Graduate professional education in the US is facing a financing squeeze. Some argue that those learning to become doctors, nurses, engineers, lawyers, and the like should get no help from the federal government, because they tend to earn higher incomes than average. Others question that premise, arguing that past results of grad degrees are no guarantee of future performance. They believe that an impending wave of defaults on federal student loans will raise the cost of federal credit programs.
Nevertheless, each side argues for policy with convergent outcomes. The “grad students will be rich” camp argues for curtailing federal loans, since they believe professionals can handle the higher interest rates on the private market. The “grad students will be poor” camp wants to raise the rates on federal student loans, to build up the already hefty surpluses the government is now making, to prepare for the putative future defaults. In the eyes of both, graduate students are the undeserving recipients of government largesse.
I’m not convinced by either: the “too rich” camp fails to value professional services properly, and the “too poor” camp is relying on controversial accounting techniques. But until I read Mike Simkovic’s recent paper “The Knowledge Tax,” I’d never thought of an even more fundamental distortion at work here: tax policy. Simkovic lays out the problem with characteristic clarity, considering a hypothetical college graduate deciding on (1) attending medical school and practicing medicine; or (2) purchasing a small vacant building and converting it into rental apartments: