Not so long ago, student debt was mostly the responsibility of students. That is, you paid for college with loans and then paid off those loans with the proceeds of the good job you got with an advanced education.
These days it’s a little different. The cost of higher education is soaring, the jobs available to college grads don’t pay as much, relatively speaking, as they used to, and the size of loans available to students – though huge – don’t cover the full cost of many degrees.
One might expect these changes to lead more students to work for a few years and save up, or choose a cheaper degree, or eschew college altogether (as a lot of successful people now recommend) and substitute work experience for a diploma.
Some of that is happening but apparently the biggest change is that parents have stepped in to cover the difference between what their kids can borrow and the cost of a degree. As the chart below illustrates, until just a few years ago, the average debt of students exceeded that of students’ parents. But post-Great Recession, parents have given up trying to moderate the cost of their kids’ education and started doing the borrowing themselves. They’re now taking on the majority of new debts, and the gap is widening dramatically.
So we can add student loans to the list of instances where people who once tried to control their borrowing have stopped trying and are now just going with the flow. Which means several things. First, kids who if left to themselves and the market would probably opt for one of the aforementioned cheaper alternatives are still in high-cost, frequently low-reward degree programs, and are being sheltered from the consequences by well-meaning parents.
Second, the retirement crisis that everyone is talking about – in which people who have never saved a penny are approaching retirement age and looking at 30 years of abject poverty – is being made that much worse by parents taking on new debts at a time of life when they should be aggressively trending towards debt-free/cash-rich.
Third and most important for people who aren’t participating in this game of financial musical chairs, the eventual implosion of the student loan market – i.e., the point at which loan defaults become intolerable – will lead to a government bailout, making student loans everyone else’s problem.
But of course the government won’t raise taxes or otherwise inflict immediate consequences on the electorate. It will borrow the money and create enough new currency to cover the first few years’ interest, leaving the longer-term consequences for later years and other people.
As with all the other mini-bubbles out there, if student loans were an isolated problem in a sea of rock-solid financial behavior they’d be easily managed. But they’re just one of many time bombs set to explode shortly. Auto loans, credit cards, underfunded pensions and increasingly mortgages and home equity lines are all heading the same way domestically, while emerging market dollar debt (which dwarfs the US mini-bubbles) is just as precarious internationally.
The question then becomes, how many of these bursting bubbles can the US paper over before the currency markets figure out that each will be followed by another, for as far as the eye can see?