Will the Student Loan Industry Be Bailed Out Next?

Will companies that issued derivatives based on bundled student loans be the next financial dominoes that will require a government “bailout”? The country’s long dedication to education makes it a virtual certainty.

The emphasis of the role of government in education predates the establishment of the United States as a country. As early as 1642, a year before the founding of Harvard, laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony broke with English tradition of purely private education and introduced a role for the state. The law essentially suggested that the colony’s government would assume the duty of teaching children if parents failed to do so.

A century later, the new Congress of the United States enacted the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. It set forth the role and obligation of the state in education. Article 3 of the Ordinance stated that

Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

Early in the 19th century, Horace Mann took a leading role in the advancement of public education. Both as a Senator from Massachusetts and later as Secretary of the State Board of Education in 1837, Mann was instrumental in establishing textbooks and libraries, doubling the wages of teachers, and securing state aid for education. He argued that the country’s wealth would increase by educating the public and should be borne by the taxpayer. He was immensely successful in the task. Mann ultimately became president of Antioch College in 1853, six years prior to his death.

The fundamentals for universal public education were established and accepted on both a private and state level. However, it took nearly three quarters of a century, in 1935, for direct federal government loans to be debated. First, government student lending began on the state level when Indiana initiated the waiver of fees to students who successfully competed in statewide tests.

By 1944, the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act (commonly known as the G.I. Bill) was passed. It was the first legislation to provide direct aid for students on the federal level. The bill was amended and expanded following the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. Now called the Montgomery G.I. bill, it forms a crucial benefit to men and women voluntarily joining the military services.

The next half century saw a rapid rise in various federal, or federally-guaranteed, student loans and grants. Loans are to be repaid at subsidized low interest rates, while grants are outright gifts, requiring certain criteria and qualifications.

Some examples include:

  • National Defense Education Act was launched after Russia orbited Sputnik I in 1958. It was centered on science, mathematics and language. The federal program is now called the Federal Perkins Loan program for low-income students with ten years to repay at five percent interest.
  • The Health Professions Educational Assistance Act 1963 for medical and health program students was later broadened to add scholarships in addition to loans.
  • The most significant and sizeable is the Federal Stafford Loan Program. It was initially passed by Congress in 1965 as the Guaranteed Student Loan Program. The program used private banks and other lenders, guaranteed by the federal government.
  • Outright grants, such as the 1965 Educational Opportunity Grant Program and the 1972 Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, now known as the Pell Grant, consist of outright gifts to students in low income brackets. Eligibility is based strictly on need.

Later yet, government educational funding started to be offered to middle and upper income families such as the 1978 Middle Assistance Act and the 1981 PLUS loans.

Finally, loan consolidations and the William D. Ford Direct Student Loan Program of 1993 expanded loans available directly from participating schools.

As the population increased, and students availed themselves of the increasing variety of grants and loans, so did defaults on student loans.

A report published in October 2007 by Education Sector, an independent non-profit, non-partisan think tank, shows that student loan default rates were approximately five percent. Twenty percent, the largest percentage of those defaulting, owed $15,000 or more after attaining a four-year undergraduate degree.

According to the report,

Black students who graduated in 1992–93 school year had an overall default rate that was over five times higher than white students and over nine times higher than Asian students. … Hispanic students’ overall default rate was over twice that of white students and four times higher than Asian students. (www.educationsector.com)

The current financial crisis offers some serious food for thought.

Most significant is that, unlike mortgages, student loans have no underlying asset value. While defaults on mortgages have the backing of real estate – no matter if it has depreciated in market value – student loans are unsecured. Recourse to recover default payments may exist through attachment of wages and other measures, including tracking of an individual through IRS records, but has no tangible value except the student’s future earning power.

Despite the high-risk exposure, private firms in the student loan industry, such as SML Corporation, generally known as “Sallie Mae,” realized some $18.5 billion in derivatives sales in 2007. According to Bloomberg.com on October 22, Sallie Mae lost $185.5 million for the third quarter, compared to $344 million year-to-date. The company increased contingencies for bad student loans by some 31%. It also had extraordinary legal expenses in connection to a failed sale of the company to a third party. The stock declined from a high of $48.24 to close at $4.50 October 22, year-to-year.

According to Bloomberg, SLM “is partly insulated from the crisis because the company’s loan portfolio is 82 percent government guaranteed. The U.S. Department of Education is offering funding for those loans through July 2010.”

SLM Corporation owns or manages some 10 million student loans in addition to its ancillary businesses of college savings accounts and collection agencies. It was originally formed in 1972 as a “government-sponsored entity” similar to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It became a totally independent company in 2004.

The question remains: if SLM Corporation’s management underestimates its potential student loan defaults and overestimates its cash and asset positions, will the federal government be in yet another “bailout” mode?

The history of government’s historic and stated position regarding education is clear. It remains for legislators to determine how best to reduce or eliminate student loan defaults. Don’t let the fear of college debt keep you from getting your degree. See the affordable degree options available at Belhaven College.

Stephan is a former department chair for economics and taught at various colleges and universities at both graduate and undergraduate levels. If you would like Stephan to answer your economics-related questions, read his post “Got an Economics Question?” and submit your questions in the comments area there.

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