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Academics Suggest "Failure Insurance" Could Keep More in School

January 12, 2010

by Agnes Jasinski

What if those worried about whether they can handle the rigors of college had an option to ease their worries about whether they were making a good investment? Would "failure insurance" get more of these hesitant students onto college campuses? How would students pay into such a program if they're already struggling to come up with the funds to cover college costs?

An academic paper called Insuring College Failure Risk put together by Satyajit Chatterjee, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, and A. Felicia Ionescu, an assistant professor of economics at Colgate University, looked at the benefits of failure insurance, or policies that would reimburse students or offer forgiveness of some of their student loans if they flunked out of school. The paper concluded that the policies would be most useful to students from low-income backgrounds, a population that has been found to have higher college drop-out rates than other groups of students.

So how would it all work? The authors put forward a series of mathematical models that looked at both students' decisions to go to college and their decisions to drop out, finding that most any decision students make about college is a financial one. An insurance policy that offered students an amount that was high enough to make sense for them to continue taking classes, and often taking on more debt, but not so high that it would be an easy decision to drop out for the financial incentive, would be most successful. Students would be eligible for some loan forgiveness if they met the criteria for failing grades. Because students would still bear some of their student loan burden, that total would go toward something of a deductible, and could potentially work to keep more students in school so that they can avoid paying those fees to whatever insurance carriers would be offering these policies. Students would only have one shot at such an insurance policy, meaning they'd be on their own if they returned to school later in life after having flunked out.

Obviously something needs to be done to address high college dropout rates and the number of former students out there saddled with student loan debts but no degrees to speak of. According to the Federal Reserve Bank’s Survey of Consumer Finances, on average about 47 percent of those not in school with student loans to repay report that they don’t have two- or four-year college degrees. An article this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests there's no way to tell whether the academic paper has any legs outside of academic circles, and also points to other researchers' suggestions that offer students an incentive to stay in school - lowering tuition and fees and increasing access to and amounts of financial aid assistance, as examples.


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