Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Peace for our time or a historic mistake? The Ivy Leaguers make a deal with Iran and your children will pay the price

World War II was unnecessary, Churchill wrote in The Gathering Storm, the first volume of his history of the Second World War. Had the British and Americans conducted their affairs "with the ordinary consistency and common sense usual in decent households," Church observed, they could have maintained their security without bloodshed.
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain & Hitler
September 23, 1938
Those of us who read history know that Neville Chamberlain made a groveling peace pact with Hitler in 1938, and less than a year later, England and Germany were at war.  As Churchill put the matter, "You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war."

Today, the United States and its passive allies are on the verge of a deal with Iran whereby the United States and the European Union lift their sanctions against Iran and Iran promises not to build a nuclear bomb.

Does anyone believe Iran will cease its efforts to become a nuclear power? I certainly don't.  And Israel, whose life depends upon this issue, doesn't believe it either.  The deal with Iran, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated emphatically, is a "historic mistake."

But, like Neville Chamberlain, who believed his deal with Hitler would bring "peace for our time," President Obama believes he has made the Middle East a safer place. Or perhaps he merely believes a deal with Iran will look good on his vita.

America's national affairs are in such disarray that it is embarrassing to contemplate them. Today, the United States begs a mob of Afghan elders to allow us to pour American blood and treasure into a country that has no interest whatsoever in democratic values or human rights.

On the home front, the President has lied repeatedly about the essential features of Obamacare, but he holds average Americans in such contempt that he doesn't bother with a proper apology.  As Churchill said of British politician Stanley Baldwin, "He occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened."

As I have said more than once, our country is being run by people who were schooled in the nation's elite colleges and professional schools--institutions which teach nothing more than arrogance, an unseemly obsession with power and recognition, and a studied cynicism toward traditional American values.

How will all this end? Regarding Iran, there are just two possibilities.  Either Iran will become a nuclear power and thereby make the Middle East even more unstable or Israel will launch military strikes in an effort to destroy Iran's nuclear capability.

If Israel acts militarily, you can kiss your 401(k) goodbye along with your draft-age children and grandchildren.

But don't worry about Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.  However things turn out, there's a book deal for Obama after he steps down from the presidency.  And John Kerry's wealth is well invested.  He will do just fine financially no matter what happens to you and me.


Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948.

Jodi Rudoren. Israelis See Ticking Clock, and Alternative Approaches, on Iran and Palestinians. New York Times, November 26, 2013, p. A12.

Monday, November 25, 2013

"You can't get there from here": It is very difficult to sue the Department of Education about a disputed student loan

According to urban legend, a traveler asked a Maine farmer for directions to a nearby town. "You can't get there from here," the farmer replied, a cryptic and distinctly unhelpful reply.

 You can't get there from here.
photo credit: treehugger.com
Well if you are a student-loan debtor who believes a  mistake was made about your loan, you are unlikely to get the problem resolved quickly in a court proceeding. In other words, when it comes to suing the federal government about your student-loan debt, "You can't get there from here."

The Wagstaff case: Eight years of fruitless litigation about a student-loan debt

Take the case of Audrey Wagstaff, who took out six federal student loans to attend Our Lady of the Lake University in the early 1990s.  According to the U.S. Department of Education, Ms. Wagstaff didn't make any payments on her loans.  DOE sued her in 1999, dropped the lawsuit, and then began administrative collection efforts against here.  DOE garnished Wagstaff''s wages in order to collect on the loans and applied some offsets to her federal tax refunds.

In 2005, Wagstaff sued DOE under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, alleging DOE's collection practices violated the Act.  A federal court dismissed her case, and she appealed.  In 2007, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal, ruling that the Department of Education is not subject to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Undaunted, Wagstaff sued in a Texas state court. DOE transferred the case to federal court, where she was dismissed again.  She appealed to the Fifth Circuit, which ruled again that Wagstaff did not have a case.

In 2011, Wagstaff sued yet again, this time in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The Department of Education tried to get this suit dismissed as well, and the Court of Federal Claims dismissed all her constitutional claims and statutory civil rights claims.

But the court did not dismiss all of Wagstaff's claims.  The court concluded that Wagstaff had properly pleaded a claim of "illegal exaction" against the government, which the court had jurisdiction to hear. In addition, the court ruled that she had brought her claim within the six-year limitation period for bringing claims against the government, so it allowed her lawsuit to proceed.

In the end, however, Wagstaff lost her case. On July 13, 2013, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled that DOE had correctly calculated Wagstaff's student-loan debt. "There is no evidence to suggest the Government behaved unlawfully," the court ruled, and "the Government has properly supported its assertion that the promissory notes were valid . . ." (p. 765).

