Author Topic: Are Student Loans an Impending Bubble? Is Higher Education a Scam?  (Read 1843 times)

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Offline Campus Dakota

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Below are excerpts from an article on higher education and an argument that higher education may be a scam.  Essentially, the article points out that student debt is now the number one form of debt and is quickly approaching 1 trillion dollars.  Additionally, the article discusses the increasing debt load, increasing default rates, and inability for students to manage the vast amounts of debt. 

The article points out that since 1978 tuition rates have increased over 900 percent, 650 points above inflation.  The increase in tuition is not funding instruction, instead it funds sports facilities, recreation, and other 'perks' at colleges and universities.  Furthermore, the article describes that universities are becoming more business like and very top heavy with too many administrators, many making six figure or even seven figure incomes.

Finally, the article describes other factors that play into this crisis and what the outcomes could be.  I recommend reading though some of the excerpts below (note: the bolded excerpts are my emphasis) and the entire article.

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Are Student Loans an Impending Bubble? Is Higher Education a Scam?
Posted by Larry Doyle

What did we experience in the sub-prime housing debacle?

1. Shoddy underwriting standards for borrowers.
2. A massively flawed system promoted and perpetuated by the Wall Street securitization business.
3. Borrowers overleveraged leading to skyrocketing rates of foreclosures and defaults.
4. A mentality that housing finance could promote a real social benefit and a profitable enterprise.
5. A government backstop and ultimate bailout for investors.
6. An ultimate fiasco for our society as a whole.

Have we learned our lessons from the sub-prime housing nightmare? Could we possibly be going down the same path in another segment of our economy? Yesterday a reader inquired if I had addressed the potential impending fiasco in student loans. I discussed the cost of higher education with my better half this morning. Will our economy be able to generate both the jobs and income levels for students to manage their increasing levels of indebtedness?

The reader piqued my interest and with props to our friends at eWallstreeter, I came across a recently released fabulous expose on the state of student lending in higher education in a publication, n +1, entitled Bad Education. (This review is a little lengthy but for those with a passing interest in this topic this article encompasses a tremendous wealth of detailed ‘sense on cents’. I am compelled to run it in its entirety. I encourage you to save and revisit this piece if need be. You will be glad you did. n+ 1 deserves major credit for writing such a fabulous piece.)

I am a huge proponent of the need for quality education in our nation. That said, as this expose reveals there are MANY serious problems, conflicts of interest, and assorted other issues in higher education today. A racket, you might ask? Yes, in a manner of speaking, there are certainly elements of a racket within higher education today. Let’s navigate.

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The Project On Student Debt estimates that the average college senior in 2009 graduated with $24,000 in outstanding loans. Last August, student loans surpassed credit cards as the nation’s largest single largest source of debt, edging ever closer to $1 trillion. Yet for all the moralizing about American consumer debt by both parties, no one dares call higher education a bad investment. The nearly axiomatic good of a university degree in American society has allowed a higher education bubble to expand to the point of bursting.

Since 1978, the price of tuition at US colleges has increased over 900 percent, 650 points above inflation. To put that number in perspective, housing prices, the bubble that nearly burst the US economy, then the global one, increased only fifty points above the Consumer Price Index during those years. But while college applicants’ faith in the value of higher education has only increased, employers’ has declined. According to Richard Rothstein at The Economic Policy Institute, wages for college-educated workers outside of the inflated finance industry have stagnated or diminished. Unemployment has hit recent graduates especially hard, nearly doubling in the post-2007 recession. The result is that the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt.

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?

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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.

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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.

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Higher education seems an unlikely site for this kind of speculative bubble. While housing prices are based on what competing buyers are willing to pay, postsecondary education’s price is supposedly linked to its costs (with the exception of the for-profits). But the rapid growth in tuition is mystifying in value terms; no one could argue convincingly the quality of instruction or the market value of a degree has increased ten-fold in the past four decades (though this hasn’t stopped some from trying). So why would universities raise tuition so high so quickly? “Because they can” answers this question for home-sellers out to get the biggest return on their investments, or for-profits out to grab as much Pell Grant money as possible, but it seems an awfully cynical answer when it comes to nonprofit education.

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First, where the money hasn’t gone: instruction. As Marc Bousquet, a leading researcher into the changing structures of higher education, wrote in How The University Works (2008):

If you’re enrolled in four college classes right now, you have a pretty good chance that one of the four will be taught by someone who has earned a doctorate and whose teaching, scholarship, and service to the profession has undergone the intensive peer scrutiny associated with the tenure system. In your other three classes, however, you are likely to be taught by someone who has started a degree but not finished it; was hired by a manager, not professional peers; may never publish in the field she is teaching; got into the pool of persons being considered for the job because she was willing to work for wages around the official poverty line (often under the delusion that she could ‘work her way into’ a tenurable position); and does not plan to be working at your institution three years from now.

