This question is asked over at the Becker-Posner blog. One thing to note is that the discussion is aimed at private not-for-profit universities, which are the big players in the U.S. education system but much smaller players outside the U.S. Here in New Zealand, for example, there are no private universities.
Posner opens his discussion by noting
A promising field of economics called organization economics studies the organization of activity within complex entities such as for-profit corporations, government agencies, and not-for-profit private corporations. Colleges and universities (which I’ll discuss interchangeably, calling both types of institution of higher education “university” because universities are generally larger and more influential) straddle these divides—there are public universities, private not-for-profit universities, and private for-profit universities. I’ll focus on the second—private not-for-profit universities. Public universities don’t seem much different from private not-for-profit ones, in part because in recent years many public universities have made sustained and successful efforts at raising money from alumni and foundations, lessening their dependence on state funding and as a result achieving considerable, in some cases virtually complete, autonomy. As for the for-profit universities, they presumably can be modeled as typical for-profit service corporations. That leaves the not-for-profit university, which plays a much larger role in American higher education than in higher education in other countries. Most of the wealthiest and most prestigious American universities are private.Posner is right about organisational economics being really cool! It is one of the most interesting sub-fields in economics these days. At large part of organisational economics is what is often called "the theory of the firm".
Posner ends his essay by saying,
From an overall social standpoint, therefore, there is a great deal of waste in the American university sector (as there is in most institutions), but it is not obvious to me what if anything should be done about it. I note, however, that there is a good deal of government subsidization of private universities, in the form of research grants but, more important, of below-market student loans. Government grants for basic research are defensible because, by definition, basic research generates only external benefits. Subsidizing tuition by means of below-market student loans makes less sense. If the loans, not being subsidized, were more costly, tuition would be lower; and promising students would still receive scholarships and low-cost loans, financed by the universities themselves, because universities want to have good students (along with student athletes, legacies, and “diversity” admits), to build reputation and attract good faculty. Many students who receive subsidized loans to enable them to go to college, but would not be subsidized by a university, would be better off not going to college. College is not for everyone.Gary Becker notes in his essay that,
American public, private non-profit, and increasingly for-profit institutions of higher education compete hard for students and faculty. As a result, they offer a variety of courses, programs, and qualities of colleges and universities that range from a bare minimum program at many public community colleges to elite education at universities like Harvard, Stanford, and Chicago. These programs cater to students of varying qualities and with different interests. Students vote with their feet by choosing some institutions and programs over others, and by traveling long distances from other countries to attend American universities. This “voting” has made American universities responsive to the interests of students, which on the whole is a very good thing since these interests reflect changing job prospects and other changes in society.Becker also discusses the student loans system,
I agree with Posner that the federally financed student loan program needs significant modifications. More market-based interest rates on these loans are desirable, but in addition students under various circumstances should be allowed to borrow more than the current maximum limits on these loans. Especially students who attend expensive private universities may want to borrow more than they can at present, but most of them also receive high enough earnings later on to finance the interest repayment burden on these loans. It is no harder for most families to carry $100,000 or more in student loans than it is for them to repay mortgage loans of comparable size.These ideas on student loans are worth thinking about even for those outside the U.S. Clearly market interest rates have to be charged on loans, that is a no-brainer (getting the allocation of resources right when prices are wrong is next to impossible) but the personal bankruptcy idea is less obviously worth following. Why would the government or any other lender want to let a student discharge his loan in this way? The lender gets nothing since there is no collateral they can foreclose on. The lender may only get a little back if the student can not declare bankruptcy but a little is better than nothing.
However, students who are fettered with loans that they cannot repay should be able to discharge all or part of their loans through personal bankruptcy. To be sure, unlike mortgages, student loans do not have collateral that can be taken over by lenders in case of defaults on the loans. This is not so different than home ownership in the many states that do not allow the individuals declaring personal bankruptcy to be sued, although lenders can foreclose their homes. Despite the absence of collateral, workers who cannot repay their student loans should have the option of reducing the burden through discharging some of the loans through personal bankruptcy, the way other debt can be dischargeable through bankruptcy. To limit the abuse of this privilege, universities (including the for-profits) that make many student loans that end up being in arrears or discharged through bankruptcy should have their ability to make further loans severely constrained. This is already done to some extent, but tightening these constraints would force schools to be more careful in who they qualify for loans and the amounts they qualify for.
And what of the incentives of such a scheme? The constraint on getting future loans would have to be really tight to overcome the moral hazard problems with allowing personal bankruptcy.