Watson Institute at Brown University
Stone Inequality Initiative

The Financialization of US Higher Education

Research on financialization has been constrained by limited suitable measures for cases outside of the for-profit sector. Using the case of US higher education, we consider financialization as both increasing reliance on financial investment returns and increasing costs from transactions to acquire capital. We document returns and costs across four types of transactions: (i) revenues from endowment investments, (ii) interest payments on institutional borrowing by colleges, (iii) profits extracted by investors in for-profit colleges and (iv) interest payments on student loan borrowing by households. Estimated annual funding from endowment investments grew from $16 billion in 2003 to $20 billion in 2012. Meanwhile financing costs grew from $21 billion in 2003 to $48 billion in 2012, or from 5 to 9% of the total higher education spending, even as interest rates declined. Increases in financial returns, however, were concentrated at wealthy colleges whereas increases in financing costs tended to outpace returns at poorer institutions. We discuss the implications of the findings for resource allocation, organizational governance and stratification among colleges and households.