Could student loans trigger the next financial crash?

When looking at the more than $1.4 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, some experts worry that it could be the next financial bubble. After all, subprime mortgage lending was at $1.3 trillion in 2007, just before the market crashed, according to a study published by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Student loan debt has surpassed those numbers — and continues to rise. What’s on the horizon for America’s student loan debt?

Where student loan debt stands today

Because young people are pushed to go to college and encouraged to get loans to make it happen, they are in deep debt. The availability of these loans makes it relatively easy for students to pay for college.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the biggest increase in non-housing debt in 2017 was due to student loans:

Though all types of debt have been on the rise, student loan debt saw the biggest jump. It’s beginning to eat up a bigger chunk of household finances; not even credit card debt is increasing at the same rate.

Unfortunately, graduates aren’t making enough money to handle the burden. A whopping 11 percent of student debt was delinquent or in default in early 2017.

 Eventually, student loan defaults could rise to unsustainable levels. When that occurs, the economy will face a challenge.

But is the student loan bubble on track to repeat the housing market crash that occurred a decade ago? Not everyone thinks so.

The student loan bubble may be a ‘leaky balloon’

Joseph Hogue, a former economist for the state of Iowa and finance writer at PeerFinance101, doesn’t see the student loan bubble as something ready to pop at any second. Instead, he views the student loan crisis as a balloon with the air slowly seeping out.

“It’s more of a slower deflation, like a leaky balloon,” said Hogue. “It’s not really a bubble in terms of expansion and a sudden pop. But it’s definitely going to have an impact on the economy.”

Hogue believes that trouble from a student loan bubble will result from the enormous amount of debt millennials carry.

“Student loans have a huge effect on the largest demographic population in the United States,” Hogue said. “We’re looking to millennials to keep the economy going. Unfortunately, with such a huge student loan burden, they probably aren’t going to be able to do that.”

Hogue pointed out that many millennials put off major financial milestones and are wary of spending money because of their student debt.

“They have to make those student loan debt payments,” he said. “It impacts all the consumption that money could be spent on instead, like homeownership and buying cars. It’s going to hold them back from investing and getting started in other aspects of their financial lives.”

Without millennial spending, the economy is likely to see problems down the road, said Hogue, in spite of current leaders touting efforts to boost future economic growth.

Student loan debt outpaces wage growth

According to the Huffington Post, the typical college student in 1990 graduated with debt equivalent to 28.6 percent of their annual earnings. By 2015, that number had grown to 74.3 percent of earnings. Meanwhile, median wages have stagnated over the years.

Image via Huffington Post

Even as student loan debt has increased to keep up with the rising cost of college, wages have remained steady. That makes it harder to make student loan payments and keep up with other bills. As student loan payments continue to eat up a larger percentage of millennials’ incomes, they’re unable to spend on other items.

Eventually, more millennials are likely to be unable to make their payments and enter default.

The effect of a rising student loan default rate

Even though student loan defaults could cause problems for the economy, Hogue thinks the damage might be limited. He points to the difficulty borrowers face in getting out of paying for their student loan debt.

“Student loan debt is much harder to walk away from than other types of debt,” he said. “You can’t look at car loan and housing debt and compare that to student loan debt. There are factors keeping the student loan bubble from bursting due to massive default.”

For example, most borrowers can’t get rid of student loans by declaring bankruptcy. You can’t walk away from your student debt like you can from a foreclosed home.

That doesn’t mean default won’t have its impact; it’s just more likely to be a slow-moving impact, in line with Hogue’s idea of a leaky balloon.

Borrowers who default on their student debt are more likely to see their wages garnished, Hogue said. Instead of massive defaults and losses, student loan borrowers are likely to limp along trying to make payments and pursuing other repayment methods, such as income-driven repayment plans.

Hogue thinks the impact of this will be seen in the economy, but not on a scale as dramatic as the housing bubble.

“Student loan defaults won’t affect the economy quite the same as the fiasco with mortgage debt,” he continued. “There’s more likely to be a massive restructuring of payments, rather than people being allowed to massively default. It’s a creeping thing.”

Millennials put off major spending, and that harms the economy

When many pundits discuss the student loan debt bubble, they focus on the large amounts of debt students are taking on, said Hogue. However, it’s the fact that they can’t make other purchases because of the debt that really matters.

It’s the struggle to repay these loans that result in many millennials putting off other financial choices, said Hogue. They don’t have enough money to make their payments and engage in activities that will keep the economy running.

One of the big factors, he pointed out, is homeownership. The Federal Reserve is already concerned about declining homeownership rates among those with student loans. But it’s not just about buying a house — it’s also about the consumption that goes with it.

“Millennials are stuck renting with multiple roommates or heading back to Mom and Dad,” Hogue said. “They won’t be doing all the things that come with homeownership, like buying furniture and making home improvements. That consumption is vital to the economy, and it’s on a downswing due to student loan debt.”

He also points to spending on other items, including vacations, clothes, and cars.

“Millennials are acting thrifty and staying away from credit card debt. They’ve been scared off debt, and for good reason,” Hogue continued. “But it also means less spending to keep money moving around and the economy going.”

Wealth creation and entrepreneurship

Hogue also sees economic problems coming as millennials put off entrepreneurship. He’s not alone. In 2016, the Small Business Administration warned that entrepreneurship is lower among millennials than in previous generations.

Millennials are more likely to work for others than be self-employed, and that could have economic consequences down the road. Hogue said that small business development and entrepreneurship provides opportunities for economic growth.

“But if you’ve got all this debt, you’re looking for a stable nine-to-five,” he said. “You’re less likely to start a business.”

“We’re not going to get that small business push,” Hogue continued. “If we’re not getting that from an entire generation, what does it mean for the next 10 to 20 years? Not to say millennials don’t have that drive, but they have this extraneous burden holding them back.”

Hogue also sees impacts for the following generation. “As millennials get older and their kids start going to school, they are going to be much less ready to pay for their kids’ educations,” he pointed out. “That will have second-order effects as far as education in America.”

We might already be seeing a shift in Generation Z. They’re more likely to consider college affordability and community college than millennials.

How you can avoid contributing to the student loan bubble

If you’re drowning in student loan debt, you might be worried about the impact of a student loan debt bubble. While the country grapples with this issue on a national level, see what you can do to avoid becoming a casualty.

  • Federal student loan debt relief: Consider income-driven repayment plans and deferment options. These programs can make your payments more manageable.
  • Private student loan refinancing: You can refinance your student loans to a longer term, lower interest rate, or smaller monthly payment.
  • Debt reduction and retirement savings: Once you have your student loan payments under control, create a budget. Pay down your high-interest, non-student-loan debt, and then start investing for retirement.

Though your degree may have cost you a pretty penny, it’s likely still a smart investment.

“The price of higher education has grown exponentially,” explained Hogue, “but it’s still a good investment as long as people carefully consider what they study, and as long as they graduate or get a certification.”

No matter what your financial situation is, you can likely find a program that can make your student loan debt more affordable. See what steps you can take to avoid defaulting on student loan debt. That way, you can avoid contributing to the student loan bubble.