What does the Wagstaff litigation mean for the rest of us?

Audrey Wagstaff may not be a sympathetic plaintiff.  According to the Department of Education, she had never made a single payment on her six student loans. Nevertheless, her experience in federal court gives all of us some things to ponder.

First of all, if a student-loan debtor has a dispute about the amount of money owed, it is best to try to resolve the dispute as quickly and as  informally as possible.  According to the 2013 Court of Federal Claims opinion, Mrs. Wagstaff only borrowed about $17,000.  But interest and penalties accrued over the years, and by the time the Court of Federal Claims ruled in 2013, the amount she owed had more than doubled to $36,000.

Second, the Fifth Circuit ruled conclusively that the federal government is not subject to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and cannot be sued for unfair debt collection practices under that law. But shouldn't the federal government be subject to the same restraints that apply to other debt collectors? After all, six million people have defaulted on federal student loans; and the Department of Education, acting through private agencies, may be the largest debt collector in the world.

Third, Ms. Wagstaff was compelled to bring her claims of unfair debt collection against the feds within six years, but there is no time constraint on the government suing Ms. Wagstaff.  Shouldn't the same six-year statute of limitations that applies to student-loan debtors also apply to the Department of Education?

Finally, if someone has an unfair debt collection claim against the federal government that pertains to a student loan, shouldn't that person be able to litigate the claim in a federal district court in the debtor's home state rather than being forced to sue in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims?

In my opinion, student loan debtors who are unable to resolve disputes about their loans at the administrative level should have easy access to the federal courts to litigate their claims, and the federal government should be under the same constraints against unfair debt-collection practices that apply to private debt collectors.

Do you think anyone in Congress is interested in making the Department of Education subject to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act? Do you think anyone in Congress is interested in putting a six-year statute of limitation on the federal government's efforts to collect on student-loan debt? Do you think the Obama administration is interested in either of these issues?

No, Congress and the Obama administration have absolutely no interest in giving basic consumer protections to the millions of  distressed student-loan debtors. Consequently, these people are suffering in silence, unable to pay back their loans, unable to discharge them in bankruptcy, and unable to start their lives afresh.


Wagstaff v. United States, 111 Fed. Cl. 754 (2013).

Wagstaff v. United States, 105 Fed. Cl. 99 (2012).

Wagstaff v. United States, 366 Fed. Appx. 564 (5th Cir. 2010).

Wagstaff v. United States, 509 F.3d   661 (5th Cir. 2007).

Sunday, November 24, 2013

President Obama's Proposed College Rating Plan is a Non-Starter: Colleges Should Prepare for More Bureaucracy and Higher Costs

"When someone describes himself as a Christian businessman," my former law partner once observed, "I put my hand over my wallet."

I feel the same way when President Obama announces a new plan to help the middle class. When the President proposes to do something nice for average Americans, I get nervous.

And what is President Obama's latest proposal to help the middle class? According to a White House press release, President Obama wants to implement a college rating plan "to Make College More Affordable" and "A Better Bargain for the Middle Class."

That's right. Having mucked up health care, the President now plans to screw up higher education even more than it is already screwed up.

President Obama wants to help the
middle class. No, really!
Although the details aren't yet clear, the President's new system "will measure college performance through a new rating system so students and families have the information to select schools that provide the best value."  This new rating system, the White House assures us,  will "incentivize [sic]colleges to provide better value by improving performance, lowering costs, and investing in student access and success."

What's the President's ultimate goal? I think it is to shift federal aid money to certain favored institutions.  The press release says the Department of Education ultimately plans to give more federal student aid to colleges that provide the best value. According to the White House press release, students attending high-performing colleges would receive larger Pell Grants and more affordable student loans than students attending lower-ranked institutions.

So how will the President's latest grandiose scheme roll out?  This is my prediction:

1) First, DOE will vet its proposed college-rating regulations with higher education's powerful constituencies: the for-profit colleges;  elite schools like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford; and the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).  These groups will have their lobbyists and lawyers weigh in and make sure the new regulations won't hurt them. DOE will acquiesce to all these groups' demands.

2) Next, President Obama will sign executive orders and DOE will promulgate administrative regulations that will implement the President's new college-rating system.  All this will be accomplished without Congressional approval because Congress would never approve this hare-brained scheme.

3) Colleges will hire consultants and low-level bureaucrats to comply with the new rating system without changing the way they do business.  College costs will not go down. On the contrary, tuition will continue to rise faster than the rate of inflation just as it has for the last 30 years.

