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!

Should Students in “Boot Camps” Get Federal Financial Aid?

In the last several years, a number of companies have started short-term, intensive training programs in fields such as computer programming, Web design, and business designed to give fresh college graduates the skills they need to land lucrative jobs in growing fields. These “boot camps” include offerings by start-up companies such as Dev Bootcamp, General Assembly, and Koru as well as some entries from branches of traditional colleges (such as Rutgers). This sector is rapidly growing, with one organization estimating that about 16,000 students will complete coding boot camps in 2015.

Boot camps may tout their high job placement rates, but they are not cheap for students. The typical program costs about $11,000 for an 11-week program, although shorter options are often available in some fields. Unlike for most undergraduate and graduate programs through traditional colleges, these programs are currently not eligible for federal financial aid dollars. This means that students have two options to pay for these programs: paying out of pocket or taking out a private loan. However, the U.S. Department of Education is beginning an “experimental sites” program that will allow a small number of colleges to partner with unaccredited providers like boot camps to offer courses and receive federal financial aid.

Should students in boot camp programs be able to receive federal grants and loans? The best argument toward allowing students to receive federal funds for these programs (after a careful vetting process) is that it would allow students with modest financial means and little creditworthiness of their own to easily pay for some or all of these programs. These programs tend to recruit heavily from selective colleges with fewer low-income students (see the list of Koru’s partners), where ability to pay hasn’t been such a concern to this point. But as the sector expands to include colleges with more economic diversity, financing these programs could become a problem.

On the other hand, the highly vocational nature of these programs allows for different financing structures to make sense. This can happen through private loans focused on high-quality programs, which is the goal of the partnership between private lenders Skills Fund and six boot camps. Income share agreements are also a potential fit in this area, although I do have concerns about whether successful graduates would want to give up equity in themselves rather than just make loan payments. Finally, it remains to be seen whether boot camps themselves would actually be interested in going through certification and quality assurance processes that are likely to accompany federal student aid. For example, General Assembly’s co-founder told Inside Higher Ed that he didn’t want to receive federal student aid due to concerns about federal aid leading to higher prices in the future (the so-called “Bennett Hypothesis”). Others, such as Alex Holt at New America, have concerns about additional federal oversight leading to reduced program quality and less innovation.

I’ve thought about the dueling concerns of access and flexibility regarding boot camps, and I still don’t know exactly where I stand. The good thing here is that we’re likely to have a small number of programs get access to federal financial aid, so the effects of federal funding (and rules) can be examined before opening the spigot for more interested programs. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this question below, as this is a developing issue on which research badly needs to be conducted.

New Evidence on the Bennett Hypothesis and Federal Student Aid

One of the eternal debates in higher education policy is the validity of the Bennett Hypothesis, first stated by William Bennett (President Reagan’s Secretary of Education) in 1987:

“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.”

Does the availability of federal financial aid give colleges an incentive to keep hiking tuition? I wrote about the existing research on the Bennett Hypothesis last fall, which has been one of the most-read posts in my three years of blogging. At that time, I concluded that although it’s quite possible that federal financial aid is associated with increased tuition, it was hard to draw a solid conclusion given data limitations and the fact that nearly all students can receive federal financial aid—limiting the ability to draw causal inferences.

But two recent studies have pushed the research frontier forward by estimating the relationship between small changes in federal aid and colleges’ pricing strategy. The first is a job market paper by Christopher Lau, a recent economics PhD graduate from Northwestern. Using a rather complicated analytic strategy (read the methods section and see for yourself!), he estimated that for-profit colleges captured approximately 57 cents of each additional dollar of federal grant aid and 51 cents of each additional dollar of federal loan aid. Community colleges captured a smaller portion of federal aid dollars (37% of grant aid and 25% of loan aid), which is unsurprising given that the maximum Pell Grant is larger than community college tuition in nearly all states. Additionally, states often limit the amount that public colleges can increase tuition, reducing the opportunity for strategic behavior.

The second examination of the Bennett Hypothesis is a newly released report from three economists at the New York Fed. They used increases to federal subsidized and unsubsidized loan limits in 2007 as well as maximum Pell Grant awards to see whether colleges responded by increasing tuition. They found that colleges did increase posted tuition (not necessarily net tuition) at a higher rate after loan limits increased, with the magnitude being approximately 55 cents for each dollar of additional Pell Grant aid and 65 cents for each dollar of subsidized loan aid. These effects were largest for the most expensive private nonprofit colleges, where the maximum amount of federal loans ($5,500 for a first-year student) only covers a small portion of tuition.

An even more interesting finding from the Fed paper is that shareholders in for-profit colleges responded favorably to the passage of legislation that increased federal financial aid amounts. They concluded that across three pieces of legislation, the cumulative increase in stock prices was about 10% above what would have been expected without an increase. Given the high (at the time) public valuations of large publicly traded for-profits, this represented a large increase in valuation. It is also worth noting that because for-profits have to get at least 10% of their revenue from non-federal sources or veteran’s benefits, some colleges may have had to increase tuition in order for students to take out private loans to stay clear of the so-called ‘90/10’ rule.

Both of these papers have some major limitations. Most notably, they are unable to account for whether students took out less in PLUS or private loans when subsidized loans and Pell Grants increased and do not look at net tuition after grant aid. However, these represent some of the best evidence of there being some truth to the Bennett Hypothesis for the most expensive colleges. But does this lend credence to the claim that tuition will become much less expensive if the federal government got out of the student aid business? As a researcher, I urge caution with that interpretation for two reasons. First, these studies only tell us what happens when more aid goes into the system. The relationship may not hold when less aid comes in. Second, these findings are based on relatively small changes in aid—often less than $1,000. These ‘local’ effects may not hold for a larger change.

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.