Will the College Bubble Burst From Public Subsidies? (Opinion)

Sharon Rieger's picture
Friday, July 22, 2011

When governments want to encourage what they believe is beneficial behavior, they subsidize it. Sounds like good public policy.

But there can be problems. Behavior that is beneficial for most people may not be so for everybody. And government subsidies can go too far.

Subsidies create incentives for what economists call rent-seeking behavior. Providers of supposedly beneficial goods or services try to sop up as much of the subsidy money as they can by raising prices. After all, their customers are paying with money supplied by the government.

Bubble money, as it turns out. Sooner or later, bubbles burst.

We are still suffering from the bursting of the housing bubble created by low interest rates, lowered mortgage standards and subsidies to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Those policies encouraged the granting of mortgages to people who should never have gotten them ---- and when they defaulted, the whole financial sector nearly collapsed.

Now some people see signs that another bubble is bursting. They call it the higher-education bubble.

For years, government has assumed it's a good thing to go to college. College graduates tend to earn more money than non-college graduates.

Politicians of both parties have called for giving everybody a chance to go to college, just as they called for giving everybody a chance to buy a home.

So government has been subsidizing higher education with low-interest college loans, Pell grants, and cheap tuitions at state colleges and universities.

The predictable result is that higher education costs have risen much faster than inflation, much faster than personal incomes, much faster than the economy over the past 40 years.

Moreover, you can't get out of paying off those college loans, even by going through bankruptcy. At least with a home mortgage, you can walk away and let the bank foreclose and not owe any more money.

Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, is adept at spotting bubbles. He sold out for $500 million in March 2000, at the peak of the tech bubble, when his partners wanted to hold out for more. He refused to buy a house until the housing bubble burst.

"A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed," he has said. "Education may still be the only thing people still believe in in the United States."

But the combination of rising costs and dubious quality may be undermining that belief.

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