Campus Economics: How Economic Thinking Can Help Improve College and University Decisions

by Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson, 2023

Campus Economics provides college and university administrators, trustees, and faculty with an essential understanding of how college finances actually work. Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson explain the concepts needed to analyze the pros, the cons, and the trade-offs of difficult decisions, and offer a common language for discussing the many challenges confronting institutions of higher learning today, from COVID-19 to funding cuts and declining enrollments.

Emphasizing the unique characteristics of the academic enterprise and the primacy of the institutional mission, Baum and McPherson use economic concepts such as opportunity cost and decisions at the margin to facilitate conversations about how best to ensure an institution’s ongoing success. The problems facing higher education are more urgent than ever before, but the underlying issues are the same in good times and bad. Baum and McPherson give nontechnical, user-friendly guidance for navigating all kinds of economic conditions and draw on real-world examples of campus issues to illustrate both institutional constraints and untapped opportunities.

Campus Economics helps faculty, administrators, trustees, and government policymakers engage in constructive dialogue that can lead to decisions that align finite resources with the pursuit of the institutional mission.

Can College Level the Playing Field? Higher Education in an Unequal Society
by Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson, 2022

We often think that a college degree will open doors to opportunity regardless of one’s background or upbringing. In this eye-opening book, two of today’s leading economists argue that higher education alone cannot overcome the lasting effects of inequality that continue to plague us, and offer sensible solutions for building a more just and equitable society.

Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson document the starkly different educational and social environments in which children of different races and economic backgrounds grow up, and explain why social equity requires sustained efforts to provide the broadest possible access to high-quality early childhood and K–12 education. They dismiss panaceas like eliminating college tuition and replacing the classroom experience with online education, revealing why they fail to provide better education for those who need it most, and discuss how wages in our dysfunctional labor market are sharply skewed toward the highly educated. Baum and McPherson argue that greater investment in the postsecondary institutions that educate most low-income and marginalized students will have a bigger impact than just getting more students from these backgrounds into the most prestigious colleges and universities.

While the need for reform extends far beyond our colleges and universities, there is much that both academic and government leaders can do to mitigate the worst consequences of America’s deeply seated inequalities. This book shows how we can address the root causes of social injustice and level the playing field for students and families before, during, and after college.

Making College Work: Pathways to Success for Disadvantaged Students Kindle Edition
by Harry J. Holzer and Sandy Baum, 2017

making college work

Too many disadvantaged college students in America do not complete their coursework or receive any college credential, while others earn degrees or certificates with little labor market value. Large numbers of these students also struggle to pay for college, and some incur debts that they have difficulty repaying. Making College Work provides a new review of the causes of these problems and offers promising policy solutions.

Some solutions, including better financial aid or academic supports, target individual students. Other solutions, such as stronger linkages between coursework and the labor market and more structured paths through the curriculum, are aimed at institutional reforms. All students, and particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, also need better and varied pathways both to college and directly to the job market, beginning in high school. We can improve college outcomes, but must also acknowledge that we must make hard choices and face difficult tradeoffs in the process.

Student Debt: Rhetoric and Realities of Higher Education Financing, uses evidence to explain the realities of student debt and how the current discourse obscures serious problems in how Americans make decisions about how to pay for college. Learn more about some of the policies in the publication, or purchase a copy.

Decision Making for Student Success: Behavioral Insights to Improve College Access and Persistence 
by Benjamin L. Castleman (Author), Saul Schwartz (Author), Sandy Baum (Author), 2015

decision making

Each year, many students with affordable college options and the academic skills needed to succeed do not enroll at all, enroll at institutions where they are not well-positioned for success, or drop out of college before earning a credential. Efforts to address these challenges have included changes in financial aid policy, increased availability of information, and enhanced academic support. This volume argues that the efficacy of these strategies can be improved by taking account of contemporary research on how students make choices. In Decision Making for Student Success, scholars from the fields of behavioral economics, education, and public policy explore contemporary research on decision-making and highlight behavioral insights that can improve postsecondary access and success.

Selected Publications, Testimony, and Other Writings

Race. Ethnicity, and the Design of State Grant Programs, with Kristin Blagg, Leonardo Restrepo, and Fanny Terrones, January 2023

Nontuition Expenses: Implications for College Affordability and Financial Aid Policies, with Jason Cohn, July 2022

Using Multiple Metrics to Strengthen Institutional Accountability, with Erica Blom and Jason Cohn, Urban Institute, April 2022.

Income-Driven Repayment of Student Loans: History, Logic, and the Need for Reform. Urban Institute Research Report, April 2022.

Mississippi State Grant Aid: Room for Reform, with Kristin Blagg, Urban Institute, April 2022.

Exploring the Importance of Low Wage, High Social Value Careers, with Lorelle Espinosa. Gates Foundation Postsecondary Value Commission.  2021.

New Jersey’s State Grant Program: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Pathways to Achieving the State’s Goals, with Kristin Blagg and Macy Rainer, Urban Institute, June 2021.

A Review of State Grant Aid in Texas, with Kristin Blagg, Urban Institute, May 2021.

Lowering Monthly Payments for Borrowers in Income-Driven Repayment Could Have Unintended Consequences, Urban Institute, March 2021.

Financial Aid: Reform or Revolution?” Change, 53:1, 40-43January/February 2021.

Strengthening the Federal Role in the Federal-State Partnership for Financing Higher Education, with Michael McPherson, Urban Institute, December 2020.

The Pandemic’s Outsized Impact on Vulnerable Students,Inside Higher Ed, October 2020.

Mass Debt Forgiveness is Not a Progressive Idea,” Education Next, Fall 2020.

Financial Aid: Reform or Revolution?Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning. 53(1) February 2021.

Strengthening the Federal Role in the Federal-State Partnership for Funding Higher Education, Michael McPherson, co-author. Urban Institute, December 2020.

“The Pandemic’s Outsized Impact on Vulnerable Students,” Inside Higher Ed, October 27, 2020.

Mass Debt Forgiveness is Not a Progressive Idea,” Education Next, Fall 2020.

Simplifying Student Aid: Separating Pell Eligibility from an Equitable Formula for Measuring Ability to Pay, Kim Rueben, co-author, Urban Institute, October 2020.

Racial and Ethnic Differences in Student Loan Borrowing, Kelia Washington, co-author, Urban Institute. March 2020.

Improving Teaching: Strengthening the College Learning Experience” and “The Human Factor: The Promise and Limits of Online Education,” Michael McPherson, co-author, Daedalus, Special Issue, Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson eds., Fall 2019

Trends in Student Aid 2019
Jennifer Ma, Matea Pender, and CJ Libassi, co–authors

Trends in College Pricing 2019
Jennifer Ma, Matea Pender, and CJ Libassi, co-authors

“‘Endowments and Federal Tax Policy,” Urban Institute, July 2019.

“‘Free tuition’ is the opposite of progressive policymaking,” Sarah Turner co-author, Washington Post, May 3, 2019.

Reshaping Parent PLUS Loans: Recommendations for Reforming the Parent PLUS Program Kristin Blagg and Rachel Fishman co-authors, Urban Institute, April, 2019.

Rethinking Federal Work Study: Incremental Reform is Not Enough Urban Institute, March, 2019.

Black students’ ‘unprecedented and unequal’ college debt should cause alarm,” Lorelle Espinosa co-author, Opinion, The Hechinger Report, February 19, 2019.

Student Debt: The Unique Circumstances of African American  Students” in Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education, American Council on Education, 2019.

 “Loosening Standards, Widening Inequalities,” Spiros Protopsaltis, co-author. Chronicle of Higher Education, February 22, 2019.

Does Online Education Live Up To Its Promise? A Look At the Evidence and Implications  for Federal Policy, Spiros Protopsaltis, co-author, George Mason University, January 2019.

Improving the Targeting, Predictability, and Simplicity North Carolina’s State Grant Programs. North Carolina Student Aid Study Group Policy Brief,  December 2018.

How Students Pay for College,” Change,  50(3-4):135-141, October 2018.

 Expanding Opportunity, Reducing Student Debt: Reforming California Student Aid,  Robert Shireman and Jennifer Mishory, co-authors, The Century Foundation, April 2018.

Unaffordable Loans: When Should Schools Become Ineligible for Student Loan Programs, Saul Schwartz, co-author, Urban Institute, March 23, 2018.

Tuition and State Appropriations, Michael McPherson, Breno Braga, and Sarah Minton, co-authors, The Urban Institute, February 15, 2018.

Understanding Endowments
Victoria Lee, co-author, April 23, 2018.

After Graduate and Professional School: How Students Fare in the Labor Market
Patricia Steele, co-author, February 2018.

Financing Graduate and Professional School Education
Patricia Steele, co-author, January 4, 2018.

Graduate and Professional School Debt
Patricia Steele, co-author, The Urban Institute,January 4, 2018.

Understanding College Affordability: How Students, Institutions, and the Public Pay for Higher Education, The Urban Institute, Fall 2017.

A Principled Federal Role in Higher Education, Douglas Harris, Andrew Kelly, and Ted Mitchell, co-authors. The Urban Institute, September 19, 2017.

Reforming Federal Student Loan Repayment: A Single, Automatic, Income-Driven System Matthew Chingos, co-author. The Urban Institute, September 19, 2017.

The Price of Graduate and Professional School: How Much Students Pay,
Patricia Steele, co-author.  June 21, 2017.

Examining the Federal-State Partnership in Higher Education, May 16, 2017.

The Federal-State Higher Education Partnership: Rethinking the Relationship,
Michael McPherson, co-author, May 16, 2017.

The Federal-State Higher Education Partnership: Lessons from Other Federal-State Partnerships, Kristin Conklin, co-author, May 16, 2017

The Federal-State Higher Education Partnership: How States Manage their Roles,
Matthew Chingos, co-author, May 16, 2017

College Affordability and Institutional Pricing Policies
Planning for Higher Education Journal, V45N3: 1-14, April-June 201.7 

Wealth Inequality is a Barrier to Education and Social Mobility
Breno Braga, Signe-Mary McKernan, and Caroline Ratcliffe, co-authors, April 28, 2017.

Student Debt: Rhetoric and Reality,” Forum for Social Economics, Vol. 46: 206-220,
April 2017.

“Yes, the Trump Budget Would Hurt Students — but It Could Be Worse,”
The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 16, 2017

Examining the Federal-State Partnership in Higher Education,  May 2017

Paying for College, Victoria Lee, co-author, April 7, 2017.

“What Colleges Should Know About Students’ Borrowing Patterns”
The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 5, 2017

Who Goes to Graduate School and Who Succeeds?
Patricia Steele, co-author, January 2017

“The Surprising Value that Need-Based Aid Brings”
The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 1, 2017

“Clinton vs. Sanders”
Inside Higher Ed, March 31, 2016

Community Colleges: Multiple Missions, Diverse Student Bodies, and a Range of Policy Solutions. David Baime, co-author, August 17, 2016

Strengthening Federal Student Aid: An Assessment of Proposals for Reforming Federal Student Loan Repayment and Federal Education Tax Benefits Martha Johnson, co-author February 2, 2016

A Framework for Thinking About Law School Affordability
December 2015

Decision Making for Student Success: Behavioral Insights to Improve College Access and Persistence Ben Castleman, Saul Schwartz co-editors.  New York: Routledge, 2015.

Educational Attainment: Understanding the Data
Alisa Cunningham, Courtney Tanenbaum co-authors.
George Washington University Graduate School of Education. 2015.


“College Endowments, College Prices, and Financial Aid”
Committee on Ways and Means Committee, Subcommittee on Oversight, United States House of Representatives. September 2016

Simplifying Federal Student Aid: Toward a More Effective Federal Grant Program for Students U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce
November 3, 2015

Blog Posts

States Have an Opportunity to Strengthen College Grant Aid Programs, May 28,2021

Student Borrowers with Smaller Debts Should Repay for Fewer Years, March 19, 2021

Forgiving PLUS Debt for Low-Income Parent Borrowers, Kristin Blagg co-author, February 11, 2021

The Federal Government Could Do More to Help Finance Short-Term Occupational Preparation, Harry Holzer co-author, February 3, 2021

What Would Forgiving Student Debt Mean for the Federal Budget?, Donald Marron co-author, December 22, 2020.

Why Forgive Student Debt? August 24, 2020

Extending Student Loan Relief during the Coronavirus Pandemic, Matthew Chingos co-author August 5, 2020

The Federal Government Can Help Ward Off a College Enrollment Crisis, Michael McPherson co-author April 20,2020

The Federal Government Can Help Ward Off a College Enrollment Crisis, Michael McPherson co-author April 20,2020

Endowments Won’t Solve College Affordability Problems September 10, 2019

The Morehouse Debt Forgiveness Gift is Good for Graduates, but is Not a Model for Public Policy June 7, 2019

Pricing Free College May 3, 2019

Which Households Hold the Most Student Debt? May 2, 2019

Making Student Loan Repayment More Logical and Equitable April 4, 2019

Putting the college admissions scandal in context March 18, 2019

How the gender pay gap affects the earnings premium of college degrees March 6, 2019

DeVos misrepresents the evidence in seeking gainful employment deregulation August 22,2018

Graduate students are taking on less debt, but some groups still borrow disproportionately  June 27, 2018

Graduate students are taking on less debt, but some groups still borrow disproportionately  June 27, 2018

How well does graduate school pay off? April 23, 2018

Incremental steps  toward bold student loan reforms March 15, 2018

States can lead the way in making college affordable March 7, 2018

Changes to graduate lending policy are long overdue January  16, 2018

Black doctoral students face financing problems even without a tax on tuition benefits January  8, 2018

Federal focus should remain on college access and attainment, not on making tuition “free” November 9, 2017

What makes college more affordable? November 1, 2017

Student loans work, but not for everyone October 17, 2017

Do too many community college students major in liberal arts? August 31, 2017

Federal and state governments should work together to strengthen public colleges and universities May 17, 2017

Year-round Pell grants are a good first step, but there’s more to do May 4, 2017

State policymakers are playing politics instead of increasing educational opportunities May 2, 2017

Devos opposed regulation. What will that mean for higher education? February 7,  2017

The student loan scandal doesn’t mean there’s a student loan crisis January 24, 2017

Protecting students in an anti-regulatory environment December 22, 2016

Should employers repay student loans or pay higher wages? April 13, 2016