Document Type


Publication Date

March 1994


This article uses the case of paying for a college education to study broad issues of equity, both between families and between generations. As a normative matter, I argue that we should subsidize the education of those who are disadvantaged, but that is because a college education generally 'pays off,' society as a whole should not subsidize most students. Rather, the government can serve the valuable function of simply ensuring that students have access to sufficient loans to finance their education. Congress recently enacted President Clinton's proposal to convert the federal role from a guarantor of student loans to a direct lender (for a phased-in portion of student loans). Direct lending will allow a novel repayment option: the graduate can elect to repay the government out of a modest percentage of her future income. Much of the article explores the difficulties of trying to determine an individual's financial resources, so that the government can best target its subsidies. When do we view the child separately from his family? When is it proper to look to a student's lifetime rather than current resources? Using the public finance literature, I examine the limitations of our governmental redistributive tools. Happily, most of the conceptual difficulties melt away in the face of an income-contingent repayment mechanism, which basically matches payments of principal and interest to the profits from an education. For most graduates, a percentage-of-income cap is the only real insurance they need against doing poorly in the job market. However, because President Clinton's proposal perpetuated existing federal subsidies in the guaranteed student loan program, Congress missed the opportunity to make the program fairer by applying analyses based on intergenerational equity and lifetime income.

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