Higher education's bubble is about to burst

Law professor Glenn Reynolds. Can you believe borrowing $100,000 for a degree in “Religious and Women’s Studies”?

(…) College has gotten a lot more expensive. A recent Money magazine report notes: “After adjusting for financial aid, the amount families pay for college has skyrocketed 439 percent since 1982. … Normal supply and demand can’t begin to explain cost increases of this magnitude.”

(…) Bubbles burst when there are no longer enough excessively optimistic and ignorant folks to fuel them. And there are signs that this is beginning to happen already.

A New York Times profile last week described Courtney Munna, a 26-year-old graduate of New York University with nearly $100,000 in student loan debt — debt that her degree in Religious and Women’s Studies did not equip her to repay. Payments on the debt are about $700 per month, equivalent to a respectable house payment, and a major bite on her monthly income of $2,300 as a photographer’s assistant earning an hourly wage.

And, unlike a bad mortgage on an underwater house, Munna can’t simply walk away from her student loans, which cannot be expunged in a bankruptcy. She’s stuck in a financial trap.

Some might say that she deserves it — who borrows $100,000 to finance a degree in women’s and religious studies that won’t make you any money? She should have wised up, and others should learn from her mistake, instead of learning too late, as she did: “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life slaving away to pay for an education I got for four years and would happily give back.”

But bubbles burst when people catch on, and there’s some evidence that people are beginning to catch on. Student loan demand, according to a recent report in the Washington Post, is going soft, and students are expressing a willingness to go to a cheaper school rather than run up debt. Things haven’t collapsed yet, but they’re looking shakier — kind of like the housing market looked in 2007.

This is an opinion piece, so I will forgive Glenn for the lack of data on why college expenses have blown out. An important factor is bad incentives: on the supply side there are virtually no incentives for management to cut expenses (the incentives are the other way); on the demand side, the government subsidies and loans desensitize the buyer.