If President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan were serious about lowering college costs and providing a "better bargain for the middle class," they would kick the for-profit colleges out of the federal student aid program. The for-profits educate about 11 percent of all post-secondary students, but they get 25 percent of all the federal student aid money--about $35 billion a year.  They have highest student-loan default rates in the industry and low student-completion rates.

If the federal government shifted that $35 billion from the for-profit sector to community colleges, think what could be accomplished. Community colleges could educate the same groups of students now going to for-profit colleges for much less money.

But President Obama won't stand up to the for-profit college industry.  That would be too hard.  No, he would rather impose another level of bureaucratic reporting on colleges and universities that are already over-regulated.  That's President Obama's big plan to make college more affordable for the middle class.


White House Press Release. FACT SHEET on the President's Plan to Make College More Affordable: A Better Bargain for the Middle Class. August 22, 2013.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

President Obama Did Not Tell the Truth About the Affordable Care Act: Where Was the President Educated?

Justice Ruth Ginsburg
It's OK to scam the rubes (wink!)
In Gratz v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court overturned an affirmative action program at the University of Michigan that used a point system to benefit minority applicants to the university.  In the majority opinion's view, the University of Michigan had unlawfully discriminated against white applicants in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

In a remarkable display of cynicism, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. She argued that the Court should allow American universities to discriminate based on race because they would do it anyway, even if they had to lie about it.

Here is what she said:
One can reasonably anticipate . . . that colleges and universities will seek to maintain their minority enrollment--and the networks and opportunities thereby opened to minority graduates--whether or not they can do so in full candor through adoption of affirmative action plans of the kind here at issue. Without recourse to such plans, institutions of higher education may resort to camouflage. . . . If honesty is the best policy, surely Michigan's accurately described, fully disclosed College affirmative action program is preferable to achieving similar numbers through winks, nods, and disguises. (emphasis supplied)
What an astonishing thing for a Supreme Court Justice to write. In her view, college administrators are so lacking in integrity that they will lie in order to achieve their desired social goals, even if their tactics violate the law.

And Justice Ginsburg did not condemn such behavior. Implicitly at least, Justice Ginsburg endorsed the view that the end justifies the means.  Affirmative action is so worthwhile, she apparently believes, that it is OK for college officials to engage in subterfuge--to camouflage their activities, to advance their goals through "winks, nods, and disguises."

President Obama, we now know, shares Justice Ginsburg's views about honesty. Universal health care is such a good thing, he believes, that it is permissible to lie repeatedly about how the new health care law actually works.

I'm part Cherokee (wink!)
Where did Justice Ginsburg and President Obama develop such cynical views about honesty and the law? Well they were both educated at Harvard Law School and both served on the Harvard Law Review. (Justice Ginsburg transferred from Harvard to Columbia Law School before she graduated.) Perhaps Harvard infected them with the elitist view that it is OK to scam the rubes.  After all, it is the elites--people like Ruth and Barack--who know what is best for people.

And if a Harvard Law Professor (Elizabeth Warren) wants to claim she's an American Indian, that's OK too. It is important for Harvard to claim it has a Native American law professor, whether or not it's true.

Harvard's motto is Veritas--the Latin word for truth.  In light of the leaders Harvard has produced in recent years, perhaps its motto should be tweaked a bit.  How about "Veritas (wink)".

Veritas (wink!)


Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003).

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Naked to mine enemies": A modest proposal to help destitute student-loan debtors get attorneys to represent them in bankruptcy court

A great many destitute student-loan debtors file for bankruptcy without the aid of an attorney. This is not surprising since the only reason these poor people are in a bankruptcy court is because they're broke.

For example, Janet Roth, whose case I discussed in an earlier blog, appeared before the Ninth Circuit's Bankruptcy Appellate Panel without a lawyer.  At the time of the bankruptcy proceedings, Ms. Roth was living on her monthly Social Security check--only $774 a month. Obviously, she had no money to pay an attorney to  represent her in bankruptcy.

Bankrupt student-loan debtors need lawyers
Photo credit: carinsurancecomparison.org
On the other hand, student-loan creditors--agencies like Educational Credit Management Corporation and Sallie Mae--always appear in bankruptcy court with excellent attorneys. The creditors' lawyers know bankruptcy law inside and out, and they typically argue that the poor saps who enter bankruptcy are not entitled to a discharge of their student-loan debts. I don't know how these lawyers sleep at night, but I hope they sleep badly.

This inequity of legal resources obviously works to the student-loan debtor's disadvantage. Indeed, a study by Pardo and Lacy (2009) found that student-loan debtors got better outcomes in bankruptcy if they were represented by experienced bankruptcy lawyers.

