Some of our readers may have missed our post from September 2012 in which we showed that far from being used for their generally accepted purpose, student loans - now well over $1 trillion and more than the total credit card debt outstanding - in numerous instances are instead abused to fund virtually everything else besides paying for tuition. Recall: "Robert Thomas Price Jr. borrowed about $105,000 for his tuition at Harrisburg Area Community College from 2005 and 2007, federal authorities say. It doesn’t cost anywhere near that much to study at HACC, though. So Price, 45, of Newport, is facing federal student loan fraud and mail fraud charges. A U.S. Middle District Court indictment alleges that Price spent much of the loan money on crack cocaine, cars, motorcycles, jewelry, tattoos and video games."
At the time many derided this case study as an isolated example of fund abuse by an isolated individual. Nearly two years later, a study by the WSJ confirms what most have known: far from an isolated incident, "student" loans have become a primary source of funding for an every greater portion of the US population, and that when looking at total credit creation in the US economy, non-revolving student debt has as much if not more relevance than mere revolving credit, when it comes to determining how pays for what.
The WSJ takes on a more conservative tone when it says that "some Americans caught in the weak job market are lining up for federal student aid, not for education that boosts their employment prospects but for the chance to take out low-cost loans, sometimes with little intention of getting a degree."
Unfortunately, its examples demonstrate a pervasive culture of monetary abuse, which has become as rampant, if at a much lesser scale, as what the TBTF banks have been acused of doing in order to perpetuate the illusion that they are solvent - indirectly taking from taxpayers to fund an unsustainable lifestyle. Taxpayers, who will end up with massive losses on their involuntary "investment" in either case.
Take Ray Selent, a 30-year-old former retail clerk in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was unemployed in 2012 when he enrolled as a part-time student at Broward County's community college. That allowed him to borrow thousands of dollars to pay rent to his mother, cover his cellphone bill and catch the occasional movie.
Tommie Matherne, a 32-year-old married father of five in Billings, Mont., has been going to school since 2010, when he realized the $10 an hour he was making as a mall security guard wasn't covering his family's expenses. He uses roughly $2,000 in student loans each year to stock his fridge and catch up on bills. His wife is a stay-at-home mother who also gets loans to take online courses.
"We've been taking whatever we can for student loans every year, taking whatever we have left over and using it to stock up the freezer just so we have a couple extra months where we don't have to worry about food," says Mr. Matherne, who owes $51,600 in federal loans.
Some students end up going deeper into debt. Early last year, when Denna Merritt lost her long-term unemployment benefits, the 49-year-old Indianapolis woman enrolled part-time at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh's online program, aiming for a degree in graphic design. She took out $15,000 in federal loans, $2,800 of which went to catch up on unpaid bills, including utilities, health-insurance premiums and cable.
"Obviously, it's better not to use it that way if you can help it, because you're just going to owe that much more later," says Ms. Merritt, a former bookkeeper.
The logic for why "students" (or not) chose the easy way out? "The only way I feel I can survive financially is by going back to school and putting myself in more student debt," says Mr. Selent, who has since added $8,000 in student debt from living expenses. Returning to school also gave Mr. Selent a reprieve on the $400 a month he owed from previous student debt because the federal government doesn't require payments while borrowers are in school.
In other words, running away from insolvency by adding on more debt. And not just any debt, but Federal debt, which has no liens on any assets, aside from converting the obligor into a non-dischargeable, indentured debt slave indefinitely, with wage garnishment rights afforded to the government. Of course, the borrowers know all about this, but that too is a bridge to be crossed in due course. For now, someone has to pay for the rent and the food, even if that someone is once again the US taxpayer.
Expect stories like these to continue. Here's why:
College officials and federal watchdogs can't say exactly how much of the U.S.'s swelling $1.1 trillion in student-loan debt has gone to living expenses. But data and government reports indicate the phenomenon is real. The Education Department's inspector general warned last month that the rise of online education has led more students to borrow excessively for personal expenses. Its report said that among online programs at eight universities and colleges, non-education expenses such as rent, transportation and "miscellaneous" items made up more than half the costs covered by student aid.
The report also found the schools disbursed an average of $5,285 in loans each to more than 42,000 students who didn't log any credits at the time. The report pointed to possible factors such as fraud in addition to cases of people enrolling without serious intentions of getting a degree.
Capella Education Co., which runs online schools, examined student costs and debt at institutions?public and private?in Minnesota and concluded that between a quarter and three-quarters of loans taken out by students were for non-education expenses. At one of Capella's master's programs, the typical graduate left with about $30,200 in student debt even though tuition, fees and book costs totaled roughly $18,800. Borrowers are prohibited under federal law, except in rare instances, from discharging student debt through bankruptcy.
The share of student borrowers taking out the maximum amount of loans—$12,500 a year for undergraduates—has risen since the recession. In the 2011-12 academic year, federal Education Department data show, 68% of all undergraduate borrowers hit the annual loan ceiling, up from 60% in 2008.
When one averages out the numbers, how many students are said to abuse their loans and use the proceeds to fund "other" uses? "About a quarter."
Research suggests a fair chunk of that is going to non-education expenses. In 2011-12, about a quarter of student borrowers took out loans that exceeded their tuition, after grants, by $2,500, according to research by Mark Kantrowitz, a higher-education analyst and publisher of the education site Edvisors.com.
And the one take home paragraph that summarizes this latest capital misallocation clusterfuck which has Fed bailout written all over it:
Mr. Selent, of Fort Lauderdale, knows he is getting himself deeper in a hole but prefers that to the alternative of making minimum wage. In his 20s, he earned a bachelor's degree in communications from a local for-profit school but couldn't find a job in the field after graduating and began falling behind on his student-loan bills. He is now taking courses for a degree in theater so he can become an actor.
What else is there to add? Maybe just the chart of student debt.
And this chart, showing where all the newly created money is really going: