Sunday, March 15, 2020

Coronavirus and the College Meltdown

If the student loan debt bubble blow ups in coming months, it will be because the US economy had been seriously compromised for decades. 

The College Meltdown continues in 2020. This phenomenon is deeper than the coronavirus, the temporary closing of campuses across the US, and the cancellation of NCAA basketball's March Madness. What we are seeing in the news should be a smaller entry in the History of American Higher Education compared to larger trends and social problems that preceded the pandemic.

College and university enrollment has been declining slowly but constantly since 2011, with for-profit colleges and community colleges taking the largest hits. And it follows larger demographic trends which include a half century of increasing inequality, including "savage inequalities" in the K-12 pipeline, crushing student loan debt, decreasing social mobility and the underemployment of college graduates, smaller families, and the hollowing out of America.

Spending on college is also an increasingly risky decision for working families.

A larger enrollment decline is projected for 2026, a ripple effect of the Great Recession of 2008. With fewer younger people to attend college, this "enrollment cliff" could amount to a 15 percent drop in a single year.

There are many parts to the current Coronavirus crisis and its effects on US higher education. But they all boil down to the Trump mantra (defund, deregulate, and privatize) and the opportunity for the elites to capitalize from the crisis, as they did during and after the Great Recession.

[Image below from Wikipedia. Higher education in the US has increasingly relied on for-profit mechanisms for growth and revenues. This includes privatized housing and services and for-profit Online Program Managers (OPMs).]

Higher education is a small but significant part of the US economy, which includes much larger sectors like Health Care and Finance. While the working class will not get bailed out, these sectors likely will, with the sudden crisis used as a rationalization. The crisis of crushing student loan debt and the much larger problems related to 50 years of growing inequality may be more disruptive in the long run, but these matters continue to be ignored.

Whether the next President is Donald Trump or Joe Biden, things could get worse for working families, unless there is mass resistance--right now I don't see that happening. For the moment, many young people are responding by living with family, not going to college, and delaying child bearing. Those who do get an education are also making economic sacrifices. Some, for example are selling their bodies as Sugar Babies to get through school.

Many state economies also look bleak in the near future. Not enough in revenues and increasing Medicaid costs make investments in education difficult to do without increasing taxes or state-level debt. And it's not likely that the wealthy will be willing to pay their fair share, unless they feel economically threatened. If that happens, rich companies and rich people can just move out of state or out of the country.

Higher Education and the Student Loan Mess

In October 2019, Trump Department of Education official Wayne Johnson resigned, recognizing that student loan debt mess was worse than anyone had imagined. US higher education enrollment is supposed to be countercyclical (improving when the economy drops) , but don't bet on it without government help.

Haven't heard any rumors in months, but it should also be interesting to see if President Trump tries to unload the $1.5T in federal loans to his banking friends using an executive order. McKinsey & Company have been tasked to determine the possibilities of such a maneuver, but there is radio silence on that front.

In the education sector, I'm watching student loan servicers and private lenders Sallie Mae (SLM), Navient (NAVI), and Nelnet (NNI) closely. Student Loan Asset-Backed Securities (also known as SLABS) are also worthy of scrutiny given the low rates of student loan repayment.

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