Occasionally, indigent student-loan debtors obtain informal legal support from attorneys or non-lawyers with bankruptcy expertise. These people may "ghost write"  a debtor's pleadings without formally representing the debtor in court.

But some courts frown on this practice. In a bankruptcy decision filed this year, a federal court in Virginia strongly condemned the practice of ghost writing. "The Court emphasizes that the practice of ghost-writing is in no way permissible in the Eastern District of Virginia, or any federal court for that matter," the court wrote. In the court's view, such conduct amounted to "the unauthorized practice of law" (Greene v. U.S. Department of Education, 2013, *26-27).

I would like to make a modest proposal for getting better legal representation for bankrupt student-loan debtors. Currently, the law schools are turning out far more lawyers than the job market needs. In fact, a few law schools have been sued by their alumni for allegedly making false representations about their  graduates' job prospects.

Why don't these law schools organize legal aid clinics that specialize in representing bankrupt student-loan debtors?  There are certainly enough unemployed lawyers to staff these clinics. The clinics would employ lawyers who would otherwise be unemployed and give them some legal experience that would later help them obtain permanent employment.

Law schools might consider the sponsorship of legal aid clinics for student-loan debtors as a sort of penance for their hubris.  It is now well established that third- and fourth-tier law schools charged high tuition rates to students who had only dim prospects of ever getting jobs that would pay well enough to allow them to comfortably pay back their student loans. Wouldn't it be a good thing for these law schools to do something positive to ease the plight of overburdened student-loan debtors?


Greene v. United States Department of Education, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 143678 (E.D. Va. Oct. 1 2013)

In re Roth, 490 B.R. 908 (9th Cir. BAP 2013).

Raphael Pardo & Michelle Lacey. The Real Student-Loan Scandal: Undue Hardship Litigation. 83 American Bankruptcy Law Journal 179 (2009). The American Bankruptcy Law Journal

Friday, November 15, 2013

Educational Credit Management Corporation makes good money chasing destitute student-loan debtors: The Obama Administration should take action

Richard Boyle, CEO of ECMC
He made $1.1 million in 2010
Educational Credit Management Corporation is a nonprofit company that collects on defaulted student loans for the federal government. Just because it is nonprofit, however, doesn't mean its employees don't make a lot of money. According to a news story posted on Bloomberg.com, Richard Boyle, ECMC's chief executive officer, made $1.1 million in 2010.

Other ECMC employees are also making good money.  Dave Hawn, ECMC's chief operating officer, made about half a million dollars in 2010. Joshua Mandelman, an ECMC debt collector, made $454,000. And ECMC directors also do pretty well. According to the Bloomberg story, they make as much as $90,000 a year.

How does ECMC make its money? It gets a small fee for helping distressed student-loan borrowers avoid default. But it makes much more money when it collects money from student borrowers who defaulted. By law, ECMC (and other similar companies) "can receive as much as 37 percent of a borrower's entire loan amount, half in collection costs and half in taxpayer-funded commissions" (Bloomberg.com).

What a sleazy business.  People are getting rich chasing down student-loan defaulters, many of whom are unemployed and destitute.

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of ECMC's business is the position it takes when student-loan debtors file for bankruptcy. In several cases, ECMC has argued that bankrupt student-loan debtors should not have their loans discharged in bankruptcy. Instead, ECMC has argued, these debtors should be placed in income-based repayment plans that can last as long as 25 years.

Roth case: Elderly woman with health problems seeks bankruptcy relief from student loans

For example, in a recent case, Janet Roth, a 64-year old woman, filed for bankruptcy, seeking to discharge $95,000 in student loan debt.  Actually, she only borrowed $33,000, but her debt tripled due to fees and accrued interest.

At the time of the bankruptcy proceedings, Roth was unemployed and living entirely on her monthly Social Security check--only $774.  In addition, she suffered from several serious health conditions, including diabetes, macular degeneration, and depression.

Now most people would think that Ms. Roth was a good candidate for bankruptcy. But in court proceedings, ECMC challenged her request for bankruptcy relief from her student loans. ECMC argued she should have signed up for a 25-year income-based repayment plan, a plan that would have ended when she was almost 90 years old!

Fortunately, the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was sympathetic to Ms. Roth's plight. The court said Ms. Roth had acted in good faith regarding her student-loan obligations, and it discharged her of the debt.

Can you imagine? A company run by a guy who makes more than a million dollars a year argued that an elderly woman with health issues and living on her Social Security check should make monthly payments on her student loans for 25 years! These ECMC guys make Ebenezer Scrooge look like Mother Teresa.

