This year, we’ve watched journalists uncover multiple instances of questionable behavior in the college admissions and financial aid process. Just google “college admissions” AND “scandal” and you will find all the evidence that you need that people are trying to bend the letter of the law in order to save some cash. From turning over guardianship of one’s kid to qualify for more financial aid to bribing coaches to recruit one’s child to get accepted to Ivy League schools, parents and students are looking for loopholes to attain that coveted college degree.
Whenever I hear the word “loophole”, I think about incentives. Incentives are both monetary and nonmonetary costs or benefits that individuals respond to when choosing between alternative actions. In other words, what motivates people to do things—or not do things.
We all know that when the price of something increases, we buy less of it. But what’s going on in the mind of the individual? When the price of a good rises, will the individual pay the higher price and buy less of something else? Or, will they substitute the good for a good with a lower price tag? However, as the stakes get higher, the higher the price. And, substitutes sometimes become harder to find. Individuals then look for other ways to cheat the system. How can I still get the good I want, at a lower price without having to stop purchasing it altogether? Think of couponing or searching for discounts or sales. Individuals are incentivized to act differently, searching for alternatives, as the price increases. We want our cake and eat it, too!
College is expensive! I don’t know about you, but I am still paying off my student loans. Student loan debt has steadily increased for the past 10 years. Not just for students, but for parents as well.
Both students and parents are searching for alternatives to taking out a quarter of a MILLION dollars to pay for a 4 year degree. Granted, the average student loan debt for students was just under $30,000, while the average debt for parents was closer to $35,000. But that is still a lot of money! Parents and students look for anything that can lower their bottom line, from “life hacks” to AP and community college courses to loopholes in financial aid.
When news about the scandals broke, there was a huge backlash. Many acted surprised! Unsurprisingly, though,they are responding to incentives! Because college costs so much money nowadays, most parents and students can’t afford the ticket price and look for alternatives such as seeking out counselors and education consultants to find ways to still get the college degree but without taking out a second mortgage.
However, incentives only help us predict how individuals will act, or at the very least, see trends of behavior when a good becomes more expensive. Incentives do not tell us if what Lora Georgieva did was right. They tell us what people are likely to do, given the costs and benefits. Even though it wasn’t exactly ethical to get a bigger financial package by transferring guardianship of a student to the neighbor so that the student looks to have come from a home with zero income, you would’ve done it as well had you known! Especially, if you knew it was a perfectly legal maneuver! Because, well, we find ways to minimize our costs and maximize our benefits. Economics teaches us to find the reason behind why people act the way they do. For better or worse, it makes “scandals” not so scandalous at all! Who can blame those who take advantage of the system when all of the incentives were saying: