Tuesday, November 25, 2014

When It Comes to Student-Loan Crisis, The Department of Education Is a Wizard of Oz Outfit: No Brains, No Courage, and No Heart

As the The Chronicle of Higher Education reported recently, the U.S. Department of Education has relaxed it standards for regulating student loans in ways that benefit certain segments of the higher education industry at the expense of students.

Specifically, DOE spared two or three dozen colleges from the consequences of having high student-loan default rates, it loosened standards for awarding Parent Plus Loans, and it dropped the "cohort-default-rate metric" from DOE's new "gainful employment" rule--a rule that is intended to rein in for-profit colleges that are not producing good student outcomes.

Relaxing standards for PLUS Loans

First, DOE relaxed standards for receiving Parent PLUS loans, loans parents take out to pay for their children's college educations. This may be good for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which  have lobbied DOE to undo changes in DOE eligibility rules for Parent Plus loans because the stricter eligibility rules had hurt enrollment rates at some HBCUs.

But by relaxing its eligibility standards for PLUS loans, DOE may have hurt parents who are struggling to put their children through college. PLUS loans are a dangerous way to finance a college education because parents who sign them are personally liable along with their children for paying back those loans. And parents who take out PLUS loans will find it almost impossible to discharge those loans in bankruptcy even if health problems or a job loss makes it difficult to pay those loans back.

Dropping the "cohort-default rate" 

Likewise, dropping the "cohort-default rate" metric from DOE's new gainful employment rule will be good for HBCUs and the for-profits, both of which tend to have relatively high student-loan default rates. This change will make it easier for them to continue being elibible for participation in the federal student loan program--their life's blood.

Nevertheless, as critics noted, "the revised rule, which only looks at graduates' debt-to-income ratios, will allow 'dropout factories,' to pass simply by limiting the debt of the few students who finish" (Field, 2014). Allowing dropout factories to continue participating in the student loan program cannot be good for the students who are lured into attending them.

Sparing colleges from consequences of high student-loan default rates

Finally, sparing some colleges from the consequences of their high default rates, as DOE did last fall, is good news for the institutions that were spared (somewhere between 20 and 30).  But to allow a handful of high-default-rate colleges to continue receiving federal student-aid money may not be good news for the students who will continue borrowing money to enroll in colleges where a high percentage of students are unable to pay back their student loans.

DOE's approach to student loan crisis: No brains, no courage and no heart

The US. Department of Education: No brains, no courage, and no heart

The Chronicle quoted Maxwell John Love, president of the United States Student Association, as saying that DOE's actions "reinforces concerns the system is rigged in favor of the industry and special interests" (Field, 2014). And of course Love is right.

President Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and the Department of Education's senior officials know that the student loan program is out of control.  Their feeble attempts to rein in the for-profits are evidence of that.

But the for-profits will never be brought under control.  They have consistently fought DOE's efforts to regulate them either by lobbying or through litigation. In fact, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities sued DOE again this month, trying to block DOE's latest reiteration of its gainful employment rule (Field, 2014). This is the industry's third lawsuit against DOE that I know about.

In short, the Obama administration is a Wizard of Oz operation when it comes to confronting the student-loan crisis.  Its approach to fixing this massive problem lacks political courage; its regulatory efforts are cumbersome and unimaginative; and--at bottom--Obama and his minions are without genuine sympathy for the millions of people who have been hurt by the federal student loan program, by the for-profit colleges, and by the banking industry that has made millions in profits by offering private student loans

No brains, no courage, and no heart: this is the epitaph of the Obama administration's pathetic efforts to address the student loan catastrophe.


Kelly Field. ON College Accountability, Will Education Dept. Blink Again? The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 20, 2014. Accessible at:

Sunday, November 23, 2014

You can't win if you don't play! Elite colleges engage in "promiscuous" recruiting to get their acceptance rates down

Frank Bruni wrote a provocative op ed essay in the Times awhile back about aggressive recruiting practices by elite colleges and universities.  The spokespeople for these joints say they want to make sure they don't overlook "candidates of great merit" who might miss the golden opportunity to matriculate at tony institutions like Swarthmore.

