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Higher Education Bubble

The Next Bubble To Burst

Written by Brian Hicks
Posted August 7, 2009 at 8:00PM

It's every investor's dream: buy into a theme before any one else has caught on; ride it all the way up until it gets bubbly; sell to the suckers who bought at the top.

It's like buying housing names in 2004 (as we did), only to sell and go short in 2007 (as we did). . . or oil prior to the rise to $147 (again, as we did). . . or even dot-coms before the bubble burst.

Yep, we've become all too familiar with the term "bubble" in recent years — that unsustainable phenomenon pumped full of irrationality and over-valuation only to burst and trigger monumental downturns.

We've seen it happen in Treasuries, financials, commercial real estate, autos, and credit. We watched in tortured silence, as an over-extended housing bubble popped, triggering a seismic credit meltdown.

And pretty soon we'll have bubble bubbles, where our heads explode over the financial chaos.

And now. . . unbeknownst to many, as we deal with banking and housing issues. . .

Higher Education will be Next

So say Joseph Marr Cronin, secretary of education in Massachusetts, and Howard E. Horton, president of Boston's New England College of Business and Finance.

And there is a fear of mergers, closures. . . even bankruptcies of colleges that took on too much debt, based on a unbalanced system of student loans paying for rising tuitions.

And we agree. The next bubble to burst will be higher education.

No doubt about it.

You see, higher education is big money for institutions and lenders alike. . . and they're in big trouble.

What most people who are not involved directly in higher education fail to understand is that these institutions and lenders are in the same sinking boat that banks and other financial companies are in. Assets are drowning. And debt and costs are rising.

Under-capitalized colleges are staring down threats to solvency, too (just as banks are), as penny-pinching students and parents go for cheaper alternatives (community college, online colleges, etc.) and sources of funds dry up.

Worse, Cronin and Horton comment:

The middle class, which has paid for higher education in the past mainly by taking out loans, may not be precluded from doing so as the private student loan market has all but dried up. In addition, the endowment cushions that allowed colleges to engage in steep tuition discounting are gone.

Consumers that once questioned whether it is worth spending $1,000 a square foot for a home are now asking whether is is worth spending $1,000 a week to send their kids to college.

Yep, when you think about limited access to credit — no more using your house as a piggy bank — coupled with higher college costs, we could end up with students finding college simply out of reach:




So is it really surprising to then learn that applications for community colleges and other public institutions have skyrocketed some 440%? Or does it surprise you that non-traditional online colleges are becoming successful at challenging higher-priced private schools?

Not at all.

Get this: According to a article, college tuition has increased by more than three times the rate of inflation over the last 20 years, despite flat-lining U.S. wages. The average tuition at a private four-year school is up 6.6% yearly in 2007 to $23,712, according to the College Board. . .

And it could haunt students and America for years to come.

Couple tuition with living expenses and students (and in most cases, their parents) are looking at about $50,000 for a year of school. For the bubble to not pop, tuition must drop. . . or there will be limited demand at pricey schools.

But the schools aren't the only ones suffering from this education meltdown.

The Lenders Could Get Crushed, Too. . . by Two Things

One: The education bubble, fueled by easily-lent money and over-borrowing, has created yet another bubble: student loans.

The last days of college are supposed to be the happiest time of year for thousands of students. Instead, there's trouble ahead for graduates who are competing in the toughest job market in years.

Only 19% of them can find a job, as compared to the 50% in 2007 and the 25% in 2008.

And then there are those graduates, like my friend Mikey — who will have to start paying back $1,150 a month for student loans, on top of a mortgage and mounting credit card debt — and who simply can't find a job.

And thousands more are in the same sinking boat; thousands more that won't be able to pay back student loan debt.

As usual, the numbers tell the whole story. According to the College Board in early 2009, total student loan borrowing more than doubled between 1998 and 2008. The numbers are staggering. We're talking about $85 billion in loans, as compared to $41 billion ten years ago.

Privately funded student loans have risen, too, from 7% in 1998 to 23% of all student loans in 2008. It makes for quite a brew for cash-strapped Americans this year, who are already saddled with unemployment and loss of income. Sallie Mae, for example, had a delinquency rate of 9.4% in Q3 2008, as compared to a rate of 8.5% just a year earlier.

I'm willing to bet that rate gaps higher as the months go by.

The student loan market has been, is, and will be riddled with trouble. Expect higher default rates, as students can't pay back these loans. Still, we'll look to profit from their demise.

Two: As President Obama urges an end to government subsidies for student loan providers, a number of education stocks could swan dive.

Putting the kabash on these subsidies, according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, could save the U.S. billions every year. The only roadblock is congressional approval. . . but this one looks imminent.

Here's an excerpt from a recent New York Times editorial:

The [new administration's] budget rightly calls for phasing out the wasteful and all-too-corruptible portion of the student program that relies on private lenders. And it calls for expanding the less-expensive and more-efficient program that allows students to borrow directly from the federal government. That means doing away with the Federal Family Education Loan Program, under which private lenders receive unnecessary subsidies to make risk-free student loans that are guaranteed by taxpayers.

A number of stocks are going to get battered by this.

Things could get bad for students and lenders alike. . . real bad.

Good Investing,

Ian L. Cooper

Editor's Note: If you're the parent of a child heading to college in the near future, you won't want to miss the following free online video workshop. It's called "Discover How To Send Your Child To College Without Spending Your Life's Savings."  You can view it on your computer, in the comfort and privacy of your own home. Simply click here for details.  

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