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Why Is College So Expensive? Might Have Something To Do With The Huge Securities Bubble That's Backed By Feds

"What kind of incentives motivate lenders to continue awarding six-figure sums to teenagers facing both the worst youth unemployment rate in decades and an increasingly competitive global workforce?" Why, I'm glad you asked that question!

"What kind of incentives motivate lenders to continue awarding six-figure sums to teenagers facing both the worst youth unemployment rate in decades and an increasingly competitive global workforce?"

Why, I'm glad you asked that question! Turns out that education loan-backed derivatives are yet another investment bubble that helps drive up the cost of education -- and We The People are already on the hook for reimbursement when they crash:

Even with the Treasury no longer acting as co-signer on private loans, the flow of SLABS won’t end any time soon. What analysts at Barclay’s Capital wrote of the securities in 2006 still rings true: “For this sector, we expect sustainable growth in new issuance volume as the growth in education costs continues to outpace increases in family incomes, grants, and federal loans.” The loans and costs are caught in the kind of dangerous loop that occurs when lending becomes both profitable and seemingly risk-free: high and increasing college costs mean students need to take out more loans, more loans mean more securities lenders can package and sell, more selling means lenders can offer more loans with the capital they raise, which means colleges can continue to raise costs. The result is over $800 billion in outstanding student debt, over 30 percent of it securitized, and the federal government directly or indirectly on the hook for almost all of it.

If this sounds familiar, it probably should, and the parallels with the pre-crisis housing market don’t end there. The most predatory and cynical subprime lending has its analogue in for-profit colleges. Inequalities in US primary and secondary education previously meant that a large slice of the working class never got a chance to take on the large debts associated with four-year degree programs. For-profits like The University of Phoenix or Kaplan are the market’s answer to this opportunity.

While the debt numbers for four-year programs look risky, for-profits two-year schools have apocalyptic figures: 96 percent of their students take on debt and within fifteen years 40 percent are in default. A Government Accountability Office sting operation in which agents posed as applicants found all fifteen approached institutions engaged in deceptive practices and four in straight-up fraud. For-profits were found to have paid their admissions officers on commission, falsely claimed accreditation, underrepresented costs, and encouraged applicants to lie on federal financial aid forms. Far from the bargain they portray themselves to be on daytime television, for-profit degree programs were found to be more expensive than the nonprofit alternatives nearly every time. These degrees are a tough sell, but for-profits sell tough. They spend an unseemly amount of money on advertising, a fact that probably hasn’t escaped the reader’s notice.

But despite the attention the for-profit sector has attracted (including congressional hearings), as in the housing crisis it’s hard to see where the bad apples stop and the barrel begins. For-profits have quickly tied themselves to traditional powers in education, politics, and media. Just a few examples: Richard C. Blum, University of California regent (and husband of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein), is also through his investment firm the majority stakeholder in two of the largest for-profit colleges. The Washington Post Co. owns Kaplan Higher Education, forcing the company’s flagship paper to print a steady stream of embarrassing parenthetical disclosures in articles on the subject of for-profits. Industry leader University of Phoenix has even developed an extensive partnership with GOOD magazine, sponsoring an education editor. Thanks to these connections, billions more in advertising, and nearly $9 million in combined lobbying and campaign contributions in 2010 alone, for-profits have become the fastest growing sector in American higher education.

If the comparative model is valid, then the lessons of the housing crash nag: What happens when the kids can’t pay? The federal government only uses data on students who default within the first two years of repayment, but its numbers have the default rate increasing every year since 2005. Analyst accounts have only 40 percent of the total outstanding debt in active repayment, the majority being either in deferment or default. Next year, the Department of Education will calculate default rates based on numbers three years after the beginning of repayment rather than two. The projected results are staggering: recorded defaults for the class of 2008 will nearly double, from 7 to 13.8 percent. With fewer and fewer students having the income necessary to pay back loans (except through the use of more consumer debt), a massive default looks closer to inevitable.

Unlike during the housing crisis, the government’s response to a national wave of defaults that could pop the higher-ed bubble is already written into law. In the event of foreclosure on a government-backed loan, the holder submits a request to what’s called a state guaranty agency, which then submits a claim to the feds. The federal disbursement rate is tied to the guaranty agency’s fiscal year default rate: for loans issued after October 1998, if the rate exceeds 5 percent, the disbursement drops to 85 percent of principal and interest accrued; if the rate exceeds 9 percent, the disbursement falls to 75 percent. But the guaranty agency rates are computed in such a way that they do not reflect the rate of default as students experience it; of all the guaranty agencies applying for federal reimbursement last year, none hit the 5 percent trigger rate.

With all of these protections in place, SLABS are a better investment than most housing-backed securities ever were. The advantage of a preemptive bailout is that it can make itself unnecessary: if investors know they’re insulated from risk, there’s less reason for them to get skittish if the securities dip, and a much lower chance of a speculative collapse. The worst-case scenario seems to involve the federal government paying for students to go to college, and aside from the enrichment of the parasitic private lenders and speculators, this might not look too bad if you believe in big government, free education, or even Keynesian fiscal stimulus. But until now, we have only examined one side of the exchange. When students agree to take out a loan, the fairness of the deal is premised on the value for the student of their borrowed dollars. If an 18-year-old takes out $200,000 in loans, he or she better be not only getting the full value, but investing it well too.

In other words, it might all be a lot cheaper if we just paid for education outright.

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