The Next Market Bubble: Student Loans?

As the economy reels from the housing crisis, lawmakers should act now to ensure that higher education is not next, Richard Vedder and Andrew Gillen argue.


May 2, 2008

It seems that each new day brings more bad news about America’s housing crisis. Sales have plummeted, prices are dropping with no end in sight, and millions of desperate homeowners now face the very real prospect of losing their homes to foreclosure. Banks that bought shaky mortgages are also feeling the pain, ensuring that the financial burden hits both Main Street and Wall Street.

While everyone is focused on housing right now, financial history tells us that another bubble lurks beneath the surface. Indeed, it was only eight years ago that we stood panicked at the prospect of companies going out of business and the chance to buy a house through innovative loan products seemed like a prudent decision. Predicting exactly where the next bubble lies is difficult, if not impossible. But given our research, we believe that a persuasive case can be made that higher education and the student loan industry are inflating a massive bubble. Trying to reform this bubble before it explodes should become a priority for lawmakers.

Here are the facts. In an effort to increase access to higher education, the government has been lavishing financial aid on students. The largest of these subsidies are the loan programs (primarily the federal direct and guaranteed loan programs, Perkins and PLUS), which accounted for just under 70 percent of all federal financial aid last year, according to the College Board. But there is reason to believe that these subsidies do not achieve their goal due to an unintended consequence, specifically, the incentive the subsidies give to colleges to increase their tuition.

Most government subsidies lead to lower prices for consumers, as profit-maximizing businesses expand production to satisfy the higher demand that subsidies bring about. This is not the case with student loans in higher education, however, because the field is dominated by public and nonprofit institutions that seek to maximize the prestige of their institutions, not their profitability. Admitting more students (expanding production) will, other things equal, lower the quality of students admitted, and therefore reduce the prestige of the institution, which is precisely why many schools are willing to forgo the business of many potential customers. The best schools turned away more than 90 percent of applicants this year. Raising the demand for higher education through more student financial aid does not increase enrollments a lot.

To make matters worse, there is very little information available about the actual output of colleges (what and how much students learn). Without this information, it is difficult to conduct a cost benefit analysis of going to college, let alone compare various schools. Without a measure of output to prove otherwise, high tuition charges are sometimes seen by students and their parents as indicating high quality of a school, meaning that outrageous prices do not necessarily scare students away.

So what does increasing loans for students accomplish? Just put yourself in the shoes of a college administrator to find out. The 61 percent increase in inflation-adjusted federal loans over the last decade leaves virtually all their students capable of paying more in tuition. The schools can either raise tuition, using the additional money to help build a better (more prestigious) college , or could leave tuition unchanged in an inflation-adjusted sense. The decision they made is obvious from U.S. Department of Education data. Over the last 10 years, after adjusting for inflation, tuition is up 48% at public schools and 24% at private schools.

Giving schools more money to build better institutions may not seem like a bad idea, but keep in mind that their goal is to increase prestige. This means that they will not necessarily use the money to improve the education their students receive. For example, Inside Higher Ed recently reported that less than half of employees at America’s institutions of higher education are faculty, information reinforced by a new study released this week. Today’s universities are congested with vast bureaucracies that stifle innovation and waste resources. Princeton University recently constructed a fancy dorm that cost $70,000 more per bed than the median home price. This unnecessary largess should show that what increases prestige may have very little effect on the education of students. Moreover, much of the extra money for schools ultimately comes from the students, who have seen the average debt upon graduation steadily increase to over $20,000 last year.

The analogy to the housing bubble is nearly perfect. Low interest rates arising from expansionary Federal Reserve policies led to rising housing demand, rising home prices, and excessive lending to individuals with dubious credit worthiness. Similar things have happened with student loans. The federal government has provided subsidized, low interest credit, often to students whose prospects for graduating from college are marginal and whose credit histories are non-existent. Student loan defaults are rising along with tuition fees. Already, some private lenders are exiting the market and federal officials are starting to become increasingly worried about the availability of student loans. The government-induced housing bubble is paralleled by what could be thought of as a tuition-loan bubble.

Even if the bubble is beginning to peak, we think that it has a long ways to go before it reaches crisis stage. Remember, it took us almost three years from the apex of the housing boom to today’s sad state of affairs. And it’s entirely possible that we may never hit that point in the student loan-tuition bubble.

Nevertheless, we think it would be wise for policy makers to seriously examine the dysfunctional system of student loans and tuition now and start recommending broad, fundamental reforms to solve this problem before it gets worse -- possibly a lot worse. The underlying long-run solution, of course, involves reining in the excessive rise in college costs.

Short term, rather than simply engaging in a costly bail out of loan providers and borrowers (seemingly the solution of President Bush and Congress), maybe we should move to new methods of financing, such as students selling “equity” (a share in future earnings) in themselves to newly created human venture capital funds in return for funds for schooling. Maybe affluent colleges should lead the way in doing this, using their own endowment funds as the financing vehicle. And, to be politically incorrect for a moment, if some students are denied funding this fall because of the lending risks involved, this is not the end of the world, since many who borrow for college fail to graduate anyway. Remember, in 2005, you were thought the fool if you warned somebody about the risks of a no-money down mortgage with an ARM. Housing prices would rise from now until the end of time, or so we were told.

We now know the fallacy of that thinking. Let’s make a real effort to avoid the same mistakes for the students and families who pay tuition bills.


Richard Vedder and Andrew Gillen are, respectively, Director and Research Director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. A full version of a report comparing the housing bubble to the tuition bubble can be found on the center's Web site.


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