Brian Leiter's Law School Reports

Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

A Member of the Law Professor Blogs Network

Monday, June 15, 2015

Understanding Student Loans (1 of 2) (Michael Simkovic)

A shorthand approach sometimes used to compare the cost and benefits of higher education—comparing student loan balances at graduation to first year earnings—can be seriously misleading.  The implication of this approach is that student loans have to be repaid in full shortly after graduation, and that graduates’ low initial earnings will persist for the rest of their lives.  

This is an apples to oranges comparison.  An investment in education pays dividends throughout one’s life. First-year earnings are one small, unrepresentative, slice of lifetime earnings. Comparing a lifetime investment to one year of expected returns on it feeds ignorance about how student loans and lifetime earnings actually work.  It thus risks misleading prospective students into making financially disastrous decisions to underinvest in education. 

Student loans are meant to solve a specific problem—the costs of education come as a series of large upfront payments for tuition and living expenses, while the benefits accrue later in life in the form of higher earnings.  Except for the minority of students who are fortunate enough to have rich and generous parents who cover their tuition, students generally have two options—save or borrow.

Saving is inefficient because it requires students to work for many years with a lower level of education and for much lower wages, and to complete their degrees much later in life.  Completing a given level of education earlier helps maximize the number of years of expected higher earnings with a higher level of education.  Borrowing to invest in education is therefore more efficient than saving to invest in education.  Some of the benefits of financing accrue to the student borrower in the form of higher lifetime earnings compared to saving, and some of the benefits accrue to the lender in the form of interest and fees.  Another approach to financing higher education—more popular in Europe, Australia, and Canada than the United States—features higher public spending and higher tax burdens, sometimes with a tax-like percent-of-earnings fee explicitly tied to university education.  The social democratic approach, like the U.S. approach, involves providing something of value up front in return for a fraction of graduates’ incomes later.

Student loans enable students to pay for their own education by converting the cash flows associated with investment in education from large upfront payments into a series of much smaller payments spread out over time.  Ideally, these payments should closely match the timing of the benefits of education—that is, the timing of the boost to earnings from education.  

Because the benefits of education accrue over the course of a career—perhaps 40 years or more—and earnings typically do not peak until middle age, the costs of education should ideally also be spread over a similar time frame.  

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The prospect of high payments needed to pay back loans very quickly ex-ante could cause prospective students to underinvest in education.  As life expectancy and career length increase, so should initial investment in education. 

If this goal of matching the timing of cash flows is accomplished, then at every point in time, with more education, students will have more cash at their disposal.  The boost to earnings from education will more than cover student loan debt service payments, and the initial borrowing will enable students to maintain a decent lifestyle while pursuing studies instead of working full time. (For a discussion of the advantages of leveraged investments early in life, see Ayers & Naelbuff).

That is one important reason why federal student loans can be repaid over 25 to 30* years (so-called “extended” repayment).  Plans are available under which monthly payments start low and increase over time to match the typical trajectory of lifetime earnings (“graduated” or “graduated extended” repayment), or in which payments dynamically adjust up and down with actual borrower earnings (if earnings fall below a certain level) to better match cash flows (“income-contingent” or “income-based” repayment).

Because these extended and income adjusted plans are better tailored to the purpose of student loans—matching positive and negative cash flows—one of these plans should be the default option for student borrowers instead of the now “standard” 10-year repayment period.  10-years to pay for an education that provides benefits over 40 years makes little sense.  For law graduates, real earnings typically continue to grow for 30 years after graduation.

 

* Consolidated loans can be repaid over 30 years, but some consolidated loans may not be eligible for income based repayment plans.

Paying loans back slower typically will not affect the economic value of education, notwithstanding the fact that nominal interest payments will increase.  Paying loans back faster or slower typically will not affect the economic value of education as long as two conditions are met: 

  1. Interest rates remain unchanged regardless of whether a loan is repaid over 10 or 30 years (this is the case for federal student loans, but not for mortgages or most other debt instruments most of the time)
  2. The interest rate on student loans is appropriate, in that it matches up with default and loss risk levels for lenders, the opportunity cost of capital, and time preferences.

If condition 2 holds, then the interest rate will equal the discount rate which is used to convert cash flows occurring at different points in time into the same currency so that they can be compared.  If the discount rate is 6 percent, then there is no valuation difference between paying $1,000 today or paying $1,060 one year from now, just as there is no difference between paying one U.S. Dollar or the equivalent in Euro cents.  If students choose to refinance or pay their loans back faster than they are legally required to repay them, this suggests that the interest rate on student loans is too high


June 15, 2015 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Science, Student Advice, Weblogs | Permalink

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Congratulations to the University of Chicago Law School Class of 2015!

It's been a pleasure and a privilege to teach such talented young men and women, and I am sure I speak for all of my colleagues in wishing you much professional success and personal happiness in the years ahead.