Want another example? In In re Stevenson (2011), an elderly woman with a history of homelessness  and who was living on less than $1,000 a month, was denied relief from her student-loan debt by a bankruptcy court in Massachusetts. ECMC opposed her effort to have her student loans discharged, and a court essentially forced Ms. Stevenson into a 25-year income-based repayment plan. Like Ms. Roth, Ms. Stevenson will be nearly 90 years old when her student-loan debt is discharged.

And take a look at the Krieger case. In Krieger v. Educational Credit Management Corporation (2013), ECMC opposed the discharge of a 53 year old woman's student-loan debt even though she was unemployed and had never made more than $12,000 a year during her entire working life.

President Obama Should Take Executive Action to Aid Elderly Student Loan Debtors

Ms. Roth, Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Krieger are not alone. According to a report prepared for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, about five percent of people who are behind on their student-loan payments are 60 years old or older. Undoubtedly, many of these people are living almost solely on their Social Security checks or are destitute.

Surely, elderly student-loan defaulters are entitled to some relief. Unfortunately, their Social Security checks are subject to garnishment, and some of them are running into opposition when they file for bankruptcy.

President Obama likes to get things done through executive orders.  So how about this for a plan? President Obama should direct all student-loan collection agencies not to oppose elderly people's efforts to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy.  And he should stop the garnishment of elderly people's Social Security checks for the purpose of collecting on student loans.

President Obama can talk all he wants about how he wants to ease the burden on people who borrow money to attend college. But there are things he can do--simple things--that would ease the burden on elderly student-loan defaulters. So why doesn't he take action?


John Hechinger. Taxpayers Fund $454,000 Pay for Collector Chasing Student Loans. Bloomberg.com, May 15, 2013. Accessible at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-05-15/taxpayers-fund-454-000-pay-for-collector-chasing-student-loans.html

Brown, M., Haughwout, A., Lee, D., Mabutas, M., and van der Klaauw, W. (2012). Grading student loans. New York: Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Accessible at: http://libertystreeteconomics.newyorkfed.org/2012/03/grading-student-loans.html

Krieger v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 713 F.3d 882 (7th Cir. 2013).
Lockhart v. United States, 546 U.S. 142, 126 S. Ct. 699 (2005).

Roth v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 490 B.R. 908 (9th Cir. BAP 2013).

Stevenson v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 463 B.R. 586 (Bankr. D. Mass. 2011). 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Gore Vidal bequeathed his entire estate to Harvard University, but he died anyway.

Gore Vidal died in 2012, leaving his entire estate to Harvard University. I'm sure he received a nice thank-you note. Harvard knows how to charm the suckers.

I know. I once received a letter from Harvard confirming my appointment as a teaching assistant. I think it was signed by the Provost. It came on fine stationery and closed with the words, "Your most obedient servant."  Of course the job only paid $300 a month, less than my family's monthly health health insurance bill. But a  letter from some Harvard muckety muck signed "Your most obedient servant" meant more to me then than a living wage. I kept the letter for years.

According to the New York Times, Vidal died in his home at age 86, tormented by alcoholism, incontinence, and dementia. Apparently, no one in his life meant more to him than Harvard, which gets the royalties from Vidal's book sales plus his $37 million estate.

But why give the money to Harvard, which after all has loads of money. Perhaps Gore Vidal sought to buy immortality. As one of his friends said in the New York Times story, "Gore was clearly
Gore Vidal in 2009
Photo credit: Wikipedia
uncomfortable talking about a wold without Gore Vidal. Nothing above immortality and world domination would ever be enough for him."

But a $37 million bequest to Harvard won't buy immortality. And Neither will Vidal's 25 novels.  Even literary giants die and their reputations fade into obscurity. Remember Norman Mailer, super egotist and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes? How many people read Armies of the Night last year do you suppose?

We all creep toward death, most of us in obscurity. I have no money to give to Harvard and wouldn't give it if I had.  Harvard figured that out years ago and stopped sending me its glossy Harvard magazine. I will never be rich, never be famous, never be powerful.

But I am comforted at this time in my life by my wife and family--comforts Mr. Vidal apparently never had, although he had a long time companion he loved very much. I am grateful for my small home in a friendly Southern town, by the beauty of South Louisiana's swamps and bayous, and by the mild and temperate sun that shines most days throughout our Southern winters.

And I am comforted by my faith.  I feel sure a priest will give me last rites in my final hours. I know I will have a funeral Mass at Christ the King Church on the LSU campus; and I am confident that at least some of my grandchildren will attend.  And surely someone will write my name in the Book of Remembrance and will pray for my soul now and then.

