Monday, September 16, 2019

"Arrogant Bastards": Higher education leaders oppose Democrats' proposal for free college

College tuition has risen faster than the rate of inflation for the past quarter-century. While wages have remained stagnant, the cost of going to college has shot through the roof. According to Forbes writer Camilo Maldonado, tuition rose 8 times faster than wage growth during the years 1989 to 2016. Eight times faster!

Why? The colleges say they are forced to raise tuition rates because the states are providing less support for higher education. But this lame explanation--repeated ad nauseam--is mostly bullshit. The colleges don't mention the explosion in administrative positions-the profusion of assistant vice presidents, executive associate deans, etc. It is not uncommon for senior administrators at public and private universities to draw salaries that exceed a quarter-million dollars a year.

In any event, everyone agrees that rising tuition costs have forced millions of American students to take out student loans, which now total $1.6 trillion. Something must be done to alleviate the distress.

Several Democratic candidates for the presidency have proposed making college education free at all public colleges and universities. You would think the higher education community would love that idea. But it doesn't. Vassar president Catharine Hill criticized Bernie Sanders's free-college idea when he ran for president in 2016. Her lame-brained solution was to expand long-term income-based repayment plans. And that's basically what we've done--creating repayment plans deliberately structured so that students can never pay off their college loans.

Now we are in the early stages of the 2020 presidential election season, and more Democratic hopefuls have joined Bernie in proposing a free college education for everyone. Senators  Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand (who recently dropped out of the presidential race) have all endorsed a free-college proposal.

But the higher education community still opposes the idea. Just a few days ago, Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, published an op-ed essay in Chronicle of Higher Education, in which he cited a couple of liberal tropes to justify his opposition to free college.

A free college education would hurt low-income students, Rosenberg argues, because they would be "squeezed out" in the application process that would become more competitive if tuition were free. And he also contends that free college would exacerbate the nation's already low graduation rate.

Huh? How could free college be bad for low-income students? How could it make graduation rates go down?

Mr. Rosenberg is the president of Macalester College, a very good liberal-arts school in Minnesota, but he does not mention that free college at public institutions would severely disadvantage the private colleges. Who would pay $54,000 a year in tuition and fees to attend Macalester College if they could enroll at the University of Minnesota tuition-free?

I am not labeling Mr. Rosenberg an "arrogant bastard." I'm sure his arguments against free college are sincere and his commitment to private liberal-arts education is genuine. But a great many university presidents and higher-education policy wonks are arrogant bastards.  They want to preserve the status quo in higher education, with the federal government spewing more than a $100 billion a year to support the present system. The status quo works just fine for them.

How many elite-college presidents have come out in favor of a free college education? I don't think any of them have. Unlike Mr. Rosenberg, most college leaders are keeping silent about their qualms, but rest assured they will fight tooth and nail if a Democrat is elected President and tries to get a free-college plan through Congress.

Meanwhile, I don't think any of these arrogant bastards have lifted a finger to ease the student-debt crisis.  That's why I call them arrogant bastards.

Macalester College: $54,000 in tuition and fees
(the bagpipe music is complimentary)



Thursday, September 12, 2019

Overbuilt "luxury" student housing: Speculators are turning university towns into slums

The Commercial Observer ran a story a few days ago about a financial crisis in the so-called luxury student-housing market. As reported by Matt Grossman, the default rate in this niche of the securitized real-estate market has gone up dramatically in recent years and now stands at15.3 percent. That's 60 percent higher than the default rate just eight months ago when it was 9 percent.

Luxury student-housing became a hot new investment sector a few years ago. Speculators built thousands of student-housing units in college towns all over the United States.  These units included features to attract college students--swimming pools, basketball courts, tanning beds, and fitness centers. Rents were high--over $1,000 a month. But parents often co-signed the leases, and many students paid their rent with student-loan money.

After the new complexes were rented up and began showing positive cash flow, the speculators packaged them into mortgage-backed securities and sold them to investment pools--pension funds, hedge funds, and other institutional investors.

