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Student Debt's Red Herring

Who is to blame for soaring U.S. student loan debt that now surpasses credit card and auto-loan debt, at an estimated $1 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?

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The Occupy Wall Street folks blamed the banks, but are the real culprits colleges, which have gouged American families with virtually unchecked hikes in tuition?

Fat-cat academics who think they are running real estate empires like Donald Trump mini-mes, blowing money on expensive college bling like white elephant, NFL level football stadiums or five-star cafeterias or Equinox-level gyms?

Or is it the government, whose well-meaning student aid fuels higher tuition costs which relies on more student aid?

How about all of the above?

Should the government instead curtail colleges’ nonprofit status, because colleges and universities have abused that tax-free status for far too long? Colleges don’t have to pay income taxes on their revenue.

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Should the government, say, make them pay income taxes at the same annual rate they hike tuition?

Since 1999, student loan debt has increased by 511%, while household disposable income has increased by only 73%.

Government data show the average cost of tuition for four years at a private college easily surpasses a total of $200,000, and is estimated to climb to more than $320,000 by 2028. You don’t see this level of college costs in Switzerland or Monaco.

That $1 trillion in total estimated student loan debt equals 11% of total housing debt, so it’s easy to see how tuition gouging is hanging up American families struggling to get out from under housing loans.

The danger here is taxpayers could be on the hook for belly flopping student loans, since eight in 10 of these loans are government-issued or guaranteed, a support that increased after the government stepped in to help this market after it iced over during the financial crisis in 2008.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, has said government loans and subsidies are not cost-effective for taxpayers because "universities and colleges just raise their tuition. It doesn't improve affordability and it doesn't make it easier to go to college."

The dilemma, say economists, is a simple supply and demand problem. Colleges can "raise tuition because they can," David Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, has said. When the government subsidizes something, producers respond by raising prices to soak up as much of the subsidy as they can.

Moreover, many colleges simply are not worth the investment, says Mark Schneider, a visiting scholar at American Enterprise Institute.

And in fact, many parents send their children to community colleges for the first two years, then shuttle them to blue-chip schools so they can get the pennant.

All of this is a very potent election year issue, as the White House and Democrats in Congress get set to fight an expected doubling in student loan rates to 6.8% by the time school lets out this summer. Elected officials want more tuition tax credits, among other things.

But doesn’t all this tossing of money at the problem merely paper over the supply and demand imbalances wrecking it for American families and students?

First off, the real scandal is the fact that more than 75 colleges and universities sit on record endowments in the tens of billions of dollars from donations made by people who believe their money is going towards cutting tuition costs.

Yes colleges are hamstrung by alumni who want their donations to go towards funding new classes that have no real world value in, oh, how about “The Relevance of T.V. Soap Operas in America Culture Today,” as one school now offers.

But one estimate shows that colleges only spend an average of about 3% of their endowments on tuition.

And a lot of money is spent on seat warmers at colleges. The Delta Cost Project in 2010 found that between 1998 and 2008, America’s private colleges hiked spending on faculty by 22% -- but raised spending on administration and staff support by much more, 36%.

Student to faculty ratios are anywhere from 5 to one to 15 to one, depending on the college. But student to administrator ratios are explosively higher, in some instances, 30 to one to 40 to one at some schools.

Census data show that, as of 2005, colleges and universities employed more than 675,000 full-time faculty members -- but 756,000 administrators, counselors, accountants, alumni relations officials, and attorneys, among others.

Between 1976 and 2007, the proportion of administrators to students doubled at colleges nationwide, say Claudia Dreifus and Andrew Hackert, authors of "Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It."

The authors note that college bureaucrats now get paid as “babysitting coordinator,” “dietetic internship director,” and “residential communications coordinator.”

As part of their collective flight from reality, too many colleges have locked themselves into a vicious cycle where "you raise tuition, so you can give out more aid, so you can raise tuition," Jacqueline E. King, director of federal policy analysis at the American Council on Education, a Washington education lobby group, has said.

"Institutionally based financial aid accounts for about one-third of all the increases in tuition," David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities has said. "It's the driving force behind rising fees."

The Center for College Affordability recently did a study and concluded: "As higher financial aid pushes costs higher, it inevitably puts upward pressure on tuition. Higher tuition, of course, reduces college affordability, leading to calls for more financial aid, setting the vicious cycle in motion all over again."

The College Board estimates more than $60 billion in financial aid -- most of it from the federal government -- is annually available to students as of a few years ago.

But 60% of that aid was in the form of loans, up from 40% in 1980.

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