Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Corona Bursts U.S. College Education Bubble

Lots of students want their money back, especially at those elite private colleges.

From Rana Foroohar, at the Financial Times, "Coronavirus bursts the US college education bubble: Soaring fees, worthless degrees and dicey investments have hurt the economy":

Bubbles are bursting everywhere and America’s most prestigious export — higher education — won’t be immune. Universities are like landlocked cruise ships: places with all-you-can-eat buffets and plenty of beer, but almost no way of social distancing.

Many colleges are considering running online classes into the autumn and beyond. But that requires additional resources that most are ill equipped to afford. Even before coronavirus, 30 per cent of colleges tracked by rating agency Moody’s were running deficits, while 15 per cent of public universities had less than 90 days of cash on hand.

Now, with colleges shuttered, revenues reduced, endowment investments plunging, and the added struggle of shifting from physical to virtual education, Moody’s has downgraded the entire sector to negative from stable. The American Council on Education believes revenues in higher education will decline by $23bn over the next academic year. In one survey this week, 57 per cent of university presidents said they planned to lay off staff. Half said they would merge or eliminate some programmes, while 64 per cent said that long-term financial viability was their most pressing issue. It’s very likely we are about to see the hollowing out of America’s university system.

US universities are world class. But the system as a whole is in trouble. Cost is a big part of the problem. I’ve written many times about the US’s dangerous $2tn student debt load. Soaring tuition fees, worthless degrees and dicey investments made by both universities and the government have become a huge headwind to economic growth and social mobility.

If you don’t believe me, take it from the New York Fed, which two years ago called out student debt and the dysfunctions of higher education as problems for the overall US economy. That’s a sad irony, given that a college degree is supposed to increase wealth and productivity. Unfortunately, the US system of higher education — like healthcare, housing, labour markets and so much else in America today — is bifurcated. Those with fancy brand-name degrees from top schools do great. So do many who attend high-quality, low-cost community and state programmes...
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