Friday, August 10, 2012
NPR's Planet Money has a story on interplay between higher college and university tuition and changes in financial aid. As shown in the graphic below (from the College Board), the federal government is assuming a larger role in finaning higher education. Every other source of funding is shrinking its a proportionate contribution to financial aid. Despite favorable bankruptcy laws enacted in 2005, the federal takeover of higher ed financing has almost completely muscled out the private lenders.
"At this juncture . . . the impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime markets seems likely to be contained" - March 28, 2007.
Two days ago, Bernanke said:
"I don’t think student loans are a financial stability issue to the same extent that, say, mortgage debt was in the last crisis because most of it is held not by financial institutions but by the federal government" - August 7, 2012
Now take a look at the federal government's holding of consumer debt (overwhelmingly student debt that has piled up since the 2010 legislation). See Henderson & Zahorsky, The Law School Bubble, ABA Journal (Jan. 2012).
Student loans are viewed as "assets" by the federal government ... until they become uncollectable, in which case the value of the assets eventually has to be adjusted through write-downs, just like mortgages in the mortgage crisis. Extensive use of Income-Based Repayment makes it possible for a student loan to be simultaneously uncollectable but not in default.
Folks, I am an unapologetic New Deal Democrat. But the current "system" of federal higher education financing is near perfect insanity. We set tuition and, no questions asked, the federal government writes us checks in exact proportion to students' willingness to sign loan papers. For young people who have never worked, it is all like Monopoly money.
The only way the math works is if the real earnings go up en masse for virtually all college and professional school graduates. In a rapidly globalizing world in which our students are competing against Chinese and Indian professionals, the assumption of mass rising real incomes is implausible. See, e.g., views of economist Alan Blinder in this NPR article.
Right now we--higher ed and the nation as a whole--are maintaining the illusion of prosperity through debt financing heaped on naive young people. This is immoral in the extreme. Moreover, in the long run, it is economic and political ruination.
The only long term solution is cost containment imposed on higher ed by reforming the terms of federal financing. The financing has to incentivize educational productivity -- i.e., fewer tuition dollars expended to obtain better skills and learning as measured by marketplace earnings and innovation. No more $100,000 checks from the federal government for sorting students by standardized test scores. Our graduates will actually have to think, collaborate, communicate and problem-solve at a very high level. How many of my fellow law professors grasp the depth of our problems? Not enough.
[Posted by Bill Henderson]