Student Debt: A Bubble More Like a Balloon

By / 3.7.2013

There is an intense debate as to whether the student debt crisis is a bubble or not. The short answer: yes, but it’s more like a balloon. And the good thing about balloons is that they don’t have to burst; there is an option to deflate them slowly.

In some ways the ongoing student debt crisis has the classic symptoms of a bubble. There is an artificial inflation of value (here, tuition) that is in part fueled by low-cost funding (here, government-issued student aid). The latest Federal Reserve numbers show student debt is now a staggering $1 trillion and climbing. Yet the real earnings of young college grads are falling, down 15 percent since 2000. Already student loan defaults are at 11 percent and rising. Moreover, the true default rate is actually higher because of post-graduation grace periods. Not surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that student loan debt is now crowding out other borrowing and spending.

In other ways the student debt crisis is different—potentially worse—than the typical financial bubble. First, student debt is uncollateralized. There’s no home or property that can be reclaimed in default. Second, student debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, or restructured to meet the repayment ability of struggling debt owners. And most importantly, the majority (85 percent) of student debt is owned by the government. That means taxpayers are directly on the hook for $850 billion in potential losses. Worse, the government doesn’t really have the option to cut back on loan issuances or raise interest rates because that would go against equal access and opportunity.

The fact that the government holds the majority of student debt is what could transform this bubble into a controlled balloon—a balloon that can be deflated slowly. We know where most student debt is; it is not as spread out across unknown entities like subprime mortgage debt.

This week we released a preliminary proposal for the creation of private-sector student debt investment fund (SDIF) that would purchase existing student loans, refinance the debt at today’s historically low interest rates, and apply a discount to the loan amount. This could be the release valve that deflates the balloon, by reducing the financial burden to debt holders and transferring risk. That could free up government resources to address another important issue—rising tuition.