And in my remaining years, God will strengthen me with the Mass, with Christ's body and blood. And when bitter memories and regrets sweep over me, I am reassured by God's forgiveness.

I am sorry  Gore Vidal did not have these comforts in his final years. It made me sad to learn that this famous and dazzlingly creative man felt compelled in the last year of his life to make the pathetic gesture of giving the fruits of his life's work to a soulless university he never attended.


Tim Teeman. A Final Plot Twist. New York Times, November 10, 2013, Style Section, p. 1.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Demise of Legal Education as a Noble Pursuit

You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.
                Professor Kingsfield, The Paper Chase
I have a bachelor's degree in liberal arts and a doctorate in education policy from Harvard, but my only worthwhile educational experience was my three years at the University of Texas School of Law.

I loved law school. I admired my professors, who taught their classes in business attire and were always well prepared. I respected law school's rigor, the fact that students were graded on a curve and only five percent received As. And I came to love the order, the logic, and the majesty of the law. UT Law School changed my life.

"You come in here with a skull full of mush . . ."
Professor Kingsfield, The Paper Chase
Now, thirty years on, I am saddened by the decline of legal education in the United States. Applications for admission have plunged nationwide, putting pressure on the schools to lower admissions standards.  The market for lawyers is saturated, due in part to the proliferation of third- and fourth-tier law schools, which turn out far more lawyers than our society needs.

And law school has gotten incredibly expensive. In-state tuition at UT Law School is now $36,000 a year! It was only $1,000 a year when I attended.   Students are having to borrow incredible amounts of money to study law, and many don't earn enough after they graduate to pay back their loans.

In fact, some law school graduates are suing their alma maters for fraud and misrepresentation, claiming the law schools falsified their graduates' employment rates to entice people to enroll.

As best I can determine, most of these suits are unsuccessful.  The Sixth Circuit recently issued an opinion that affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit brought against Thomas M. Cooley Law School by its graduates. The law school was not liable for fraudulent misrepresentation or fraudulent concealment, the Sixth Circuit ruled.

Nevertheless, the facts outlined in the Sixth Circuit decision are disturbing.  Thomas M. Cooley Law School enrolls more law students than any other law school in the United States, the court said. Tuition is $36,750 per year, about the same as the University of Texas School of Law, one of the nation's top-ranked law schools. According to U.S. News &World Report (as cited by the Sixth Circuit opinion), Cooley Law School has the lowest admission standards of any accredited law school in the country. In 2010, it admitted 83 percent of its applicants.

On the other hand, a federal court in New Jersey allowed a lawsuit against Widener University School of Law to go forward.  In that case, under-employed law-school alumni sued Widener under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and the Delaware Consumer Fraud Act. 

The alumni claimed that Widener had published misleading post-graduate employment data and salary information. As the court summarized the heart of their claim, "Plaintiffs argue 'they would not have paid over $30,000 a year in tuition had they know that merely 56% of Widener graduates were employed in jobs that require or use a Widener law degree,'" In the court's view, the plaintiffs had sufficiently plead a claim under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act to proceed with their case.

Most of this litigation has been brought against lower-tier law schools that charge high tuition and have trouble placing their graduates in the legal job market.  But I wonder if there is also something wrong with elite law-school education.  Law schools are supposed to teach students to use language carefully--never to deceive the courts or anyone else for that matter. Yet we have seen President Obama--a Harvard law graduate and Editor of the Harvard Law Review--make representations again and again about the Affordable Care Act that simply aren't true.

All Americans should be concerned about the deterioration of legal education in this country.  Since the beginning of the Republic, our nation has drawn its leaders from among lawyers. It has been lawyers who have drafted our legislation, presided over our courts, and made many of the important policy decision that have shaped our national life.

We cannot preserve our nation's democratic ideals, our commitment to fairness and equality, without noble lawyers. And we won't get noble lawyers unless they receive noble legal education.


Harnish v. Widener University School of Law, 931 F. Supp. 2d 641 (D.N.J. 2013).

MacDonald v. Thomas M. Cooley Law School, 724 F.3d 654 (6th Cir. 2013).

Monday, November 4, 2013

President Obama Pushes Income-Based Repayment Plans for Student-Loan Debtors: Madness! Madness!

The U.S. Department of Education is sending e-mails to selected student-loan borrowers, urging them to consider signing up for income-based repayment plans (IBRs) to pay off their student loans. Currently, about 1.6 million student-loan borrowers participate in IBR plans, but DOE wants to sign up 3.6 million additional participants within the next six weeks.  If DOE is successful, more than 5 million people will soon be making student-loan payments based on a percentage of their income over a long period of time--20 to 25 years.

