Is it possible that higher education might be the next bubble to burst? Some early warnings suggest that it could be.
With tuitions, fees, and room and board at dozens of colleges now reaching $50,000 a year, the ability to sustain private higher education for all but the very well-heeled is questionable. According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, over the past 25 years, average college tuition and fees have risen by 440 percent — more than four times the rate of inflation and almost twice the rate of medical care. Patrick M. Callan, the center’s president, has warned that low-income students will find college unaffordable.
Meanwhile, the middle class, which has paid for higher education in the past mainly by taking out loans, may now be precluded from doing so as the private student-loan market has all but dried up.
The analogy to the housing bubble is certainly tempting. Pell grants and Stafford Loans are to Colleges what Fannie and Freddie are to housing. It is undeniable that easy access to credit fueled rises in tuition. It is not a stretch to think of these loan programs as essentially subsidies to Universities as they raise tuition dollar for every dollar of loans that are essentially forgiven.
But the analogy doesn’t go any farther than that. There is no speculation fueling demand for higher education. There is a permanent and measurable difference in earnings for college graduates. There will continue to be a robust market for credit to students because, to borrow a phrase, consumption wants to be smoothed. And unlike subsidized loans for housing, there is a real externality that justifies continued federal presence in the student loan market.