We characterize the outcomes of the tertiary education market in a context where borrowing constraints bind, there is a two-tier college system operating under monopolistic competition in which colleges differ by the quality offered and returns to education depend on the quality of the school attended. College quality, tuition prices, acceptance cut-offs and education demand are all determined in a general equilibrium model and depend on the borrowing constraints faced by households. Our main finding shows that subsidized student loan policies can lead to a widening gap in the quality of services provided by higher education institutions. This happens because the demand for elite institutions unambiguously increases when individuals can borrow. This does not happen in non-elite institutions, since relaxing borrowing constraints makes some individuals move from non-elite to elite institutions. The higher increase in demand for elite institutions allows them to increase prices and investment per student. As investment and average student ability are complementary inputs in the quality production function, elite universities also increase their acceptance cut-offs. In this new equilibrium, the differentiation of the product offered by colleges increases, where elite universities provide higher quality to high-ability students and non-elite universities offer lower quality to less-able students. We illustrate the main results through a numerical exercise applied to Colombia, which implemented massive student loan policies during the last decade and experienced an increase in the gap of quality of education provided by elite and non-elite universities. We show that the increase in the quality gap can be a by-product of the subsidized loan policies. Such results show that, when analyzed in a general equilibrium setting, subsidized loan policies can have regressive effects on the income distribution.
Editor’s note: this paper focuses on undergraduate student loans but arguably the same logic/dynamic/perverse consequences may apply to medical student loans.