College Loans Are Next Debt Crisis

Marlins Park, financed by bonds that will take four decades and $2.4 billion to pay off, makes a perfect setting for commencement exercises. Vice President Joe Biden, when he addresses a happy throng of graduates from Cypress Bay High School in that fancy new baseball stadium on June 4, will be looking out at the unwitting perpetrators of the next great debt crisis.

Biden, nice guy that he is, probably won’t open with, “Hello, you likely deadbeats.” Maybe he should.

Most of the students from the big suburban high school in Weston have college plans. But the next time these kids queue up for diplomas, they’ll also be getting hefty IOUs. Plus interest charges.

Some 62 percent of the grads from U.S. public universities emerge with both a diploma and debt, according to figures compiled by the federal Department of Education’s Project on Student Debt. About 72 percent of grads from private nonprofit universities owe money. An astounding 96 percent of the kids who attend for-profit schools venture out into the real world as debtors.

The study was conducted in 2008. It’s only gotten worse amid a recession and slow, slow recovery, as state legislatures hack away at higher education allocations.

If grads from Cypress Bay High attend one of Florida’s universities this fall, their freshman year will coincide with a $300 million cut in state funding. Along with a 15 percent pop in tuition and diminished help from Bright Futures scholarships.

They’ll be attending schools with fewer courses and larger classes, taught by professors disheartened by stagnant wages and benefit cuts, on campuses suffering from drastic cutbacks in maintenance budgets.

Florida college students, after paying ever more for ever less education, graduated in 2010 owing an average of $21,184 in student loans. The dismal trend lines indicate that the debt load will be much heftier when the Cypress Bay High School Class of 2012 finally get their degrees.

As the state’s contribution to higher education was cut by 24 percent over the last five years, Florida universities responded by jacking up tuition (five state universities have increased tuition by 60 percent over the last four years, six others by 45 percent.) Incoming freshmen are looking at annual 15 percent increases — the maximum the state allows — throughout their academic careers.

At the bottom of the education food chain, the students respond by borrowing more money.

Their debt will add to the $1 trillion in unpaid student debt already looming over the U.S. economy. This isn’t limited to recent college grads. A third of American student debtors are 40 years old or older. Florida’s U.S. Senator Marco Rubio told ABC News two weeks ago that he has yet to pay off the loans he borrowed to make his way through college and law school.

The problem comes when this unpaid trillion dollars (outstanding college loans now exceed the nation’s credit-card debt) is juxtaposed against a brutal job market. Half the nation’s college students under age 25 are still looking for fulltime work, according to a disheartening recent study out of Rutgers University.

Unemployment among college graduates is still far lower than those with no more than a high school degree, at 5.4 percent among those with a bachelor degree, 2.4 percent with a professional degree and just 1.9 percent for grads with a doctorate, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But there’s an unsettling indication that many college graduates have settled for the lower paying jobs that once went to high school grads. An estimated 100,000 janitors in the U.S. have bachelor degrees, 5,000 of them with doctorates. In January, the bureau counted 317,000 college-educated waiters and waitresses, 80,000 bartenders and 18,000 parking-lot attendants.

Parking cars, mixing drinks and sweeping hallways may pay the rent. They won’t pay off student debt.

Florida’s utterly political decision a decade ago to fund two new law schools (at Florida International University and Florida A&M) had no relationship to the actual job market. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that U.S. law schools over the next decade will churn out four times more grads than we have lawyer jobs. Meanwhile, law school graduates, whether they have jobs or not, owe an average of $100,000 in outstanding student loans.

They’ve become the new credit bubble, these students. The decision in Florida and other states to shift the cost of higher education onto college kids and their families has created the potential of yet another debt crisis. Our college grads, like so many of those homes falling into foreclosure, are underwater.

Economists worry about defaults. And student loan defaults are escalating, particularly in Florida. The U.S. Department of Education reported that 19,279 people, the equivalent of 10.5 percent of the state’s grads in 2009, failed to start repaying their loans. The Sun-Sentinel reported that just last month, the feds filed three dozen lawsuits against student loan deadbeats or their unhappy parents who cosigned the loans. (Federal law won’t allow student debtors to escape their obligations through bankruptcy.)

The outlook got only worse on Thursday, after the U.S. Senate, entangled in election-year politics, failed yet again to approve legislation that would extend the 3.4 percent interest rates now charged against most federal student loans. The senators gave up and went home for the Memorial Day weekend, making it likely that the future college loan interest rate — the loan rate awaiting grads from Cypress Bay High School and their contemporaries — will double to 6.8 percent. The big student debt burden will just get bigger.

So hello there students, you likely deadbeats. Welcome to Miami’s gleaming white monument to debt. But don’t condescend: Sure, Miami-Dade taxpayers may owe a fantastic amount on this baseball stadium, but they’ll still pay off these bonds before you suckers get out from under your college loans.

THE MIAMI HERALD

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