Thursday, September 17, 2015

Why student loan debt has grown

The media continue to be obsessed with stories about indebtedness on student loans.  But I had yet to see any tough analysis of microdata on where the growing debt burden has been coming from until a few days ago when a NYT blogger reported on a new study by a Stanford PhD student and a Treasury Department economist.  The study matched student loan records from colleges with earnings profiles from 1040s over the last 20 years, with all other identifying information removed of course.

Here are the main findings (direct quotes from the study's abstract):
  • Most of the increase in default is associated with the rise in the number of borrowers at for-profit schools and, to a lesser extent, 2-year institutions and certain other non-selective institutions, whose students historically composed only a small share of borrowers. 
  • In contrast, default rates among borrowers attending most 4-year public and non-profit private institutions and graduate borrowers—borrowers who represent the vast majority of the federal loan portfolio—have remained low, despite the severe recession and their relatively high loan balances. 
A couple of anecdotes from the study: (1) In 2000 the school whose graduates and former students had accumulated the greatest collective debt burden was New York University and they had piled up $2.2b.  In 2014 the school with the greatest debt burden was The University of Phoenix with $35.5b.   (2) Borrowers from for-profit and two-year institutions account for 70 percent of student loan defaults.  

Bottom line: despite all of the stories we read in the media about students who left Stanford with $100k in debt, the focus of future research needs to be on for-profits, 2-year schools and non-selective institutions.  Completion rates at these institutions are low and earnings opportunities after school attendance are often quite limited.  Loan applicants need to know that before paying their first tuition check.  

The new federal College Scorecard is a step in the right direction.  Prospective students can now get solid data on completion rates, indebtedness and earnings after attendance.  NC State fared very well on all measures, by the way.  

Sunday, September 13, 2015

What is the ROI from investing in employees?

A study released last April by Harvard Law School looks at whether there is a connection between investing in employee development and financial success.   Based on a review of 92 papers, the authors conclude that there is a strong connection between human capital investment and financial rate of return.  The connection is so strong that the authors claim that financial analysts should start paying more attention to human resource policies when they are evaluating firms.

Such an analysis is not easily performed.  We lack ways of measuring training in ways that are consistent across different organizations.  But with rising social interest in triple-bottom-line analysis, this could end up being an active research topic in the years ahead.

Monday, September 7, 2015


I ran across the term "upskilling" this weekend when I read this WSJ piece about Wal-Mart.  It seems that the term is of recent origin, and is meant to indicate the opposite of downskilling.   A Google search points to a White House initiative called "UpskillAmerica," encouraging employers to make investments in on-the-job training, employee education, and internal career paths.

Wal-Mart has already made the decision to increase entry level wages.  Recently it announced a new training program that will be rolled out to over 4500 U.S. locations, focusing on entry-level workers.  Both of these steps make sense economically if the cost savings from reduced turnover and higher productivity offset the cost of higher wages and more training.
Employee turnover costs money—by industry estimates as much as $5,000 per front-line worker, or 20% to 30% of an entry-level salary. Standard turnover in retail is 50% in the first six months. If Wal-Mart can reduce this churn, persuading people to stay at least 12 to 18 months, it will save “tens of millions of dollars a year.”
Increased customer satisfaction is another possible payoff.  A key issue will be how responsive turnover really is to higher wages and more training.  Unless Wal-Mart plans to build a lot more stores, I have to question its ability to create long term career options for its entry-level help.

Employers are keenly aware of training costs.  If they think workers can be persuaded to stick around, they will consider investing in skill development.  Otherwise they will either avoid training altogether or shift the cost to the worker via lower compensation.  Over the last seven years, the trend has been toward reduced investment in employee development.  If the tide is turning now, that is a pretty good signal that we are getting near full employment and employers are fearful of labor shortages.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Has student loan debt eroded startup activity?

Since 2006 there has been a slowdown in the rate at which new companies have been created.  Is rising student loan debt a possible culprit?  We know student loan debt has been growing rapidly since 2000.  Unlike other forms of debt, there is no collateral for student loan debt, which is why it is so difficult to get out of such debt in bankruptcy.  Also growing amounts of student loan debt can discourage all sorts of asset acquisition and investment, so it is natural to think that business formation could suffer as a result.

Three economists at the Philadelphia Fed took a careful look at how new business formation across counties is related to student loan indebtedness, along with other types of debt.  (Summary here; full study here.)  The counties where student loan debt grew the most were also the ones with the slowest rates of new businesses being started, especially for businesses with fewer than five employees.  This is not necessarily proof of causation, but it certainly means that the subject merits further research.