Penn State Pricks the Student Loan Bubble

A month ago, at an investment conference in Baltimore, my colleague Eric Fry asked if I think there’s another “bubble” out there that’s going to pop. My reply was that I believe the “education” bubble is destined for doom. It’ll be just one more thing to smack down the US economy, and makes for another reason — as if we need more — to hold precious metals as portfolio protection.

In the US, there’s over $1 trillion of “student loan” debt on the books. This is money that people borrowed from banks and government agencies (Sallie Mae comes to mind). The funds flowed through the “education” landscape and cash flow mills, paying for faculty, administrators, buildings, overhead and much else.

This gusher of student loan money over the past two generations (!) has been a key factor — THE key factor — in the super-inflation of the cost of education. That is, the more money that goes for loans and grants, the more leeway and incentive the schools have to raise tuition and let internal costs soar.

At the student level, some people borrowed to pay the tuition at impressive universities, where they received things like medical degrees and Ph.D.s in physics. Good for them.

But at other times and places, students borrowed funds to attend school and major in things for which there’s not much of a demand in the true, competitive economic marketplace. You know what I mean, right? Courses with the word “studies” appended to the end come to mind.

How bad is the student loan situation? Currently, around 9% of student loans are “slow pay,” if not in technical default. That’s after two years of alleged economic recovery from the crash of 2008-09. To make matters worse, it’s next to impossible to discharge student debt, even in bankruptcy.

So I don’t have a warm feeling about this student debt bottomless pit.

Let’s think it through. We have a generation of young people, many of whom with sizeable student debts, along with their underwater basket weaving degrees and such. They are unable to obtain the jobs they believed their degrees would accord them.

So there’s a lot of resentment and bitterness, which I witnessed firsthand during a recent walk through the “Occupy Pittsburgh” crowd downtown. I saw a lot of protest signs concerning student debt. It’s a very raw nerve.

The bottom line is that a lot of US young people will never find suitable employment that aligns with their education. Consequently, they’ll never earn enough to repay their student loans. Yet due to the banking lobby, and how that particular cabal has gamed the legal system, the indebted young basket weavers of the nation can’t get a classic “fresh start” in bankruptcy.

Something has got to give, and I believe we’ll see some sort of crash in the student loan markets. The student debt sector has failure built into it, down to the debt-DNA.

Also along the lines of the education bubble popping, I’ve been pondering where and when the first pin would penetrate the latex. Just this week, I believe we may have seen it: The Penn State scandal.

I’ve always had a high regard for Penn State, which is one of America’s great public universities. But if you’re following the news, you’ve likely seen where Penn State President Graham Spanier and iconic football coach Joe Paterno were just fired.

Neither Messrs. Spanier nor Paterno personally committed any indecent act. But they, apparently, knew that a subordinate within the university hierarchy — within the nationally ranked football program — was totally out of line (and I’ll spare you the disgusting details on that).

In a manner reminiscent of how certain churches cover up bad acts — “for the greater benefit of the institution,” goes the excuse — Penn State never properly handled its issues. After a period of time, however, the pot boiled over. A grand jury convened, and people testified.

This week, several Penn State officials and a former high-level Penn State coach were arrested. The Pennsylvania attorney general announced a major prosecution. All around, it’s a bad time for the Nittany Lions.

Yes, this may just be an “isolated” incident of one bad guy doing something bad, and several other people sweeping the issues under the proverbial rug. But the larger story here tells another tale of how some things in the university sector have gotten just too darn big — as in “too big to fail” — until they fail.

With Penn State, we’re seeing Big Football fail, and take down Big Coaching — as in Joe Paterno. This failure is taking down Big University Management too — as in, the president of the institution.

University managements — and, I hope, their boards of trustees — across the country had better be watching the Penn State scandal and looking hard in the mirror. They had better be asking themselves the hardest questions and looking under those lumpy rugs.

This Penn State scandal is not just some issue of having an academically ineligible kid playing linebacker for a few minutes in the fourth quarter. Or even that the star quarterback “borrowed” a Corvette automobile from some car dealer who’s a major football booster.

No, when people start to dissect this Penn State thing, they’ll have to follow the money. At Penn State, Big Football meant Big Money, and it spawned an entire culture that affected everything — permeating the overall university culture.

And while people are dissecting the Big Football money, they had better check out the Big Student Loan money, too — courtesy of government grants and loan guarantees. What ELSE is going on in the dim shadows of the locker rooms and shower stalls, what with all that money at stake? What’s going on with the fundamental mission of the education institutions of this nation?

The Big Money, provided so liberally by the student lending institutions, created lots of excesses and corruptions — great and small — that are just beginning to unwind.

Big Money means that people wind up doing whatever it takes to keep the cash flowing. It means that people will find some way to justify cutting corners, even ethical, moral and criminal corners. Until it all blows up.

Don’t sell your gold.


Byron King,
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning