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Don't Make Colleges Pay for Student-Loan Defaults

Incentives matter. This is a fundamental tenet of economics: People respond to their incentives. If something in a market seems to be going wrong, it’s because the incentives have gotten screwed up.

Looking at the market for education, it’s hard not to think that there’s something wrong with the incentives. Tuition keeps going up and so does debt. The percentage of people who are not paying off that debt — either because they are in default, deferment, or an income-based repayment program — is staggering. Naturally, a lot of folks would like to get the government in there to start tweaking those incentives until the market stops being so crazy.

One issue involves the incentives that schools have to ensure that their graduates get value out of their degrees. At the moment, a school can enroll you in practically any program, and the government will lend you money for tuition and living expenses, whether or not that degree is likely to produce the means to repay the loan. Since schools are often in a better position to know the economic value of their degrees than naive potential students, that twists the incentives. Eventually, the student will pay, either with money or trashed credit. If the loan defaults, taxpayers will pay too. The school has the most information about the transaction and yet it has the least at stake. No wonder we have such high tuition, so many dubious degree programs and such a troubling rate of default.

So why not make the schools care? That’s the idea behind “risk sharing,” a reform plan that is hot in Washington. The details come in various flavors, but the core is the same: When graduates default, their schools would be on the hook. That's already true to a small degree, but a school’s default rate has to be egregious before the government will take action. Ideally, risk-sharing would remove those...