Across the country, students are returning to higher education institutions for the start of another semester, except it seems that the federal government may not want some of those students in classes. This summer, the Department of Education announced new rules that will limit federal loans and grants available to for-profit colleges in order to change the way these institutions do business. These rules base funding on how educational programs meet performance goals, and they have already had an effect; new student enrollments have fallen by nearly 50% at the University of Phoenix, the largest for-profit college.
While both the analysis of the performance policy and larger questions on the economic value of subsidizing education are relevant for economic debate, perhaps it is worth taking a step back and considering something much simpler: holding the initial funding constant, there was a market where buyers (potential students) were happy to trade with sellers (for-profit colleges), but the government chose to intervene and prevent trades that the market otherwise would have facilitated. Most of the time, economists endorse laissez-faire policies, literally “hands off.” This is because government intervention often distorts the market equilibrium and leads to lost surplus, thus lowering welfare for society as a whole. However, sometimes economic theory endorses government intervention, because some policies can correct for market failures and actually raise social welfare.
What are some examples of government intervention that can be economically beneficial?
1. Tragedy of the commons - When public resources are freely available to everyone, they can become overused and permanently damaged. When a government requires fishing licenses to fish in public streams, the intervention limits usage and preserves the environment by preventing over-fishing.
2. Externalities - In some cases, while the private costs and benefits apply to individuals, the consumption of goods can have far-reaching effects on society as a whole. By imposing fines for pollution, the government can make private firms internalize the cost to society of damage done by production.
3. Asymmetric Information - When sellers know more about their product than consumers can reasonably find out, they could exploit that information to rip consumers off. Governments can step in to level the playing field. Consider when a county’s boards of weights and measures routinely calibrate supermarket scales.
4. Incomplete Information - Economists typically assume complete information when analyzing markets. Welfare loss can occur if consumers do not know exactly what is for sale, or if a good fits their needs.
Returning to the case of new rules on for-profit education, perhaps the government has justified its intervention by suggesting that some students don’t know what they are getting themselves into, and are buying a product they don’t need or can’t use. In some cases, the federal government, along with four individual states, is taking things one step further. In August, they filed a lawsuit against another for-profit education company (Education Management Corporation), charging them with fraud. Based on information from whistleblowers, the government is charging:
"The company had a ‘boiler-room style sales culture’ in which recruiters were instructed to use high-pressure sales techniques and inflated claims about career placement to increase student enrollment, regardless of applicants’ qualifications. Recruiters were encouraged to enroll even applicants who were unable to write coherently, who appeared to be under the influence of drugs, or who sought to enroll in an online program but had no computer."
While the fraud case is early in the legal process, the metaphorical jury is still out on the government’s new policies. Regardless of the legal outcome, it’s important to consider the costs and benefits to the parties involved when the government considers intervention.
1) Will the government regulations related to for-profit education cause a pareto optimal change? Who is better off under these regulations? Is anyone made worse off by these new laws?
2) What should the government consider when debating laissez-faire policies versus intervention?
3) Do you think the government regulation of for-profit colleges is appropriate? Is this a positive or normative question?
4 ) How would the market react if students had to pay for their education entirely out of their own pocket, rather than receiving some government aid? Would you expect the same level of regulation to be introduced?