that doesn’t want to be ranked still show up based on whatever data sources are available? I don’t have a great answer to that one.

Buckle up, folks. The rankings fun is likely to continue over the next year.

Why I’m Skeptical of Cost of Attendance Figures

In the midst of a fairly busy week for higher education (hello, Biden’s student loan forgiveness and income-driven repayment plans!), the National Center for Education Statistics began adding a new year of data into the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. I have long been interested in cost of attendance figures, as colleges often face intense pressure to keep these numbers low. A higher cost of attendance means a higher net price, which makes colleges look bad even if this number is driven by student living allowances that colleges do not receive. For my scholarly work on this, see this Journal of Higher Education article—and I also recommend this new Urban Institute piece on the topic.

After finishing up a bunch of interviews on student loan debt, I finally had a chance to dig into cost of attendance data from IPEDS for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 academic year. I focused on the reported cost of attendance for students living off-campus at 1,568 public and 1,303 private nonprofit institutions (academic year reporters) with data in both years. This time period is notable for two things: more modest increases in tuition and sharply higher living costs due to the pandemic and resulting changes to college attendance and society at large.

And the data bear this out on listed tuition prices. The average increase in tuition was just 1.67%, with similar increases across public and private nonprofit colleges. 116 colleges had lower listed tuition prices in fall 2021 than in fall 2020, while about two-thirds for public and one-third of private nonprofit colleges did not increase tuition for fall 2021. This resulted in a tuition increase well below the rate of inflation, which is generally good news for students but bad news for colleges.

The cost of attendance numbers, as shown below, look a little different. Nearly three times as many institutions (322) reported a lower cost of attendance than reported lower tuition, which is surprising given rising living costs. More colleges also reported increasing the cost of attendance relative to increasing tuition, with fewer colleges reporting no changes.

Changes in tuition and cost of attendance, fall 2020 to fall 2021.

 Public (n=1,568)Private (n=1,303)
  No change955439
Cost of attendance  
  No change296172

Some of the reductions in cost of attendance are sizable without a corresponding cut in tuition. For example, California State University-Monterey Bay reduced its listed cost of attendance from $31,312 to $26,430 while tuition increased from $7,143 to $7,218. [As Rich Hershman pointed out on Twitter, this is potentially due to California updating its cost of attendance survey instead of increasing it by inflation every year.]

Texas Wesleyan University increased tuition from $33,408 to $34,412, while the cost of attendance fell from $52,536 to $49,340. These decreases could be due to a more accurate estimate of living expenses, moving to open educational resources instead of textbooks, or reducing student fees. But the magnitude of these decreases during an inflationary period leads me to continue questioning the accuracy of cost of attendance values or the associated net prices.

As a quick note, this week marks the ten-year anniversary of my blog. Thanks for joining me through 368 posts! I don’t have the time to do as many posts as I used to, but it is sure nice to have an outlet for some occasional thoughts and data pieces.

Considering the Future of Academic Conferences

One of the defining features of life in higher education for full-time faculty, administrators, and graduate students has been the academic conference. Navigate your university’s travel and reimbursement process (if you’re lucky) to spend a few days attending presentations, sharing your work, and connecting with colleagues at a generic conference hotel or convention center with overpriced beverages and questionable carpet designs. The professional development (and food) can be outstanding—and then you scramble back to campus to catch up on everything that you missed.

This academic conference model, especially for faculty and students at lesser-resourced institutions, was already showing cracks prior to the pandemic. The largest professional associations, such as the American Educational Research Association, primarily held their conferences in expensive cities that were hard for many to afford. Smaller associations, such as the Association for Education Finance and Policy, took a different route and focused on midsize cities that were less expensive. Then politics started to also get involved, with California enacting a state-funded travel ban in 2015 to states with anti-LGBT policies.

The pandemic scrambled the finances of scholarly and professional associations in higher education, as many of them rely upon conference registrations as a key revenue source and had also signed contracts with hotels for several years in advance. Associations were hoping that the 2022-23 conference cycle would be something closer to the pre-pandemic norm, even if some also offer some hybrid and fully remote sessions.

In bad news for academic conferences, affordability and political issues have become even more challenging. With inflation at the highest level in my lifetime and travel and hospitality costs rising particularly quickly, the cost of traveling to a conference has risen sharply over the last year. The inflation squeeze that colleges are facing mean that any professional development budgets have much less purchasing power than last year, and of course many academics are paying out of pocket for any conferences.