A lot of the major players in higher education like IBRs--"pay as you earn" plans as some people call them. In a co-authored essay in Chronicle of Higher Education, Sandy Baum of the College Board lauded the President's plan for notifying students about IBRs and said IBRs should be the "default option" for student-loan repayment. In other words, unless student borrowers affirmatively opt out, they would automatically be enrolled in a student-loan repayment plan that would stretch their payments out over 20 or 25 years.  Wow, what a super idea!

And how will income-based loan repayments be collected? The details aren't clear yet, but I imagine the feds will do what the Brookings Institution recommends.  Student-loan borrowers will have their loan payments deducted from their payroll checks. The IRS will become the national debt collector, and a student-loan borrower's monthly loan payments will go up or down based on the borrower's current income, like income-tax withholding payments. 

Thus, the day may be coming when former college students will see their monthly student-loan payment appear as just another deduction on their paychecks--like Social Security, mandatory retirement contributions, and federal and state taxes. And for most borrowers, those deductions will last about a quarter of a century.

President Obama probably thinks he is doing college-loan debtors a favor by encouraging them to sign up for long-term repayment plans. He reminds me of Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai. Colonel Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness) is so obsessed with building a bridge for the Japanese army that he loses sight of the fact that he is hurting his country's cause, not helping it.. Not until the end of the movie does the Colonel realize that he has betrayed his country and the soldiers he commands.  The last lines of the movie are: "Madness, Madness!"
Col. Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai
"Madness! Madness!"

Why are all the insiders lining up in favor of IBRs? Two reasons:

IBR plans will hide the student-loan default crisis. First and most importantly, IBRs are a cosmetic fix for the soaring student-loan default rate.  As I've explained before, the true student-loan default rate is probably twice as high as the anemic three-year default rate DOE reports every year. In the for-profit sector, the overall default rate is at least 40 percent.  Over the long run, such a default rate is economically and politically unsustainable.

For years now, the for-profits have hid their institutional default rates by encouraging their students to sign up for economic hardship deferments so they won't be counted as defaulters. Millions of people have these deferments, but this shell game can't last forever. Eventually, the government will have to admit that a lot of people on economic-hardship deferments (probably most of them) are really defaulters who will never pay back their loans.

Putting people in IBRs is unlikely to increase the number of people who pay off their loans, but it will obscure the true student-loan default rate for several years. How? If people are automatically enrolled in IBRs, their loan payments will be lowered perhaps as low as zero for people who are unemployed or are in low-paying jobs.  These people won't be paying off their loan balances because interest will continue to accrue.  But they won't be counted as defaulters.

IBRs will take the heat off colleges and universities to keep their costs down.  Second, IBRs benefit the colleges and universities. If students pay for their college experiences based on a percentage of their income instead of the amount they borrow, they will have little incentive to shop for a college based on price. And governmental agencies will have less incentive to try to keep college costs down. Colleges and universities can perpetuate the status quo indefinitely, raising their tuition rates every year without being pressured to keep their costs down.

The for-profits will be the big winners if IBR plans become the default option for student borrowers because their student-loan default rates will drop to zero in spite of the fact that too many students who attend for-profit colleges are paying exorbitant tuition and getting substandard educational experiences.

For most students and for American Society, IBRs will be a disaster. Income-based repayments may make sense for a small percentage of student-loan debtors, but if IBRs become the default option for college-student borrowers, the consequences will be disastrous.

First of all,  as I just said, IBRs reduce students' incentive to borrow as little money as possible to attend college. In fact, many students will conclude that it makes economic sense to borrow to the max. Thus, if IBRs become popular, the total amount of money students borrow every year to attend college will  continue going up--perhaps at a faster rate than in the past.

In addition, mass adoption of IBRs will hurt the American economy. If young people are locked into making student-loan payments for 20 or 25 years, their take-home pay will be smaller and they will have less money to purchase homes, have children, and save for retirement.

But this is the most chilling fact about IBRs: They have the potential for creating a large class of people who are in essence share croppers for the federal government They will be forced to contribute a percentage of their earnings to Uncle Sam for the majority of their working lives. No one can say with certainty what the psychological impact of this arrangement will be on American college graduates, but it could reduce their faith in the American dream and lead to mass cynicism about the American political process.

And IBRs will not increase the number of people who pay off their student loans. I predict that a majority of students who select IBR plans as their student-loan repayment option will be students who pay too much to attend for-profit colleges and don't make enough money after they complete their studies to pay back their loans.  A lot of these people will be unemployed or working in low-wage jobs that entitle them to pay nothing on their loans or to pay so little that their payments won't cover accruing interest.

