SLABS were invented by then-semi-public Sallie Mae in the early ’90s, and their trading grew as part of the larger asset-backed security wave that peaked in 2007. In 1990, there were $75.6 million of these securities in circulation; at their apex, the total stood at $2.67 trillion. The number of SLABS traded on the market grew from $200,000 in 1991 to near $250 billion by the fourth quarter of 2010. But while trading in securities backed by credit cards, auto loans, and home equity is down 50 percent or more across the board, SLABS have not suffered the same sort of drop.SLABS are still considered safe investments—the kind financial advisors market to pension funds and the elderly.
With the secondary market in such good shape, primary lenders have been eager to help students with out-of-control costs. In addition to the knowledge that they can move these loans off their balance sheets quickly, they have had another reason not to worry: federal guarantees. Under the just-ended Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP), the US Treasury backed private loans to college students. This meant that even if the secondary market collapsed and there were an anomalous wave of defaults, the federal government had already built a lender bailout into the law. And if that weren’t enough, in May 2008 President Bush signed the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act, which authorized the Department of Education to purchase FFELP loans outright if secondary demand dipped. In 2010, as a cost-offset attached to health reform legislation, President Obama ended theFFELP, but not before it had grown to a $60 billion-a-year operation.
Even with the Treasury no longer acting as co-signer on private loans, the flow ofSLABS won’t end any time soon. What analysts at Barclays Capital wrote of the securities in 2006 still rings true: “For this sector, we expect sustainable growth in new issuance volume as the growth in education costs continues to outpace increases in family incomes, grants, and federal loans.” The loans and costs are caught in the kind of dangerous loop that occurs when lending becomes both profitable and seemingly risk-free: high and increasing college costs mean students need to take out more loans, more loans mean more securities lenders can package and sell, more selling means lenders can offer more loans with the capital they raise, which means colleges can continue to raise costs. The result is over $800 billion in outstanding student debt, over 30 percent of it securitized, and the federal government directly or indirectly on the hook for almost all of it.
While the debt numbers for four-year programs look risky, for-profit two-year schools have apocalyptic figures: 96 percent of their students take on debt and within fifteen years 40 percent are in default. A Government Accountability Office sting operation in which agents posed as applicants found all fifteen approached institutions engaged in deceptive practices and four in straight-up fraud. For-profits were found to have paid their admissions officers on commission, falsely claimed accreditation, underrepresented costs, and encouraged applicants to lie on federal financial aid forms. Far from the bargain they portray themselves to be on daytime television, for-profit degree programs were found to be more expensive than the nonprofit alternatives nearly every time. These degrees are a tough sell, but for-profits sell tough. They spend an unseemly amount of money on advertising, a fact that probably hasn’t escaped the reader’s notice.
But despite the attention the for-profit sector has attracted (including congressional hearings), as in the housing crisis it’s hard to see where the bad apples stop and the barrel begins. For-profits have quickly tied themselves to traditional powers in education, politics, and media. Just a few examples: Richard C. Blum, University of California regent (and husband of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein), is also through his investment firm the majority stakeholder in two of the largest for-profit colleges. The Washington Post Co. owns Kaplan Higher Education, forcing the company’s flagship paper to print a steady stream of embarrassing parenthetical disclosures in articles on the subject of for-profits. Industry leader University of Phoenix has even developed an extensive partnership with GOOD magazine, sponsoring an education editor. Thanks to these connections, billions more in advertising, and nearly $9 million in combined lobbying and campaign contributions in 2010 alone, for-profits have become the fastest growing sector in American higher education.
If the comparative model is valid, then the lessons of the housing crash nag: What happens when the kids can’t pay? The federal government only uses data on students who default within the first two years of repayment, but its numbers have the default rate increasing every year since 2005. Analyst accounts have only 40 percent of the total outstanding debt in active repayment, the majority being either in deferment or default. Next year, the Department of Education will calculate default rates based on numbers three years after the beginning of repayment rather than two. The projected results are staggering: recorded defaults for the class of 2008 will nearly double, from 7 to 13.8 percent. With fewer and fewer students having the income necessary to pay back loans (except by taking on more consumer debt), a massive default looks closer to inevitable.
Unlike during the housing crisis, the government’s response to a national wave of defaults that could pop the higher-ed bubble is already written into law. In the event of foreclosure on a government-backed loan, the holder submits a request to what’s called a state guaranty agency, which then submits a claim to the feds. The federal disbursement rate is tied to the guaranty agency’s fiscal year default rate: for loans issued after October 1998, if the rate exceeds 5 percent, the disbursement drops to 85 percent of principal and interest accrued; if the rate exceeds 9 percent, the disbursement falls to 75 percent. But the guaranty agency rates are computed in such a way that they do not reflect the rate of default as students experience it; of all the guaranty agencies applying for federal reimbursement last year, none hit the 5 percent trigger rate.
With all of these protections in place, SLABS are a better investment than most housing-backed securities ever were. The advantage of a preemptive bailout is that it can make itself unnecessary: if investors know they’re insulated from risk, there’s less reason for them to get skittish if the securities dip, and a much lower chance of a speculative collapse. The worst-case scenario seems to involve the federal government paying for students to go to college, and aside from the enrichment of the parasitic private lenders and speculators, this might not look too bad if you believe in big government, free education, or even Keynesian fiscal stimulus. But until now, we have only examined one side of the exchange. When students agree to take out a loan, the fairness of the deal is premised on the value for the student of their borrowed dollars. If an 18-year-old takes out $200,000 in loans, he or she better be not only getting the full value, but investing it well too.
Higher education seems an unlikely site for this kind of speculative bubble. While housing prices are based on what competing buyers are willing to pay, postsecondary education’s price is supposedly linked to its costs (with the exception of the for-profits). But the rapid growth in tuition is mystifying in value terms; no one could argue convincingly the quality of instruction or the market value of a degree has increased ten-fold in the past four decades (though this hasn’t stopped some from trying). So why would universities raise tuition so high so quickly? “Because they can” answers this question for home-sellers out to get the biggest return on their investments, or for-profits out to grab as much Pell Grant money as possible, but it seems an awfully cynical answer when it comes to nonprofit education.
First, where the money hasn’t gone: instruction. As Marc Bousquet, a leading researcher into the changing structures of higher education, wrote in How The University Works (2008):