This is not an improvement; fewer than forty years ago, when the explosive growth in tuition began, these proportions were reversed. Highly represented among the new precarious teachers are graduate students; with so much available debt, universities can force graduate student workers to scrape by on sub-minimum-wage, making them a great source of cheap instructional labor. Fewer tenure-track jobs mean that recent PhDs, overwhelmed with debt,  have no choice but to accept insecure adjunct positions with wages kept down by the new crop of graduate student-workers. Rather than producing a better-trained, more professional teaching corps, increased tuition and debt have enabled the opposite.

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If overfed teachers aren’t the causes or beneficiaries of increased tuition (as they’ve been depicted of late), then perhaps it’s worth looking up the food chain. As faculty jobs have become increasingly contingent and precarious, administration has become anything but. Formerly, administrators were more or less teachers with added responsibilities; nowadays, they function more like standard corporate managers—and they’re paid like them too. Once a few entrepreneurial schools made this switch, market pressures compelled the rest to follow the high-revenue model, which leads directly to high salaries for in-demand administrators. Even at nonprofit schools, top-level administrators and financial managers pull down six- and seven-figure salaries, more on par with their industry counterparts than with their fellow faculty members. And while the proportion of tenure-track teaching faculty has dwindled, the number of managers has skyrocketed in both relative and absolute terms. If current trends continue, the Department of Education estimates that by 2014 there will be more administrators than instructors at American four-year nonprofit colleges. A bigger administration also consumes a larger portion of available funds, so it’s unsurprising that budget shares for instruction and student services have dipped over the past fifteen years.

When you hire corporate managers, you get managed like a corporation, and the race for tuition dollars and grants from government and private partnerships has become the driving objective of the contemporary university administration. The goal for large state universities and elite private colleges alike has ceased to be (if it ever was) building well-educated citizens, now they hardly even bother to prepare students to assume their places among the ruling class. Instead we have, in Bousquet’s words, “the entrepreneurial urges, vanity, and hobbyhorses of administrators: Digitize the curriculum! Build the best pool/golf course/stadium in the state! Bring more souls to God! Win the all-conference championship!” These expensive projects are all part of another cycle: corporate universities must be competitive in recruiting students who may become rich alumni, so they have to spend on attractive extras, which means they need more revenue, so they need more students paying higher tuition. For-profits aren’t the only ones consumed with selling product. And if a humanities program can’t demonstrate its economic utility to its institution (which can’t afford to haul “dead weight”) and students (who understand the need for marketable degrees), then it faces cuts, the neoliberal management technique par excellence. Students apparently have received the message loud and clear, as business has quickly become the nation’s most popular major.

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If tuition has increased astronomically and the portion of money spent on instruction and student services has fallen, if the (at very least comparative) market value of a degree has dipped and most students can no longer afford to enjoy college as a period of intellectual adventure, then at least one more thing is clear: higher education, for-profit or not, has increasingly become a scam.

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Before 2005, students could use bankruptcy to escape education loans that weren’t provided directly by the federal government, but the facetiously named “Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act” extended non-dischargeability to all education loans, even credit cards used to pay school bills.

Today, student debt is a exceptionally punishing kind to have. Not only is it inescapable through bankruptcy, but student loans have no expiration date and collectors can garnish wages, social security payments, and even unemployment benefits. When a borrower defaults and the guaranty agency collects from the federal government, the agency gets a cut of whatever it’s able to recover from then on (even though they have already been compensated for the losses), giving agencies a financial incentive to dog former students to the grave.

When the housing bubble collapsed, the results (relatively good for most investors, bad for the government, worse for homeowners) were predictable but not foreordained. With the student-loan bubble, the resolution is much the same, and it’s decided in advance.

In addition to the billions colleges have spent on advertising, sports programs, campus aesthetics, and marketable luxuries, they’ve benefited from a public discourse that depicts higher education as an unmitigated social good. Since the Baby Boomers gave birth, the college degree has seemed a panacea for social ills, a metaphor for a special kind of deserved success. We still tell fairy tales about escapes from the ghetto to the classroom or the short path from graduation to lifelong satisfaction, not to mention America’s collective college success story: The G.I. Bill. But these narratives are not inspiring true-life models, they’re advertising copy, and they come complete with loan forms.

The full article can be read at http://www.senseoncents.com/2011/04/are-student-loans-an-impending-bubble-is-higher-education-a-scam/

What can we do about this growing problem?  Do colleges and universities need to scale back?  Do we need a major reform and refocus?  Post your thoughts below.

 

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