These poor people will see their federal loan debt grow, not shrink, over the years, even if they make all their loan payments on time.  For example, the New York Times ran a story about a veterinarian who borrowed $300,000 to attend a for-profit veterinary school outside the United States. Even though this individual found a job as a veterinarian and is making regular student-loan payments under an IBR, her current job does not pay enough to enable her to make loan payments that are large enough to cover the accruing interest on her debt. A financial analyst estimated that when this veterinarian completes her 25 year repayment period, the amount of her debt will not have been paid off.  In fact, it will have doubled--from the $300,000 she originally borrowed to more than $600,000!

In short--and I say this emphatically--wholesale adoption of income-based repayment plans is madness and its long term effect will be drive millions of people out of the middle class and into a new class of Americans--sharecroppers for the federal government.


Sandy Baum & Michael McPherson. Obama's Aid Proposals Could Use a Reality Check. Chronicle of Higher Education, August 26, 2013. Accessible at: http://chronicle.com/article/Obamas-Aid-Proposals-Could/141265/

David Segal. High debt and falling demand Traps New Vets. New York Times, February 23, 2013. Accessible at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/business/high-debt-and-falling-demand-trap-new-veterinarians.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0

Michael Stratford. You've Got Mail. Inside Higher Education, November 4, 2013. Accessible at: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/11/04/education-dept-will-email-35-million-student-loan-borrowers-about-income-based

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Fewer college students major in the humanities: Is anyone surprised?

A few days ago, the New York Times carried a front-page story on the declining number of humanities majors at American colleges.  This shouldn't surprise anyone.  In fact, students have been shifting from the humanities to business majors for over 25 years.

There are two main reasons for the decline. First, as the Times noted, more and more young people see college as "a tool for job preparation" rather than an opportunity for deeper self understanding. And that makes sense as the price of attending college goes up. People don't go to college to find themselves any more. They go hoping to get a job after graduation.

Tuition costs are especially high at institutions like Stanford and Princeton, which were mentioned in the Times article. A person would almost have to be crazy to pay the sticker price of attending one of the expensive, elite institutions just for the privilege of getting an undergraduate degree in women's studies or medieval history.

Of course, as the College Board assured us in its recent report, a lot of people don't pay the sticker price--the sucker price--to attend an elite college.  A person who gets a grant or scholarship would incur a lot less debt to attend Stanford or Princeton than a person who takes out loans and pays the full cost.

And people who know they are going to law school, business school, or medical school after they graduate don't have to worry too much about their choice of majors. People who graduate at the top of their class at Harvard can major in anything they want as undergraduates.

But people who don't get a coveted grant or scholarship and who don't come from wealthy families should be extremely cautious about going to an elite college with the goal of getting a degree in the humanities. Apart from people who borrow money to attend for-profit colleges, the people hurt most by student-loan debt are probably the people who borrow $100,000 or more to get a humanities degree from Dartmouth, Emory, or some other overpriced, hoity toity higher education institution.

Apart from the increased cost of obtaining a college degree, I think there is a second explanation for a decline in humanities majors.  Let's face it, a lot of so-called humanities professors don't teach humanities anymore; they teach postmodernism. Instead of helping students search for ultimate truths, these professors guide students toward cynicism, relativism, and self-centeredness

And so we see the proliferation of degree programs in women's studies, African American studies, Hispanic studies, LGBT studies--programs that encourage college students to develop intensely self-focused perspectives on life and to abandon the search for universal truths.

Frankly, given the present state of humanities at American colleges, I am not sure we need humanities majors or humanities professors.  It is increasingly plain that great literature,  insightful histories, and perceptive interpretations of culture and society are coming from journalists, novelists, script writers, and self-employed intellectuals. For example, Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts and  David Benioff's City of Thieves are fine examples of creative work by non-academic writers that give readers a glimpse into European history during World War II and the pre-war years.  And Rick Atkinson, trained as a journalist, wrote a wonderful trilogy on the history of World War II.

If you want to know more about 20th century European history, read Benioff, Larson, and Atkinson. Why pay $5,000 to hear a Stanford professor give fifteen history lectures and then give you a grade of C+?


Tamar Lewin. Interest Fading in Humanities, Colleges Worry. New York Times, October 31, 2013, p. 1.

Jennifer Levitz & Douglas Belkin. Humanities Fall from Favor. Wall Street Journal. June 6, 2013. Accessible at: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324069104578527642373232184