Just as the subprime mortgage bubble was giving way to a bust that would help trigger a devastating financial crisis, Goldman Sachs, a firm that had been at the center of Wall Street’s rampant mortgage speculation, found its way to a new area of explosive growth: In claiming what would eventually become a 41 percent stake in Education Management Corp., Goldman secured itself a means of tapping into the boom in for-profit higher education. The federal government was boosting aid to college students nationwide, just as a declining economy prompted millions of Americans to seek refuge in higher education, leading to dramatically expanding enrollments at many institutions.
But unlike in the mortgage markets, where some unwise or unlucky investor got saddled with the bad loans after the festivities ended and home prices fell, this new market in higher education boasted seemingly unlimited growth potential at virtually zero risk. The burden of college loan repayment falls entirely on students’ backs, shielding corporations from the consequences of default. The colleges essentially receive all their revenues upfront, primarily through federal government loans and grants for tuition, regardless of whether students are able to gain employment and pay back their loans.