But the speculators built too many luxury student apartments. College students--a notoriously fickle bunch--tended to move out of older units to take up residence in swankier new digs. Vacancy rates spiked upward in the older buildings, the new owners found themselves unable to service their mortgages, and now many of these so-called luxury apartment buildings are going into default.

How did this happen? First, as I have said, these luxury apartments were overbuilt by speculators; and the speculators simply did not care. They had no local ties to the college towns. Their plan was to sell the units quickly while they were still new, take their profits, and move on to the next investment.

Moreover, most of this so-called luxury student housing is not luxury housing at all. It's just new housing. If you go inside one of these apartments, you will likely find plastic interior doors, cabinets made out of particle board rather than wood, and cheap appliances and amenities.

And now--in the space of just a few years--universities all over America are ringed by aging apartment complexes, many of which have gone into default. As the buildings decay, rents are slashed, maintenance is deferred, and before long these so-called luxury apartment buildings become slums.

I see this tragedy unfolding in my own neighborhood, where thousands of apartment buildings have been thrown up in the flood plain near Louisiana State University. But you can see this phenomenon in almost any town with a major university.

Everybody knows that the federal student-loan program has created millions of paupers, people who have amassed so much student debt that they will never pay it off. Even Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has acknowledged this calamity.

But the federal student-loan program has also contributed to an environmental crisis--the emergence of slum housing around America's colleges and universities. The glut in student housing is at least partly attributable to the federal student loan program, which allowed students to rent luxury apartments with borrowed money

 If you want to see an example of this crisis, drive through the Tigerland neighborhood, a jumble of old apartment buildings originally built for students near LSU in Baton Rouge.

Parts of Tigerland are now a serious slum where you would not want to live if you were a college student.  And not far away, new apartments are still being built--Tigerlands in the making in just a few years.



Sunday, September 8, 2019

Wall Street Journal decries "The Great Student-Loan Scam": But the flimflam is even worse than WSJ describes

Last month, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled "The Great Student-Loan Scam," in which the newspaper excoriated the Obama administration for the way it handled the federal student loan program. According to WSJ, Democrats "nationalized" the student-loan market in 2010 to help pay for Obamacare.  Eliminating private lenders, Democrats said, would save taxpayers money.

Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office treated the federal student-loan program as a profit center during the Obama years by projecting that it would actually make money. Remember when Senator Elizabeth Warren accused the program of raking in "obscene" profits?

But of course, the student-loan program is not a profit center. It's been bleeding red ink for years.  The Obama administration's generous income-based repayment plans (PAYE and REPAYE) were touted as compassionate programs to relieve overburdened student borrowers and keep them out of default. But the plans were structured so that most borrowers aren't paying down the principal of their loans.

As one Obama-era advisor recently admitted, "There will be substantial amounts of student debt that will never be repaid." Oh, yeah. Most of it will never be repaid.

In fact, the student-loan crisis is worse than the Wall Street Journal characterized it. A Brookings Institution report, issued several years ago, projected that almost half of all student loans taken out to attend for-profit colleges would be in default within five years after entering repayment.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, of all people, candidly acknowledged how bad the situation is last November.  "[O]nly 24 percent of FSA borrowers--one in four--are currently paying down both principal and interest," DeVos said in a speech. Almost 20 percent of borrowers are delinquent on their loans or in default. And, by DeVos's calculations, 43 percent of all outstanding loans "are in distress" (whatever that means).

 Unfortunately, although DeVos is honest about the scope of the student-loan crisis, she is doing all the wrong things. DeVos's DOE bungled the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, rejecting 99 percent of the initial applications for debt relief. And just a few days ago, the Education Department issued new regulations that make it more difficult for student borrowers to bring fraud claims against for-profit colleges.

In short, the Wall Street Journal accurately labeled the federal student-loan program as "the great student-loan scam." But the program is much worse than that. About 45 million Americans hold a combined total of $1.6 trillion in federal student loans, and at least half of those people will carry their student-loan debt to their graves. Yes, the federal student-loan program is more than a giant scam, it's a national catastrophe.