Today’s Inside Higher Ed features a piece on how attendees to the American Sociological Association conference in Los Angeles are (rightly) worried about rising coronavirus cases. But there is also a strong undercurrent of people dropping out of the conference due to traveling to one of the most expensive cities in America.

Last month’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade and heightening political divides between red and blue states put academic conferences in an even tougher position. Many of the more affordable conference locations, such as Kansas City, Houston, and Columbus, are now in states in which abortions are now illegal with few or no exceptions. This has led to calls for conference boycotts and led some associations to reconsider scheduled meetings. Additionally, there is the very real possibility that more blue states put travel restrictions on going to red states, and that red states retaliate.

This means that associations have three potential options:

(1) Schedule in a small number of large, expensive cities in safe blue states and hope that people will come. The list of states that can be expected to stay under at least partial Democratic control over the next two election cycles is pretty small: basically, the Acela corridor, Illinois, Colorado, and the Pacific coast states. Maybe this leads to Buffalo, Providence, and Spokane being the new affordable conference hubs?

(2) Prioritize affordability by going to midsize cities with a history of hosting conferences, potentially alienating many academics who range from concerned to furious on abortion, LGBT, and other issues.

(3) Focus on hybrid and virtual conferences and hope that there is enough revenue to support this option. This can increase access to conferences (as a dad and department head, it’s hard to travel even setting money and politics aside). But it takes away some of the networking and socialization that can make conferences special.

Scholarly and professional associations are in a really difficult position regarding how to move forward. I don’t envy the decisions that they have to make.

Would Student Debt Forgiveness Drive Inflation?

During the last year or so, inflation has grabbed the attention of the American public. The price of just about everything is way up, with gas prices, food, and rent grabbing the nation’s attention. As I write this piece, the most recent inflation rate checks in at 8.3%, which is leading the Federal Reserve to increase interest rates and also likely increases the risk of a coming recession.

I have been talking for months about the squeeze that inflation puts on colleges, as tuition prices are rising much slower than the costs that colleges face. Although a recession probably would result in an increase in enrollment across higher education, that is not the reason why any of us want to see enrollment increase. Therefore, I am deeply concerned about inflation and its ramifications.

Much of the higher education policy discussion over the last two years has been dominated by the issue of student debt forgiveness as payment pauses continue. The latest news on this front is that the Biden administration is still pondering $10,000 in forgiveness (with a limit on income to qualify), and that high inflation rates are causing them to potentially rethink this issue.

I have plenty of thoughts and concerns about how student debt forgiveness would work, whether it should be limited to undergraduate debt only, whether it would lead to potential limits on federal student loans, and that we would be back in the exact same situation in just a few years without meaningful reforms. But I’m actually not too concerned about the effects of $10,000 in student debt forgiveness on inflation. Here’s why, with some caveats.

Let’s look at three groups of students that will be affected in different ways by $10,000 in forgiveness.

The first group is people with less than $10,000 in debt. As far as I know, nobody is getting handed a check for $10,000 and that benefits would be spread out. (I could see a world in which people who chose to pay off their loans since March 2020 get refunds, but I doubt that will happen.) Let’s say someone had $8,000 in debt remaining to pay off over five years, with monthly payments of $175. Those payments would be completely wiped out, and would increase the capacity to spend right now. But would people spend that money or save it?

Let’s keep in mind that borrowers have not had to make any payments for the last 27 months. Any borrowers who do not have to make payments have the same monthly take-home pay as they do now, but with the knowledge that they won’t have to resume payments at some point in the future. I think that could affect making some larger purchases like cars (a market with lots of inflation right now), but probably not a purchase like a home due to the larger sticker price.

Now consider borrowers with more than $10,000 in debt who are not using income-driven repayment. Consider someone with $20,000 in debt that they are paying over a standard ten-year plan, with payments of about $212 per month at 5% interest. If $10,000 gets forgiven, how does this work? One option is that students stay on the ten-year payment plan and drop their payments in half. Another option is to keep the same $212 payment, but pay off in about half the time. The first option could increase discretionary income now, while the second option does nothing now and increases it later. This pushes any inflation concerns years into the future.

Finally, let’s turn to borrowers with more than $10,000 in debt who are using income-driven repayment or pursuing Public Service Loan Forgiveness. For many of these borrowers, the effect will be less money forgiven years down the road. For example, instead of having $60,000 forgiven under PSLF, taking $10,000 off the balance now would result in the same monthly payments and maybe $40,000 forgiven in the future. This shouldn’t affect inflation at all.

My takeaway: the short-term effects on inflation are likely to be fairly modest. And if payments resume alongside forgiveness, there may even be a modest decrease in inflation compared to the current repayment pause. There could also be modest positive pressures on longer-term inflation, but that will hopefully be less of a concern if inflation is brought under control in the next few years.

