Staff Reports
Student Debt and Default: The Role of For-Profit Colleges
Previous Title: “How Does For-Profit College Attendance Affect Student Loans, Defaults, and Labor Market Outcomes?”
April 2017 Number 811
Revised October 2021
JEL classification: D14, H81, I22, I23, J24

Authors: Luis Armona, Rajashri Chakrabarti, and Michael F. Lovenheim

For-profit providers have become an important fixture of U.S. higher education markets. Students who attend for-profit institutions take on more educational debt and are more likely to default on their student loans than those attending similarly selective public schools. Because for-profits tend to serve students from more disadvantaged backgrounds, it is important to isolate the causal effect of for-profit enrollment on student debt and repayment outcomes as well as the educational and labor market mechanisms that drive any such effects. We approach this problem using a novel instrument combined with comprehensive institution-level data on student debt, default, educational attainment, and labor market outcomes. Our instrument leverages the interaction between changes in the demand for college due to labor demand shocks and the baseline supply of for-profit schools. We compare how enrollment and subsequent outcomes change across areas that experience similar labor demand shocks but that have different latent supply of for-profit institutions. The first-stage estimates show that students are much more likely to enroll in a for-profit institution for a given labor demand change when there is a higher supply of such schools in the base period. Among four-year students, for-profit enrollment leads to more loans, higher loan amounts, an increased likelihood of borrowing, and an increased risk of default. Two-year for-profit students also take out more loans, originate more student debt, and have higher default rates. We present evidence that these debt and default outcomes are driven by higher for-profit tuition and a negative effect of for-profit enrollment on labor market outcomes. Our results point to high costs and low returns to for-profit enrollment that generate worse student debt and repayment outcomes. These findings have important implications for public investments in higher education as well as for how students make postsecondary choices.

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