Psychologists say that adolescents and young adults take more risks than any other age group. Perhaps this is why about one in five (21.2%) college students receiving financial aid to pay for their education have invested these loans in a cryptocurrency, according to a recent survey by The Student Loan Report, a website for student loan information.

Some Basics Facts About Today’s Popular Cryptocurrencies

According to numerous financial metrics, cryptocurrencies constituted one of the hottest investments of 2017, especially for young Americans. In the summer of 2017, these digital assets reached a combined market capitalization of $100 billion, split among bitcoin ($45 billion, or 40.1%), ethereum ($31 billion, or 28.3%), ripple ($12 billion, or 11.04%), litecoin ($2 billion, or 2.2%), ethereum classic ($2 billion, or 1.71%), nem ($1.7 billion, or 1.5), Dash ($1.3 billion, or 1.2%), and over 800 other currencies with market caps ranging from $1,000 to $800,000. Created in 2009, bitcoin was the first decentralized cryptocurrency and remains the most well-known. As these numbers reveal, however, countless variants, frequently called “altcoins,” (short for “alternative coins”), now exist.

“Cryptocurrencies represent an entirely new asset class and financial sector,” opined Ashe Whitener, a cryptocurrency enthusiast who formerly worked in business development for Euro Pacific Bank. Drew Cloud, Student Loan Report’s founder, told The Boston Globe: “Younger Americans are certainly the most enthusiastic about cryptocurrency; they are the most active investors and want to get involved in the space in any way possible.” Colleges today offer courses on these digital tokens, while a company called Campus Coin is attempting to establish cryptocurrencies as a medium of exchange at colleges throughout the country. At the same time, others have called the enthusiasm around cryptocurrencies “speculative mania.

This objection is not an idle one, as dramatic and inexplicable swings regularly wrack this market. For example, on January 1, 2017, a single bitcoin held a value of only $968; in December 2017, it was worth $19,783. By January 2018, bitcoin posted its worst monthly performance in three years: slipping below $6,000, it lost 70% of its value. Although it jumped to approximately $10,000 by February 15, 2018, it plummeted by 23.11% to $7,688.68 on March 14, 2018, with the announcement of a partial ban on online cryptocurrency advertising. Bitcoin slightly recovered to $8,600 by March 22 and fell to $8,490 by March 23.

Subject to a similar rollercoaster ride, Ethereum, the market’s second most-valuable cryptocurrency, was valued at over $1,400 in January 2017 but has since slumped to $520.

Less popular and smaller digital coins have proven even more volatile. Tron (TRX), for instance, reached a high of 30 cents on January 4, 2018, before nosediving to 4 cents within thirty days.

The dangers of investing in cryptocurrencies thus replicate the perils of investing in very small capital stocks. As one expert put it, “You can see big swings in a short period of time. There’s still a lot of price discovery going on.”

Financial and Legal Risks of Investing Student Loan Funds in Cryptocurrencies

Because investing in cryptocurrencies carries risk – and because student loans are intended for use in funding higher education, not speculating on the cryptocurrency market – student loan experts have been surprised by borrowers’ willingness to invest nearly non-dischargeable sums in this newest market.

“Investing from a . . . [student] loan is a terrible idea as these assets are extremely risky and volatile,” pointed out Christian Catalini, an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who researches blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies. Others agree. “If you invest the student loans in cryptocurrency and lose money, you will still owe the student loans,” observed Mark Kantrowitz, a student loan expert. “And, where will you get the money to pay for college costs?”

For its part, the United States Department of Education has warned, “Federal student aid funds are to be used only to help meet the costs of attending an eligible institution of higher education. Investing is not considered an appropriate use of federal student aid funds.”

Trend Worth Watching

For the sake of their bottom line, every participant in the student loan market, including loan providers and servicers, would be wise to monitor student borrowers’ investment of loan proceeds, particularly in innovative but volatile financial instruments.