But, as Bruni pointed out, private colleges maintain their elite status by keeping their acceptance rates low; and the only way elite institutions can lower their acceptance rates is to increase the number of applicants.  So--in essence--colleges are trying to lure as many applicants as possible just to set them up for rejection.

Bruni quoted one person who said Tulane University sends everyone a "VIP application," and Rensselaer invites some applicants to apply with "Candidate Choice status!" (bold type and explanation mark supplied by Rennselaer).

The headline for Bruni's essay is entitled "Promiscuous College Come-Ons," and "promiscuous" is probably the right word. Our elite colleges are engaging in recruiting practices that are basically identical to the gambling industry: "You can't win if you don't play!"

All across America, high school students are sweating over college-application essays that will make them stand out when their applications are scanned by beady-eyed admissions committees at places like Williams, Wesleyan, Hamilton, Colby, Swarthmore, and Smith. Meanwhile, parents are trying to figure out the difference between the sticker price and the real cost of educating little Suzie or Johnny at an elite school after scholarships, grants, and loans are factored in.  Very much like trying to get a good deal on a new Chevy.

And what is the value of the prize that little Suzie and Johnny win if they get into an exclusive college? For many of the people who matriculate at America's elitists institutions, all they will have received when they graduate is an expensive introduction to postmodern cynicism and a lot of student-loan debt.

I think it is time for bright young Americans to make the bold and courageous decision to  just skip the whole elite-college experience. I think it is time for American young people to explore less exalted options for their post-secondary educations and training like attending a foreign university, getting a technical education in the energy field, or just staying near home and attending a nearby state college.

In my view, our brightest and most idealistic young people should be asking themselves if they want to become the kind of people who run our elite universities or who teach at them. I don't think they do.

Our best young Americans want a post-secondary education that will allow them enter occupations that are fulfilling and will pay enough for them to care for their families. They want educational experiences that will help them develop a reasoned basis for making ethical decisions. And I think they want educational experiences that will help them determine the ultimate meaning of their lives--something liberal arts institutions once purported to do.

 It is true, as the higher education community constantly reminds us, that people who graduate from college make more money than people who don't.  But I wonder if people who borrow thousands of dollars to attend our nation's most expensive elite universities make more money or have more fulfilling lives than people who graduate from West Texas University with no debt.


Frank Bruni. Promiscuous College Come-Ons. New York Times, November 22, 2014. Accessible at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/23/opinion/sunday/frank-bruni-promiscuous-college-come-ons.html?_r=0

Friday, November 21, 2014

America's Journey into the "Heart of Darkness": MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber, Elite Universities and Obamacare

 Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad's tale of one man's journey up a mysterious river into the heart of Africa, is one of those books that has embedded itself in America's postmodern psyche. How many high school students have written theme papers on Conrad's book? How many professors have crammed  Heart of Darkness down the yawning throats of indifferent sophomores imprisoned in mandatory English courses?  How many scholars have quoted the book's most famous line--"The Horror! The Horror!"--and opined on the book's rich commentary on colonialism, racism, and existential doubt?

At its core, however, Heart of Darkness is about greed. The people who ravished Africa in the late 19th  century and who people Conrad's book had nothing more in mind than making money.  Conrad described a group of European adventurers encamped on the bank of an African river as "sordid buccaneers" whose talk was "reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage . . ." When the character Marlow asks an accountant why he took a job that landed him in an African jungle, he scornfully replies, "To make money, of course. What do you think?"

I  thought about Heart of Darkness recently as I read the news about Jonathan Gruber, the MIT professor who was one of Obamacare's chief designers.  Videos came to light in which Gruber basically admitted that Obama's healthcare law was based on deception and the contemptuous belief that Americans are too stupid to understand what the law would cost them.

