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8 Reasons College Tuition Is the Next Bubble to Burst

Money, News

Tuition has been increasing at such an alarming rate that some say we’re witnessing yet another bubble in America — this time not in the stock market or in housing, but in college tuition.

Stephen Burd, of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, explains in this interview how federal student loans became non dischargeable in bankruptcy in 1998, and then private loans became non dischargeable as well in 2005.  Taken together, these laws mean that students who are overpaying for degrees now with borrowed money will suffer the consequences for life.

Here are 8 reasons to believe we’re in the middle of a college tuition bubble (that’s about to burst).

1) Tuition is, and has been, increasing at double triple the rate of inflation

On average, college tuition increases at around 8 percent per year, which means the cost of college doubles every nine years.  Because colleges know that students will simply borrow more money to cover tuition increases, colleges have been relying on steady tuition hikes to solve all of their money problems.  If this continues a college degree will soon cost as much as a house.

2) Students are borrowing more than ever to pay for college

The number of college students graduating with over $25,000 in student loan debt has tripled in the past decade alone.  Today, 66% of students borrow to pay for college, taking on an average of $23,165 in debt.  Twelve years ago, 58% borrowed to pay for college, taking on only $13,172 in debt.

3) For profit colleges are paying homeless people to take out federal loans to enroll

Because student loans are so easy to acquire, enterprising colleges are paying homeless people to enroll.  The math makes sense when you think about it: if paying someone a $2,000 “stipend” gets the college $20,000/year in tuition courtesy of the federal government, that’s money well spent.  Unfortunately, many people who accept such “stipend” offers never graduate, become overwhelmed with student debt, and destroy their already bad financial records.

4) Colleges are on a non-teaching staff hiring spree that far outpaces enrollment

Why hire a full-time professor when you can hire an “environmental sustainability officer”?  According to the a New York Times article, over the past two decades colleges have doubled their non-teaching staff, while enrollment has only increased by 40%.  Often times staff members have exotic duties like monitoring environmental sustainability, or their focus is on student “lifestyle.”  Economist Daniel Bennett, who conducted this study, says “Universities and colleges are catering more to students, trying to make college a lifestyle, not just people getting an education. There’s more social programs, more athletics, more trainers, more sustainable environmental programs.”  Of course, much this exotic hiring and lifestyle catering is made possible by student loan money.

5) For profit reliance on federal loans has reached an all time high

According to Bloomberg, publicly traded higher education companies derive three-fourths of their revenue from federal funds, up from just 48 percent in 2001 and approaching the 90 percent limit set by federal law.  The fact that colleges are almost completely relying on borrowed money to finance tuition, up to the legal limit, means we’ve almost hit the breaking point.  If not for the easy student loan money sloshing around, many colleges would go belly up tomorrow.

6) Schools are spending on luxurious amenities to lure in more students

Flush with student loan money and wanting to attract even more, colleges are increasingly spending on luxury dorms, gyms, swimming pools and other amenities.

Freakonomics author Stephen Dubner noted that when he went back to his college, a chancellor told him that “[the gym] was a top priority because parents and prospective students increasingly think of themselves as customers, shopping for the most amenities for the best price, and the colleges that didn’t come to grips with this would soon see their customers going elsewhere.”  But gyms are just the tip of the iceberg.  At High Point University in North Carolina, students are treated to valet parking, live music in the cafeteria and Starbucks gift cards on their birthdays.

7) College president salaries are sky high, even in a historical economic downturn

USA Today reported that 23 Private College Presidents Made More Than $1 Million in 2008, while 110 made more than $500,000.  In case you were wondering, this is not the norm — as recently as 2002, there were no million-dollar presidents.  And it’s no wonder the college administrator gravy train continues despite the down economy.  After all, when your “customers” have easy access to credit and pay you with money they don’t have, the economy doesn’t really matter, does it?

8) The student loan problem cuts across all schools, for profit and nonprofit

Often times the discussion about high tuition leads to a flogging of for profit colleges.  And while for profit colleges are often the worst about shamelessly fattening themselves at the trough of student loans, it’s not a for profit vs. non profit issue. In fact, for profit colleges account for less than half of student loan defaults.  Nor is the issue one of “good colleges” vs. “bad colleges.”  As this New York Times article illustrates, even students at prestigious non-profit schools like NYU can find themselves in financially ruinous circumstances because of their student loans.

Whose fault is this?

The federal government for making student loans non dischargeable in bankruptcy and loosening lending standards? State governments for refusing to directly fund higher education?  Schools for taking advantage of students and relying too much on tuition increases? Lenders for handing out student loans like candy? Students for borrowing money like there’s no tomorrow?

One thing is for sure, things cannot continue as they are, regardless of how we got to this point.  The housing bubble gave America a hard lesson in what happens when loose credit leads to unsustainable prices.  But unlike the housing bubble, in which foreclosure and bankruptcy allowed people to have a fresh start, the college tuition bubble will haunt young people for life unless bankruptcy laws change.