June 13, 2015 | Permalink

Friday, June 12, 2015

Government Overcharging for Student Loans (Michael Simkovic)

The Department of Education has been overcharging low-risk professional school students for federal student loans (relative to the market rate) while keeping rates low for undergraduates who are far more likely to default. (For previous  coverage, see here, here and here).

Bloomberg BNA's Bankruptcy Reporter describes the predictable consequences of this politically driven mispricing: Professional graduates are refinancing into less expensive private loans and removing themselves from the government's risk pool. 

There is a simple solution that will shut down what Bloomberg describes as an "exodus of top borrowers" while preserving student lending profits for the benefit of taxpayers.   The government should charge low risk graduate students less.

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Update, June 13, 2015:  Jordan Weissmann at Slate covers the story.  


June 12, 2015 in Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Student Advice, Weblogs | Permalink

Monday, June 8, 2015

SSRN Downloads, Redux: "Top 10" U.S. law professors for "all time"

Stephen Bainbridge (UCLA) was cranky at me last month, so herewith the "all time" ten most downloaded U.S. law professors on SSRN:

1.  Lucian Bebchuk (Harvard) (230,377 downloads, 172 papers)

2.  Daniel Solove (George Washington) (229,918 downloads, 41 papers)*

3.  Cass Sunstein (Harvard) (205,141 downloads, 189 papers)

4.  Mark Lemley (Stanford) (161,607 downloads, 141 papers)

5.  Bernard Black (Northwestern) (161,459 downloads, 138 papers)

6.  Stephen Bainbridge (UCLA) (111,432 downloads, 95 papers)

7.  Brian Leiter (Chicago) (103,669 downloads, 59 papers)

8.  Dan Kahan (Yale) (95,120 downloads, 54 papers)

9.  Eric Posner (Chicago) (92,878 downloads, 122 papers)

10. Orin Kerr (George Washington) (89,492 downloads, 49 papers)

 

*A single paper accounts for nearly two-thirds of Prof. Solove's downloads!

 


June 8, 2015 in Faculty News, Rankings | Permalink

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Evidence scholar Jennifer Mnookin named Dean at UCLA

I'm sure that's going to prove a fabulous choice.  Congrats to Prof. Mnookin and UCLA!


June 4, 2015 in Faculty News | Permalink

Monday, June 1, 2015

UVA Law Dean Mahoney to step down in 2016 after 8 years at the helm

He had a very good tenure, not just based on objective indicia (like fundraising, where he did fabulously well), but based also on what I have heard again and again from faculty there.


June 1, 2015 in Faculty News | Permalink

Thursday, May 28, 2015

SSRN Downloads: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Haven't looked at SSRN downloads in a couple of years, but here's the top ten US law professors by downloads in the last 12 months as of May 1:

1.  Cass Sunstein (Harvard) (28,599 downloads, 24 new papers)

2.  Dan Kahan (Yale) (18,796 downloads, 5 new papers)

3.  Daniel Solove (George Washington) (18,503 downloads, 2 new papers)

4.  Mark Lemley (Stanford) (14,973 downloads, 8 new papers)

5.  Lucian Bebchuk (Harvard) (13,940 downloads, 0 new papers)

6.  Orin Kerr (George Washington) (12,254 downloads, 4 new papers)

7.  Brian Leiter (Chicago) (12,097 downloads, 9 new papers)

8.  Bernard Black (Northwestern) (10,561 downloads, 5 new papers)

9.  Jeremy Waldron (NYU) (8,214 downloads, 6 new papers)

10. Tim Wu (Columbia) (8,158 downloads, 2 new papers)

And given how close to the top ten, I should note that my colleague Eric Posner had 8,065 downloads and six new papers in the last 12 months.

As the cases of Solove and Bebchuk show, "oldies but goodies" can keep the downloads pouring in!

 


May 28, 2015 in Faculty News, Rankings | Permalink

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

In Memoriam: Daniel Meltzer (1951-2015)

The Harvard memorial notice is here.


May 26, 2015 in Memorial Notices | Permalink

Monday, May 25, 2015

Charleston Law School will enroll students this fall...

...while undertaking additional cost-cutting measures.  It appears the School enjoys some strong support in the local Charleston community.


May 25, 2015 in Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest | Permalink

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Lawsky's rookie hiring data for 2014-15

Here.  Prof. Lawsky counts only tenure-track hires, whether academic or clinical; she reports a total of 70 new hires this year, slightly down from last year.  (It's lower if one substracts the tenure-track clinical hires, though I have not counted carefully.)  The relatively small number of Yale JDs hired (only 6) is striking, though we don't know how many graduates of each school were on the market, though based on past years I would be surprised if there weren't several dozen Yale candidates seeking, meaning the vast majority failed to land positions.  21 of the 70 hires had Harvard JDs (though several of those were coming off Fellowships, like the Bigelow), while another 27 came from just five schools (Stanford, Yale, Chicago, Berkeley, and NYU).


May 20, 2015 in Advice for Academic Job Seekers, Faculty News, Rankings | Permalink