Prior to passage of the healthcare law, Obama's people bragged about how smart Gruber is.  He was going to craft the most perfect and lovely healthcare system that had ever been designed, we were assured. And now we find out that Gruber was just a cynical academic who made millions of dollars packaging a swindle.

Indeed, Gruber is very much like Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the mysterious man in the heart of a dark continent who accumulated vasts stores of ivory and who acquired a firm hold on the imagination of the novel's central character, a riverboat captain named Marlow.

Marlow's description of Kurtz sounds very much like the Obamacrats' obsequious praise for Professor Gruber:
Hadn't I been told in all the tones of jealousy and admiration that he had collected, bartered, swindled or stolen more ivory than all the other agents together. That was not the point. The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk . . . .
And of course Professor Gruber is just one of the many elitists who surround Barack Obama--all graduates of America's most prestigious colleges and universities. Almost all of them have an air of arrogance and condescension, and an unseemly sense of their own intelligence. Like the characters who grub for wealth in Heart of Darkness, most seem propelled solely by greed or the desire for power and recognition.

For some reason, Americans  have been willing to put the nation's destiny into the hands of these hollow and soulless people, most of whom have done nothing with their lives except attend elitist universities where they learned to do little more than talk. We even want our children to get degrees from the fancy colleges where Obama's bureaucrats have been spawned. We are willing to borrow vast sums of money to pay tuition costs so our children can take classes from professors like Jonathan Gruber.

And so we journey upriver into America's own Heart of Darkness: the elite colleges and universities that suck up our money and produce nothing but emptiness.  "The horror! The horror!" we will say to ourselves when we get our first student-loan bill and find we don't have the money to pay it.

MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber
"The horror! The horror!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, one third of student-loan borrowers in repayment during 2012 were delinquent!

According to the Department of Education's most recent report, 13.7 percent of student-loan debtors in the most recent cohort of borrowers defaulted on their loans within three years of beginning the repayment period.  That's not a good number, but DOE tells us that the student-loan default rate actually went down a bit from the previous year, when the three-year default rate was 14.7 percent.

The DOE's report on student-loan default rates is mildly intersting, but the Federal Reserve Bank of New York drilled down a little deeper into the data; and its findings are alarming.  In a report issued last  April,  FRBNY concluded that about 17 percent of the nation's 39 million student-loan borrowers were in default in 2012. Interestingly, people in the 30 to 49 year-old age bracket had the highest delinquency rates--higher than either younger borrowers or older borrowers.

 Moreover, as the Federal Reserve Bank pointed out, this percentage figure is based on a denominator that includes borrowers who are not in the repayment phase of their loans. Some are still in school, some have deferments, and some are participating in income-based repayment plans.

Among borrowers in the repayment phase (which constitute a smaller denominator), almost one third are in delinquency. This figure should alarm everyone in the higher education community.

Furthermore, the percentage of borrowers transitioning into delinquency on a quarterly basis is going up. The FRBNY report found that 6 percent of non-delinquent borrowers transitioned into delinquency in 2005. "By 2012, that rate had increased to 9 percent." Thus, there has been "an increasing trend of borrowers becoming newly delinquent over time"(Brown, et al., 2014, p. 12).

So what's the bottom line? In 2012, almost a third of student-loan borrowers who are in the repayment phase on their loans are delinquent on their monthly payments.  And that doesn't include millions of people who have economic-hardship deferments that excuse them from making payments. And when we add in all those people in income-based repayment plans who are making monthly payments that are so low that their loan balances are not going down, we can see that the percentage of people who are not paying off their student loans is quite high.

In short , the evidence is all around us. The federal student loan program is in real trouble.


