Saturday, October 11, 2008

Student loans: what happens when you have too many

This piece from the Seattle Times about students with a lot of debt is interesting for several reasons:

1. It reads as though these extreme cases are typical. In face, the fraction of students who finish with more than $40K in debt is very low, let alone over $100K like some of the folks in the article.

2. It is not quite clear if the author deliberately picked cases that do not elicit much reader sympathy or if he really thinks that we should feel bad for someone who chooses BU over in-state tuition at UW (a better ranked university in many departments) and so has to live at home for a while because his job does not pay that well. Nor is it clear that we should feel sorry for someone who completes a four year program in one subject and then discovers that his "true calling" is in something else. Not even the author, I think, has much sympathy for the fellow who spent a couple of expensive years partying at Montata State. Still, these cases seem to me so unsympathetic that I entertain some small possiblity that the intent here is actually the opposite of what a straightforward reading of the text would suggest.

3. Is it really a moral outrage if people think about their future earnings when making decisions about what to study or where to work? Prices are signals. High salaries for engineers, for example, provide valuable information about the state of the supply and demand for people with that skill set (and about compensating differences at the margin). Indeed, one might even suggest the truly shocking view that even people without student loans should pay attention to the market prices for differnet types of labor when making human capital investment decisions.