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Student Loans: Do College Students Borrow Too Much--Or Not Enough?

  • Christopher Avery
  • Sarah Turner

Total student loan debt rose to over $800 billion in June 2010, overtaking total credit card debt outstanding for the first time. By the time this article sees print, the continually updated Student Loan Debt Clock will show an accumulated total of roughly $1 trillion. Borrowing to finance educational expenditures has been increasing—more than quadrupling in real dollars since the early 1990s. The sheer magnitude of these figures has led to increased public commentary on the level of student borrowing. We move the discussion of student loans away from anecdote by establishing a framework for considering the use of student loans in the optimal financing of collegiate investments. From a financial perspective, enrolling in college is equivalent to signing up for a lottery with large expected gains—indeed, the figures presented here suggest that college is, on average, a better investment today than it was a generation ago—but it is also a lottery with significant probabilities of both larger positive, and smaller or even negative, returns. We look to available—albeit limited—evidence to assess which types of students are likely to be borrowing too much or too little.

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File URL: http://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/jep.26.1.165
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Article provided by American Economic Association in its journal Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Volume (Year): 26 (2012)
Issue (Month): 1 (Winter)
Pages: 165-92

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Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:26:y:2012:i:1:p:165-92
Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.26.1.165
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  1. Jeff Dominitz & Charles F. Manski, 1994. "Eliciting Student Expectations of the Returns to Schooling," NBER Working Papers 4936, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Ralph Stinebrickner & Todd R. Stinebrickner, 2003. "Working during School and Academic Performance," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 21(2), pages 449-472, April.
  3. Kahn, Lisa B., 2010. "The long-term labor market consequences of graduating from college in a bad economy," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 17(2), pages 303-316, April.
  4. Christopher Avery & Thomas J. Kane, 2004. "Student Perceptions of College Opportunities. The Boston COACH Program," NBER Chapters, in: College Choices: The Economics of Where to Go, When to Go, and How to Pay For It, pages 355-394 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Todd R. Stinebrickner & Ralph Stinebrickner, 2009. "Learning about Academic Ability and the College Drop-out Decision," NBER Working Papers 14810, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. Stacey H. Chen, 2008. "Estimating the Variance of Wages in the Presence of Selection and Unobserved Heterogeneity," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 90(2), pages 275-289, May.
  7. Arcidiacono, Peter & Hotz, V. Joseph & Kang, Songman, 2010. "Modeling College Major Choices Using Elicited Measures of Expectations and Counterfactuals," IZA Discussion Papers 4738, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  8. Rothstein, Jesse & Rouse, Cecilia Elena, 2011. "Constrained after college: Student loans and early-career occupational choices," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 95(1), pages 149-163.
  9. Jeff Grogger & Eric Eide, 1995. "Changes in College Skills and the Rise in the College Wage Premium," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 30(2), pages 280-310.
  10. Susan M. Dynarski & Judith E. Scott-Clayton, 2006. "The Cost of Complexity in Federal Student Aid: Lessons from Optimal Tax Theory and Behavioral Economics," NBER Working Papers 12227, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  11. John Bound & Michael Lovenheim & Sarah Turner, 2009. "Why Have College Completion Rates Declined? An Analysis of Changing Student Preparation and Collegiate Resources," NBER Working Papers 15566, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  12. Alan B. Krueger & William G. Bowen, 1993. "Policy Watch: Income-Contingent College Loans," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 7(3), pages 193-201, Summer.
  13. Brian C. Cadena & Benjamin J. Keys, 2013. "Can Self-Control Explain Avoiding Free Money? Evidence from Interest-Free Student Loans," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 95(4), pages 1117-1129, October.
  14. Gicheva, Dora, 2011. "Does the Student-Loan Burden Weigh into the Decision to Start a Family?," Working Papers 11-14, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Department of Economics.
  15. Mark Hoekstra, 2009. "The Effect of Attending the Flagship State University on Earnings: A Discontinuity-Based Approach," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 91(4), pages 717-724, November.
  16. James P. Smith & Finis Welch, 1978. "The Overeducated American? A Review Article," UCLA Economics Working Papers 147, UCLA Department of Economics.
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