The higher education bubble will soon burst. Like the popped housing bubble, higher education prices are being distorted by massive government subsidization. Subsidization causes prices to increase at a rate dramatically above what they would have otherwise increased absent subsidization. It is true that bubbles can occur “naturally”, but these are called “crazes” or “manias.” The most well known example is the “Tulip mania” in Holland in 1636-37. It is the first recorded example of a speculative bubble, but it lasted only 6 months. These “natural” bubbles are limited in scope and size by the limited savings of those involved. Government bubbles are different. The earliest government influenced bubbles were the bank “panics” of the 19th century. They were the result of legalized embezzlement otherwise known as fractional reserve lending (it was thought that a Central Bank (The Fed) would solve these panics but it only made them worse (e.g. the Great Depression and every recession since then)). Government bubbles grow quicker and longer than natural bubbles. Government bubbles can grow over decades because they have no built in monetary constraints. Governments are free to tax, borrow and print as much money as they desire.
Government has no feedback mechanism to limit the bubble because they “have no skin in the game”, that is, it’s not their money.
To understand why prices go up in a government induced bubble we must first understand how normal economic transactions occur. Actor 1 (Buyer) wishes to obtain a good or service from Actor 2 (Seller). What Seller can charge is constrained by the willingness of Buyer to pay (max price). Likewise, how much Buyer can purchase is constrained by the willingness of Seller to sell (min price). A pricing equilibrium is maintained through the efforts of both parties to maximize their self-interest. However, when government gets involved (Actor 3) they insert themselves in the middle of the transaction. Actor 3 now pays Seller for what Buyer wants (typically by stealing from Actor 4). The shackles of price restraint are severed and thus Seller is free to perpetually escalate pricing because (a) Buyer doesn’t care about price because Buyer isn’t paying and (b) Actor 3 doesn’t care about price because it’s not their money. Likewise nothing inhibits Buyer from limiting their consumption because (a) price increases don’t affect Buyer and (b) Actor 3 doesn’t care because it’s not their money. In a free market an increased demand by Buyer upon Seller would drive prices up, however that would attract new providers who, through competition, would drive prices down. However with the presence of Actor 3 this feedback is disrupted. Increased prices do attract more providers however not for purposes of competition. They are joining everyone else at the government trough of largesse.
Government has removed the price barrier to education by providing grants and guaranteed loans. Students don’t worry about price because someone else is paying for it right now, and the schools have no constraint on limiting price increases because they know the government will subsidize whatever tuition is charged. College education costs have gone up at nearly 5 times the rate of inflation. To put that in perspective, health care costs have gone up “only” about 3 times the rate of inflation.
To underscore the point that costs are driven by government subsidization – cosmetic surgery, which is not subsidized nor paid for by insurance – has actually gone DOWN relative to inflation.
Education costs are doubling about every 10 years. In 2011-12 the average cost of tuition and fees for in state four-year college was $8,244/year. Private college tuition and fees average $28,500/year. Based on present trends I predict the education bubble will burst around 2025-2030. So clip and save this article so that you may impress your friends with your ability to predict the future… it will happen, just as the tech stock and housing bubbles burst, so too will the education and healthcare bubbles burst. Apparently the old aphorism is true, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”