A closing note: expect an administrative nightmare when trying to put an income limit on student debt forgiveness. The Department of Education cannot access IRS data on income, so this would require that people honestly provide their own income based on instructions provided. If the goal is to make sure that the most affluent individuals do not get debt forgiven, it is a better idea to use data from FAFSAs to make the determination (credit to the brilliant Sue Dynarski here). For example, debt forgiveness could be tied to an Expected Family Contribution threshold that excludes the wealthiest few percent of students’ families.

Will Republicans Try to End the Federal Student Loan Program?

Multiple news outlets are reporting that the Biden administration will announce a fifth extension of the federal student loan repayment pause that began in March 2020 shortly, with this extension going through the end of August 2022. This news doesn’t seem to make anyone truly happy, with borrower advocates and many progressives advocating for an extension through the end of 2022 and/or outright student debt forgiveness. On the right, conservatives are unhappy with continuing to kick the repayment can down the road when the economy is strong and a sizable share of borrowers could resume repayment (with or without income-driven repayment).

At this point, it seems more likely than not to me that the Biden administration will not resume student loan repayment during its time in office. There is almost no chance that the administration will restart payments in August as Democrats face a challenging midterm election and need every vote that they can get from their base and younger voters. Then 2023 starts the next presidential election cycle. If Biden and/or Harris want to run for office, resuming payments is a terrible way to position themselves in a Democratic primary.

Meanwhile, Republicans are stewing. Rep. Virginia Foxx, ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee, had this to say (h/t Michael Stratford of Politico):

If Republicans take control of Congress in the November elections, I fully expect a serious effort to stop issuing federal student loans framed around statements like that from Rep. Foxx. 2023 is a great time for Republicans to make this play, as somewhere between ten and 250 Republicans in the House and Senate seem likely to run for president in 2024 and this is great messaging in a GOP primary. Additionally, a certain Biden veto makes this a vote with no real consequences, allowing people to vote yes without cutting off access to federal loans. There is a realistic chance that legislation would pass Congress while not becoming law.

Fast forward to 2025. If Republicans take control of the White House along with Congress, then they have to either put up or shut up about this issue. On health care, Republicans largely shut up because they could not agree on a replacement for the Affordable Care Act. The same may well happen about federal student loans, with a few moderate Republicans stopping passage to protect students and/or their own political careers in swing districts. Possible replacements include education savings accounts, income share agreements (a la Jeb Bush), or simply turning the issue over to colleges and states to figure out.

Do I think that Republicans will end federal student loans? Probably not, but I also didn’t expect payments to still be paused in April 2022 when I first suggested a pause on March 18, 2020. The more likely outcome is efforts to limit graduate and professional student borrowing to reduce the federal loan portfolio without affecting the most vulnerable undergraduates.

My 2022 Higher Education Finance Reading List

I am beyond excited to be back in the (virtual) classroom this spring, as I get to teach a course for the first time since spring 2020. I am teaching a remote synchronous PhD class in higher education finance as my first course at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Department heads here are expected to teach one course per year, and it was great to be asked to teach this course.

The last two times that I taught the course (spring 2020 and fall 2017), I shared my reading list for the class on this blog. I do not use a textbook for the course because the field is moving so quickly and there are more topics to cover than a textbook could ever include. Instead, I use articles, working papers, and other online resources to provide a current look at the state of higher education finance.

Here is the reading list I am assigning my students for the course. I link to the final versions of the articles whenever possible, but those without access to an academic library should note that earlier versions of many of these articles are available online via a quick Google search.

The higher education finance landscape and data sources

Lumina Foundation video series on federal financial aid:

Chetty, R., Friedman, J. N., Saez, E., Turner, N., & Yagan, D. (2017). Mobility report cards: The role of colleges in intergenerational mobility. Working paper. (link)

Schanzenbach, D. W., Bauer, L., & Breitwieser, A. (2017). Eight economic facts on higher education. The Hamilton Project. (link)

Webber, D. A. (2021). A growing divide: The promise and pitfalls of higher education for the working class. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 695, 94-106. (link)

Recommended data sources:

College Scorecard: (underlying data at

Equality of Opportunity Project:


NCES Data Lab:

Postsecondary Value Commission’s Equitable Value Explorer:

ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer:

Urban Institute’s Data Explorer:

Institutional budgeting

Barr, M.J., & McClellan, G.S. (2010). Understanding budgets. In Budgets and financial management in higher education (pp. 55-85). Jossey-Bass. (link)

