Unclear how much student debt is holding back the housing market

The sluggish housing market is likely not helped by the amount of student debt held by young adults:

[T]he Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports today that in 2013, student debtors between the ages of 27 and 30 were less likely to own a home—or, specifically, to have a mortgage—than their peers who were student-debt free. Homeownership rates have fallen fast among all young adults since the recession. But, as shown below, they’ve dropped most precipitously among those who borrowed for school.

6a01348793456c970c01a511b13bd1970c450wi_1Federal Reserve Bank of New York

There’s one key detail this graph leaves out, however, which the Fed shared in a separate report from early last year (and which I’ve written on before). It turns out that, at the end of 2012, borrowers who were current on their student loan payments were actually more likely to take out a mortgage than other young adults. Borrowers who were delinquent on their student loans, however, took out barely any mortgages at all. In other words, young people who already couldn’t handle their debt simply weren’t in the market for houses.

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Federal Reserve Bank of New York

A key point: having college debt doesn’t completely stop mortgage originations. So, reducing college debt (and look at the median, not the average) could help free up the housing market but it isn’t the only problem.

I wonder if there isn’t another way to think about this: more young Americans are willing to trade a college degree for homeownership before they are 30. This could be due to a variety of reasons including earning potential due to a college degree but also a decreased interest in owning a home as opposed to accomplishing other goals like living in an exciting place or establishing themselves in a career. In other words, this issue may not really be about college debt holding people back but rather about the relative interest young adults have in owning a house.

The median college loan debt: $12,800

Growing calls for ways to deal with college loan debt can lead to a statistical question: just how much does “the average” college student owe? Here are some of the figures:

Meet Kelli Space. She went to Northeastern University to get a degree in sociology. And she graduated in $200,000 of student loan debt. In the economy’s newest trillion-dollar crisis, she is the 1 percent.

Kelli is not the face of America’s student debt problem. Among the 37 million people in this country with student loans to pay off, the median balance is $12,800. A whole 72 percent of borrowers have less than $25,000 left in debt, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

No, students like Kelli are the rarities, the white rhinos. Only about 5 percent of borrowers owe more than $75,000.

The key figures for me: the median is $12,800, meaning that half of people with student loans have less than this figure, half have more. Yet, nearly three-quarters of those with loans have less than $25,000 to pay off. Only 11% have more than $50k in debt.

So why do we keep hearing stories about those who owe mega amounts of money? Perhaps we might think of them as canaries in the mine shaft, students who show how bad the college finance system might be today. But, on the other hand, the statistics suggest that these students are rarities, people who have unusual debt. From these anecdotal and relatively rare stories, it seems like there is a pattern: a student goes to a prestigious school banking on the name of the school to pay off. (One common argument you will find online is that the major should be blamed – this usually puts more creative disciplines, the humanities, and subjects like sociology at the center of blame.) But, the name doesn’t always pay off, the student can’t find a good enough job to start paying off these debts, and the interest just continues to grow.

Overall, we need to work with the statistics more than the anecdotes: most college students do not have more than $25,000 of debt. This is not a small amount but it can be tackled (though the economy doesn’t help).

Rising debt for college loans better than debt for a McMansion

The college Class of 2011 might expect more in life than simply to be known as “the most indebted ever“:

22,900: Average student debt of newly minted college graduates

The Class of 2011 will graduate this spring from America’s colleges and universities with a dubious distinction: the most indebted ever.

Even as the average U.S. household pares down its debts, the new degree-holders who represent the country’s best hope for future prosperity are headed in the opposite direction. With tuition rising at an annual rate of about 5% and cash-strapped parents less able to help, the mean student-debt burden at graduation will reach nearly $18,000 this year, estimates Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of student-aid websites Fastweb.com and FinAid.org. Together with loans parents take on to finance their children’s college educations — loans that the students often pay themselves – the estimate comes to about $22,900. That’s 8% more than last year and, in inflation-adjusted terms, 47% more than a decade ago.

In the long run, the investment is probably worth it. Education is a much better reason to borrow money than buying cars or McMansions, and it endows people with economic advantages that the recession and slow recovery have only accentuated. As of 2009, the annual pre-tax income of households headed by people with at least a college degree exceeded that of less-educated households by 101%, up from 91% in 2006. As of April, the unemployment rate among college graduates stood at 4.5%, compared to 9.7% for those with only a high-school diploma and 14.6% for those who never finished high school.

I am intrigued by the McMansion comparison here as it is used to illustrate the foolishness of overspending on a big or expensive house versus the possible “good debt” of college loans. Of course, this is all in economic terms as the education is expected to pay off down the road while McMansion purchases of the last 15 years are not expected to yield such great values in this poor housing market. (And using a car as a debt comparison seems a bit strange: a car is rarely an investment but rather a black hole for money.) But this view of a house, as an investment opportunity, is a relatively recent development.

There is something about this data that could warrant a closer look: while it appears that the average college student debt has increased, is the average really the best measure here? I would much rather see a distribution of college debt in order to better know whether this mean is heavily influenced by people with massive amounts of college debt. Here is a paragraph from a recent New York Times article regarding college loans:

Two-thirds of bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with debt in 2008, compared with less than half in 1993. Last year, graduates who took out loans left college with an average of $24,000 in debt. Default rates are rising, especially among those who attended for-profit colleges.

And here is some additional data from recent years that sheds more light on the distribution of college debt:

These figures were calculated using the data analysis system for the 2007-2008 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics at the US Department of Education. (For comparison, cumulative education debt statistics from the 2003-2004 NPSAS are also available.) The 2007-2008 NPSAS surveyed 114,000 undergraduate students and 14,000 graduate and professional students. These statistics are not necessarily available from published NPSAS reports.The median cumulative debt among graduating Bachelor’s degree recipients at 4-year undergraduate schools was $19,999 in 2007-08. One quarter borrowed $30,526 or more, and one tenth borrowed $44,668 or more. 9.5% of undergraduate students and 14.6% of undergraduate student borrowers graduating with a Bachelor’s degree graduated with $40,000 or more in cumulative debt in 2007-08. This compares with 6.4% and 10.0%, respectively, for Bachelor’s degree recipients graduating with $40,000 or more (2008 dollars) in cumulative debt in 2003-04.

This data provides a median that is somewhat similar to the two figures cited above. Based on these three figures and interpretations, it sounds like more college students are taking on debt rather than some students are taking on a lot more debt.