Meta Brown, Andrew Haughwout, Donghoon Lee, Joelle Scally, and Wilbert van der Klaauw. Measuring Student Debt and Its Performance. Federal Reserve Bank of New York, April 2014. Accessible at: http://www.newyorkfed.org/research/staff_reports/sr668.pdf

Monday, November 10, 2014

Now We're Getting Somewhere: Jason Delisle and Clare McCann Published A Very Useful Essay on Student-Loan Defaults in Forbes.Com

As almost everyone knows, the Department of Education's annual report on student-loan defaults is not very useful.  Every autumn, DOE reports on the percentage of student-loan debtors from the most recent cohort of borrowers who default on their loans within three years of beginning repayment.  Last September, DOE reported a composite default rate of 13.7 percent, down a full percentage point from the previous year.

But of course, DOE's report does not tell us how many borrowers default on their student loans after the three-year period that DOE measures.   Nor does DOE's report gives us any information about the number of people who are not counted as defaulters because they received economic hardship deferments, even though those people aren't paying on their loans.

In short, DOE's annual reports don't tell us what we really want to know, which is this: How many people are not paying back their student loans?

Fortunately, Jason Delisle and Clare McCann published an article recently for Forbes.com that gives us some very useful information about what the student-loan default rates really are. Here are some of the things they found:

First, Delisle and McCann report that cumulative cohort default rates for recent cohorts of borrowers are disturbingly high.  Among students who attended two-year public and nonprofit colleges who began repayment in 2007, about one out of four is in default. Among students who attended two-year for-profit institutions and began repayment in 2007, more than one out of three (36 percent) is in default.

Delisle and McCann also looked at the federal government's budget lifetime default rate, which estimates default rates for cohorts of borrowers over a period of 20 years. "Across all school types," Delisle and McCann wrote, "the Department of Education reported that a little over one in five loans for undergraduate educations will default within two decades."

DOE is encouraging student-loan borrowers to enroll in one of several income-based repayment plans that DOE offers. These plans can lower borrowers' monthly loan payments because these payments are determined based on a percentage of borrowers' income and not the amount they borrowed.  Delisle and McCann wrote that the percentage of borrowers who participate in these plans has grown from 5 percent to 10 percent of people who are making payments on their loans.

But of course, many people in these income-based repayment plans are making payments that are so low that their payments are not covering the interest that is accruing. Thus, many borrowers who are making loan payments based on their income will see their loan balances go up and not down due to negative amortization.

Borrowers in income-based repayment plans may not care if their loan balances are growing because whatever they owe at the end of their repayment period (20 or 25 years) is forgiven. But taxpayers should care.

Delisle and McCann wrote "that the U.S. Department estimates that of about a quarter of borrowers in the most generous of these [income-based repayment] plans will walk away from $41,000 in unpaid loans under a loan forgiveness benefit, based on initial balances of $39,500."

In other words, a significant percentage of people who are enrolled in long-term income-based repayment plans will never pay off the principal of their loans, even if they faithfully make loan payments for 20 years.

The picture that Delisle and McCann have sketched for us regarding student-loan default rates is pretty sobering, and it is based on the federal government's own data. When we consider that the Feds' estimates of lifetime default rates and negative amortization rates are probably overly optimistic, we have real reason to worry.

Of course, we can kick this can down the road, so to speak, as the Obama administration is presently doing. By encouraging borrowers to sign up for long-term income-based repayment plans, the Department of Education is reducing borrowers' monthly payments, which may help keep default rates down. But if people in these plans are not paying off their loan balances, which many of them are not, taxpayers will ultimately wind up paying the bill for a student loan program that is out of control.

Even now, there are things we can do to avert disaster, but we won't begin thinking about these things so long as we are lulled into believing that the student-loan default rate is under control. But it is not under control, and we can thank Jason Delisle and Clare McCann for helping making the true state of affairs a little clearer.


Jason Delisle and Clare McCann. Who's Not Repaying Student Loans? More People Than You Think. Forbes.com, September 26, 2014. Accessible at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jasondelisle/2014/09/26/whos-not-repaying-student-loans-more-people-than-you-think/?utm_content=buffer1e0e0&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Occasionally, The New York Times Says Something Sensible About the Student Loan Crisis: Bankruptcy Relief for Private Student Loan Borrowers

Last month, the Student Loan Ombudsman for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)issued a report highlighting the hardships experienced by students who took out private loans to attend college. Unlike the federal student loan program, which offers income-based repayment plans and economic hardship deferments to student-loan borrowers who run into financial trouble, private lenders generally do not offer any type of relief for distressed student-loan borrowers.