Jaquette, O., Kramer II, D. A., & Curs, B. R. (2018). Growing the pie? The effect of responsibility center management on tuition revenue. The Journal of Higher Education, 89(5), 637-676. (link)

Rutherford, A., & Rabovsky, T. (2018). Does the motivation for market-based reform matter? The case of responsibility-centered management. Public Administration Review, 78(4), 626-639. (link)

University of Tennessee System’s FY2022 budget:

University of Tennessee System’s FY2020 annual financial report:

The financial viability of higher education

Ducoff, N. (2019, December 9). Students pay the price if a college fails. So why are we protecting failing institutions? The Hechinger Report. (link)

EY-Parthenon (2018). Transitions in higher education: Safeguarding the interests of students. (link)

Kelchen, R. (2020). Examining the feasibility of empirically predicting college closures. Brookings Institution. (link)

Massachusetts Board of Higher Education (2019). Final report & recommendations. Transitions in higher education: Safeguarding the interest of students (THESIS). (link)

Sullivan, G. W., & Stergios, J. (2019). A risky proposal for private colleges: Ten reasons why the Board of Higher Education must rethink its plan. Pioneer Institute. (link)

Tarrant, M., Bray, N., & Katsinas, S. (2018). The invisible colleges revisited: An empirical review. The Journal of Higher Education, 89(3), 341-367. (link)

Higher education expenditures

Archibald, R. B., & Feldman, D. H. (2018). Drivers of the rising price of a college education. Midwestern Higher Education Compact. (link)

Cheslock, J. J., & Knight, D. B. (2015). Diverging revenues, cascading expenditures, and ensuing subsidies: The unbalanced and growing financial strain of intercollegiate athletics on universities and their students. The Journal of Higher Education, 86(3), 417-447. (link)

Commonfund Institute (2021). 2021 higher education price index. (link)

Griffith, A. L., & Rask, K. N. (2016). The effect of institutional expenditures on employment outcomes and earnings. Economic Inquiry, 54(4), 1931-1945. (link)

Hemelt, S. W., Stange, K. M., Furquim, F., Simon, A., & Sawyer, J. E. (2021). Why is math cheaper than English? Understanding cost differences in higher education. Journal of Labor Economics, 39(2), 397-435. (link)

State sources of revenue

Chakrabarti, R., Gorton, N., & Lovenheim, M. F. (2020). State investment in higher education: Effects on human capital formation, student debt, and long-term financial outcomes of students. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 27885. (link)

Gándara, D. (2020). How the sausage is made: An examination of a state funding model design process. The Journal of Higher Education, 91(2), 192-221. (link)

Laderman, S., & Heckert, K. (2021). State higher education finance: FY 2020. State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. (link)

Lingo, M., Kelchen, R., Baker, D., Rosinger, K. O., Ortagus, J. C., & Wu, J. (2021). The landscape of state funding formulas for public colleges and universities. InformEd States. (link)

Odle, T., Lee, J. C., & Gentile, S. P. (2021). Do promise programs reduce student loans? Evidence from Tennessee Promise. The Journal of Higher Education, 92(6), 847-876. (link)

Ortagus, J. C., Kelchen, R., Rosinger, K. O., & Voorhees, N. (2020). Performance-based funding in American higher education: A systematic synthesis of the intended and unintended consequences. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 42(4), 520-550. (link)

Tennessee’s outcomes-based funding formula:–planning–and-research/fiscal-policy/redirect-fiscal-policy/outcomes-based-funding-formula-resources/redirect-outcomes-based-funding-formula-resources/2015-20-outcomes-based-funding-formula.html

Federal sources of revenue

Bergman, P., Denning, J. T., & Manoli, D. (2019). Is information enough? The effect of information about education tax benefits on student outcomes. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 38(3), 706-731. (link)

Cellini, S. R. (2010). Financial aid and for-profit colleges: Does aid encourage entry? Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 29(3), 526-552. (link)

Gibbons, M. T. (2021, January 13). Universities report 5.7% growth in R&D spending in FY 2019, reaching $84 billion. National Science Foundation. (link)

Kelchen, R. (2019). An empirical examination of the Bennett Hypothesis in law school prices. Economics of Education Review, 73, Article 101915. (link)

Mok, S., & Shakin, J. (2018). Distribution of federal support for students pursuing higher education in 2016. Congressional Budget Office. (link)

College pricing, tuition revenue, and endowments

Baker, D. J. (2020). “Name and shame”: An effective strategy for college tuition accountability? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 42(3), 1-24. (link)

Baum, S., & Lee, V. (2018). Understanding endowments. Urban Institute. (link)

Cheslock, J. J., & Riggs, S. O. (2021). Psychology, market pressures, and pricing decisions in higher education: The case of the US private sector. Higher Education, 81, 757-774. (link)

Kramer II, D. A., Ortagus, J. C., & Lacy, T. A. (2018). Tuition-setting authority and broad-based merit aid: The effect of policy intersection on pricing strategies. Research in Higher Education, 59(4), 489-518. (link)

Ma, J., & Pender, M. (2021). Trends in college pricing and student aid 2021. The College Board. (link)

Webber, D. A. (2017). State divestment and tuition at public institutions. Economics of Education Review, 60, 1-4. (link)

Financial aid policies, practices, and impacts

Anderson, D. M., Broton, K. M., Goldrick-Rab, S., & Kelchen, R. (2020). Experimental evidence on the impacts of need-based financial aid: Longitudinal assessment of the Wisconsin Scholars Grant. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 39(3), 720-739. (link)

Bird, K., & Castleman, B. L. (2016). Here today, gone tomorrow? Investigating rates and patterns of financial aid renewal among college freshmen. Research in Higher Education, 57(4), 395-422. (link)

Guzman-Alvarez, A., & Page, L. C. (2021). Disproportionate burden: Estimating the cost of FAFSA verification for public colleges and universities. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 43(3), 545-551. (link)

Kelchen, R., Goldrick-Rab, S., & Hosch, B. (2017). The costs of college attendance: Examining variation and consistency in institutional living cost allowances. The Journal of Higher Education, 88(6), 947-971. (link)

Nguyen, T. D., Kramer, J. W., & Evans, B. J. (2019). The effects of grant aid on student persistence and degree attainment: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the causal evidence. Review of Educational Research, 89(6), 831-874. (link)

Student debt and financing college

Baker, D. J. (2019). When average is not enough: A case study examining the variation in the influences on undergraduate debt burden. AERA Open, 5(2), 1-26. (link)

Black, S. E., Denning, J. T., Dettling, L. J., Goodman, S., & Turner, L. (2020). Taking it to the limit: Effects of increased student loan availability on attainment, earnings, and financial well-being. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 27658. (link)

Boatman, A., Evans, B. J., & Soliz, A. (2017). Understanding loan aversion in education: Evidence from high school seniors, community college students, and adults. AERA Open, 3(1), 1-16. (link)

Ritter, D., & Webber, D. (2019). Modern income-share agreements in postsecondary education: Features, theory, applications. Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia Discussion Paper 19-06. (link)

Scott-Clayton, J. (2018). What accounts for gaps in student loan default, and what happens after. Brookings Institution Evidence Speaks Report #57. (link)

Free college

Carruthers, C., Fox, W. F., & Jepsen, C. (2020). Promise kept? Free community college, attainment, and earnings in Tennessee. Working paper. (link)

*Collier, D. A., & Parnther, C. (2021). Conversing with Kalamazoo Promise scholars: An inquiry into the beliefs, motivations, and experiences of tuition-free college students. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 22(4), 572-596. (link)

*Gándara, D., & Li, A. Y. (2020). Promise for whom? “Free-college” programs and enrollments by race and gender classifications at public, 2-year colleges. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 42(4), 603-627. (link)

Murphy, R., Scott-Clayton, J., & Wyness, G. (2017). Lessons from the end of free college in England. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution. (link)

Perna, L. W., Leigh, E. W., & Carroll, S. (2018). “Free college:” A new and improved state approach to increasing educational attainment? American Behavioral Scientist, 61(14), 1740-1756. (link)

Map of college promise/free college programs:

Returns to education

Darity, Jr., W. A., & Underwood, M. (2021). Reconsidering the relationship between higher education, earnings, and productivity. Postsecondary Value Commission. (link)

Deterding, N. M., & Pedulla, D. S. (2016). Educational authority in the “open door” marketplace: Labor market consequences of for-profit, nonprofit, and fictional educational credentials. Sociology of Education, 89(3), 155-170. (link)

Doyle, W. R., & Skinner, B. T. (2017). Does postsecondary education result in civic benefits? The Journal of Higher Education, 88(6), 863-893. (link)

Ma, J., Pender, M., & Welch, M. (2019). Education pays 2019: The benefits of higher education for individuals and society. The College Board. (link)

Webber, D. A. (2016). Are college costs worth it? How ability, major, and debt affect the returns to schooling. Economics of Education Review, 53, 296-310. (link)