Is the College Debt Bubble Ready to Explode?

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Laura Rowley
Yahoo! Finance

Kelli Space, 23, graduated from Northeastern University in 2009 with a bachelor’s in sociology — and a whopping $200,000 in student loan debt. Space, who lives with her parents and works full-time, put up a Web site called soliciting donations to help meet her debt obligation, which is $891 a month. That number jumps to $1,600 next November.

In creating the site, Space, of course is hoping to ease her financial burden, but it’s “mainly to inform others on the dangers of how quickly student loans add up,” she said. So far she’s raised $6,671.56, according to her site.

Space is just one example — albeit an extreme one — of a student loan bubble that may be about to burst. Over the last decade, private lenders, abetted by college financial aid offices, eagerly handed young people hundreds of thousands of dollars to earn bachelor’s degrees. As a result of easy credit, declining grants and soaring tuitions, more than two-thirds of students graduated with debt in 2008 — up from 45 percent in 1993. The average debt load is $24,000, according to the Project on Student Debt.

In some respects, the student loan crisis looks remarkably like the subprime mortgage crisis. First, outstanding student loan debt has ballooned: It grew roughly four-fold in the last decade to $833 billion as of June — surpassing outstanding credit-card debt for the first time.

Secondly, defaults have soared amid a difficult job market. In 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, nearly 3.4 million borrowers began repayment, and more than 238,000 defaulted on their loans. The number of loans that went into forbearance or deferment (when borrowers receive temporary relief from payments) rose to 22 percent in 2007, from 10 percent a decade earlier, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Over a 15-year period, default rates range from 20 percent for federal loans to 40 percent on loans to students who attend for-profit schools, The Chronicle found.

Just as lenders offered easy no-money-down mortgages to unqualified borrowers during the housing boom, private student loan firms offered instant online approval for up to 100 percent of college costs to students, in some cases for four consecutive years. In early 2007, half of loans made by Sallie Mae, one of the industry’s biggest players, were to students with no co-signers, according to Mark Kantrowitz, founder of informational Web site

As tuition costs have outpaced the caps on federal loans, more families have turned to private loans, which carry higher interest rates and stricter repayment rules. Last year private lenders supplied about $10 billion in loans (compared with $100 billion in federal loans). A study by the College Board found about a third of graduates in 2007-2008 had private loans. About two dozen private lenders offer student loans, and their business is growing at 25 percent annually, after a temporary decline amid the recent credit crisis, according to

Space, for instance, took out $12,000 in federal loans and borrowed $189,000 from private lender Sallie Mae. In an email interview, Space said she spent the money on tuition and room and board for four years; two summer semesters; a three-month study abroad program in Ireland; and books for three semesters. Some $20,000 of her debt is accrued interest. (Interest rates on her loans range from 3 percent to 9 percent.)

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