What the CFPB did not say in its report is that private student-loan borrowers, like borrowers in the federal student loan program, cannot discharge their student loans in bankruptcy unless they can show "undue hardship," a very difficult standard to meet.
All the CFPB report offered as a remedy to this problem was a form letter that student-loan borrowers could modify and send to their private lenders to beg for relief.  That is really not much of a solution.

Yesterday, however, the New York Times commented on the CFPB report and made a sensible suggestion. The Times proposed that Congress repeal the 2005 "undue hardship" provision that makes it almost impossible for private student-loan borrowers to discharge their loans in bankruptcy. In the alternative, the Times added, legislation should be passed that requires private lenders to modify loan terms for distressed student-loan borrowers. "Now it's time for Congress to fix [the error it made when it passed the 2005 law]," the Times editorialized, "by rescinding the bankruptcy provision or requiring lenders to create clearly advertised flexible payment plans in exchange for retaining it."

Respected commentators have recommended rescinding the 2005 Bankruptcy Code provision for years. In 2009, Rafael Pardo, a law professor and noted researcher on the student-loan crisis, testified before a Congressional committee on the special hardships suffered by individuals who took out private student loans to finance their college studies.  Here is what Professor Pardo said:
Because the costs of private student loans can quickly spiral out of control, and because there exist limited nonbankruptcy options for mitigating the financial distress imposed by such costs, borrowers of private student loans are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of undue-hardship discharge litigation.  If they end up seeking relief through the bankruptcy system and subsequently fail to prevail in their claim of undue hardship, they will find themselves struggling interminably under an oppressive amount of educational debt with little to no other options for relief.
In short, Professor Pardo told the Congressional committee:
By stripping away the one social safety net that existed for borrowers of private student loans--that is, the automatic discharge of such loans in bankruptcy--Congress has likely condemned certain student-loan debtors to the Sisyphean task of repaying obligations that will never be extinguished. [Emphasis supplied.]
In his testimony, Professor Pardo stated unequivocally that Congress should repeal the 2005 "undue hardship" provision that has made it almost impossible for individuals to discharge their private student-loan debts in bankruptcy.  Pardo testified as follows:
I respectfully urge Congress to restrike the balance between student-loan debtors and lenders of private student loans by restoring the automatically dischargeable status of private student loans in bankruptcy.
Without a doubt, repeal of the 2005 Bankruptcy Code provision is essential to providing relief to distressed college borrowers who took out private student loans.  It is refreshing to see that the New York Times essentially agrees with Professor Pardo on this issue, although the Times equivocated a bit by saying that Congress might pass a law requiring private student-loan lenders to offer flexible payment terms as an alternative to repealing the 2005 Bankruptcy Code provision.

Everyone in higher education should be clamoring for repeal of the Bankruptcy Code's "undue hardship provision for all student-loan borrowers, whether they borrowed from the federal student loan program or borrowed from private lenders.  Literally millions of distressed student-loan borrowers are suffering  because they cannot repay their loans and have no real means of relief in the bankruptcy courts.

But if across-the-board reform cannot be achieved politically, at least Congress should repeal the "undue hardship" provision as it applies to people who took out student loans from the private banks. Even the New York Times, which at times seems almost clueless about the student-loan crisis, has figured that out.


Editorial. Driving Student Borrowers Into Default. New York Times, November 3, 2014.

Rafael Pardo. ABI Members Testify on Discharging Student Loan Debt in Bankruptcy. ABI Journal, November 2009, p. 10. Accessible at: http://www.abiworld.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Home&CONTENTID=59097&TEMPLATE=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm