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One looming issue facing the incoming Biden administration is what to do with the $1.7 trillion in outstanding student loans, mostly held by the federal government. The most recent internal government analysis found that the United States will lose about $400 billion on its current portfolio of $1.37 trillion, a number likely to increase as the government continues to allocate about $100 billion per year in new student loans. Notably, that analysis did not include the roughly $150 billion in loans backed by the federal government but originated by private lenders.
By way of comparison, private lender losses on subprime loans in the residential lending market were about $535 billion during the 2008 crisis. The student loan and subprime mortgage crises share the same root cause: by statutory design, the government wished to expand both markets, such that loans were made with little or no examination of the borrowers’ creditworthiness. The meltdown of the residential home market arose because private lenders relied on the implicit federal loan guarantee. In the end, this practice pushed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the holders of weak mortgages, over the edge, and ultimately resulted in the wipeout of all the private common and preferred shareholders of the two companies.
Fortunately, the absence of private shareholders ensures that the student loan crisis is not likely to generate such chilling collateral consequences. But the problem of borrower defaults will not go away soon, given that the federal government continues to pump billions of dollars each year into student loans. Unfortunately, this constant infusion of new capital into the lending market is causing increases in college tuition that outstrip inflation, imposing additional costs on individuals who do not take out student loans, and raising the overall cost of education above competitive rates.