Debt and Human Capital: Evidence from Student Loans

Journal of Financial Economics, R&R
Best Paper Award, LBS Summer Finance Symposium 2017
Coauthors: Raji Chakrabarti, Slava Fos, and Andres Liberman

This paper investigates the dynamic relation between debt and investments in human capital. We document a negative causal effect of the level of undergraduate student debt on the probability of enrolling in a graduate degree for a random sample of the universe of federal student loan borrowers in the US. We compare students (i) within school and cohort, and (ii) across cohorts within the same school at the time of a large tuition change. The latter strategy exploits the fact that students who face a tuition increase in earlier grades end up with significantly more debt than students who face the same tuition increase in later grades. We find that $4,000 in higher debt causes a two percentage point reduction in the probability of enrolling in graduate school relative to a mean of 12%. Further results suggest this effect is largely driven by credit constraints, is monotonically weaker with family income, and is attenuated for students who had compulsory personal finance training in high school. The results highlight an important trade off associated with debt-financing of human capital, and inform the debate on the effects of the large and increasing stock of student debt in the US.