Sunday, August 21, 2011

The next credit crisis -- in education?

From The Atlantic comes a chart showing an incredible rise in the level of student debt over the past decade or so. The total outstanding debt among US students has grown by a factor of more than five over this period.

 Daniel Indiviglio brings out the crucial point to appreciating just how explosive this rise has been. The figure shows two curves, red for student loan debt, blue for overall household debt. The latter itself went through a rather explosive growth from 1999-2008, yet doesn't come close to matching the rate of growth in student loans:
See that blue line for all other debt but student loans? This wasn't just any average period in history for household debt. This period included the inflation of a housing bubble so gigantic that it caused the financial sector to collapse and led to the worst recession since the Great Depression. But that other debt growth? It's dwarfed by student loan growth.

How does the housing bubble debt compare? If you add together mortgages and revolving home equity, then from the first quarter of 1999 to when housing-related debt peaked in the third quarter of 2008, the sum increased from $3.28 trillion to $9.98 trillion. Over this period, housing-related debt had increased threefold. Meanwhile, over the entire period shown on the chart, the balance of student loans grew by more than 6x. The growth of student loans has been twice as steep.
The number of students has remained more or less constant over the same period. Indiviglio goes on to ponder what happens when the bubble bursts, but there isn't an obvious endgame.

The disturbing thing is what lies behind this sudden expansion; it isn't the high-minded aim to make education possible to ever more people but the chance to make an easy profit on loans guaranteed by the US government. An earlier article in The Atlantic documented fast rises in tuition as universities aim to suck up their share of the easy credit, and of course there's been an explosion in for-profit college companies such as the Education Management Corporation. That company appears to be to the education bubble what Countrywide was to the housing bubble -- a facilitator pushing clients into loans regardless of need, solely to make a profit. As the New York Times recently reported, the Justice Department has joined in a suit against Education Management Corporation, charging it with defrauding the government " illegally paying recruiters based on the number of students they enrolled." Get 'em signed up regardless of need or ability to pay. Sound familiar?

As the NYT article noted,
For-profit schools enroll about 12 percent of the nation’s higher-education students yet receive about a quarter of all federal student aid; their students account for almost half of all defaults. In general, these institutions get more than 80 percent of their revenues from federal student aid. 
Good money to be made here, apparently. So you may not be surprised to hear who's behind the Education Management Corporation. According to the NYT, it is 40% owned by Goldman Sachs.