Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Trillion in Tuition

With an overwhelming number of topics for discussion these days, I find myself running into information overload on what to write about (a form of writer's block= too much out there!).  I have a new simplistic way of organizing whether an issue is newsworthy:  pay attention when the number associated with the issue has a "T" next to it..."T" like TRILLION. In 2002, I worked for Deutsche Bank and I remember we celebrated being the first European bank to have assets over $1 Trillion Euros. Back then it was a huge deal. 

Today, it is the prioritization "line in the sand" for politicians, economists, and journalists trying to deal with issues that matter. Numbers that have a "T" next to them include:  bailouts, Federal Reserve money printing, US National Debt owned by foreigners, pension shortfalls, municipal liabilities, household debt, etc.  The item I would like to discuss today, however, is college debt.  This number, according to Alan Collinge from StudentLoanJustice.org, is nearing the $1 Trillion mark.  While Americans have tightened their belts, reduced some frivolous spending, and gone back to school to help their candidacy for employment, college debt has surpassed credit card debt! No small feat!  

I have seen tons of articles about the topic of higher education recently and wrote a little note about it a few months ago (Creative Economy).  There are a couple things I would like to share about why people should be paying attention.  Why is the government pushing us so hard to go to college and offering us financing at terms that appear too good to be true?  Well, it is one of the ways to get people under the proverbial "thumb" of Uncle Sam. These loans do not go away, the interest rates will go up, and the government is behind 90% of them.  "Take out a loan, go back to school...help our collective brain trust get smarter...lets show countries around the world that our education standards are the highest...Asians go to school 8 days a week, we have to step it up!" It seems logical to me.  After the housing bust, the government needs to somewhat modify the American dream.  What is the 2nd most expensive asset we buy, something we are told we cannot live without, and something the government can easily offer to us?  A COLLEGE DEGREE.

The competition is fierce.
No wonder this debt is piling up and the cost of college is rising at its fastest pace ever.  It is a way to balance the debtor-creditor relationship – if the students owe the government a trillion and the government owes China and Japan a trillion…hmmm.  Get the students to owe us more and then our national debts will not look so bad.  Follow me?  Some public universities are seeing double digit increases in tuition each year (LINK).  As you extrapolate those increases you will see why new parents have to start paying attention…TODAY!  Here is a helpful website (College Tuition Calculator) for all of the parents out there who plan on seeing their children go to 4 year universities.  If you want to be spared from doing the work, here is a theoretical scenario of a newborn:

-Current school tuition/room and board annual cost:  $20,000
-Years until college: 17
-Number of years attending the university: 4
-Expected annual tuition increases over the next 17 years:  6%
-Expected annual returns on investment for savings account: 2%


-Monthly savings required today in order to pay this amount once college begins: $939 (based on the 2% savings rate of return) (the math on these numbers)

Add a couple kids to the equation and you can see how this is becomes a monstrous problem quickly.  The sheer notional size of the numbers is staggering; that is not the only shocking part.  I found some other interesting "features" about student loans that I am willing to bet not everyone was aware of.  Student loan debts are precluded from the following protections that apply to traditional consumer debt (mortgage, credit card):

1.)  Bankruptcy protection (you go bankrupt and your student debts are NOT erased)
2.)  The right to refinance (government loans cannot be refinanced though private loans can)
3.)  Fair debt & collection practices (they can garnish disability and call you at odd hours)
4.)  Adherence to usury laws (interest rates have no limit)
5.)  Truth in lending requirements (disclosures can be vague)
6.)  Statutes of limitations (time does not run out on how long they can come after you)

(Source: Default-Student Loan Documentary)

I was surprised to find this was the case for college loans...then I thought about it for a second… then I was not surprised.  Either college will have to become more affordable or we better start saving now.  Either way the government is incentivized to make college more expensive.  You owe them more and they get to tip the terms on the debt in their favor.  At the end of the day, we do not want every kid in America trying to become the next Lebron James. Of course bailing out on college wasn't the worst bet for Henry Ford, Michael Dell, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, but they may be the exception.  Is meritocracy and mentorship the answer?  If someone can get the job done without the degree, then they should not be viewed any differently.  For example, I am spending a year traveling, getting my version of a post-graduate degree in global entrepreneurship from the college of “the world.”  Should that not count as legitimate education?