Thursday, April 30, 2015

By the thousands, student-loan borrowers are dropping out of income-based repayment plans

Thousands of student-loan borrowers are dropping out of income-based repayment plans, the U.S. Department of Education admitted recently. As reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, almost 700,000 borrowers dropped out of the plans during the course of  just one year--57 percent of the total number of people who signed up for them.

Why did they drop out? DOE says they lost eligibility because they didn't file their annual income documentation--data the government needs to set borrowers' individual monthly payments.

What happened to those dropouts?  DOE says some of them signed up for economic-hardship deferments, some went back into standard 10-year repayment plans, and some slipped into delinquency.

This must be an astonishing turn of events for the Obama administration, which has aggressively promoted income-based repayment plans as a way to keep student-loan default rates down and give student borrowers some relief from high monthly loan payments. Most people who make monthly payments based on their income have lower payments than people who pay off their loans under the federal government's standard 10-year repayment plan.

There's a catch of course. Income-based repayment plans stretch borrowers' monthly payments out over 20 or even 25 years. Moreover, if borrowers' monthly payments are set too low, the payments will  not cover accruing interest, in which case student-loan debtors will see their loan balances go up rather than down, even if they faithfully make all their monthly payments.

Nevertheless, for student-loan borrowers who are unemployed. marginally employed, or simply borrowed too much money, income-based repayment plans are a lifeline because they can dramatically lower the amount of a student-loan borrower's monthly payments.

So what is the Obama administration doing to turn this situation around? According to the Chronicle,  the Department of Education will soon take over the process of notifying borrowers of their annual income-reporting obligations.  DOE is even consulting with "social and behavioral scientists" in order to craft more effective notices. Lots of luck, guys.

Personally, I was astonished to learn that so many people are falling out of income-based repayment plans--the most generous student-loan repayment programs that the federal government offers.. This development is simply another indication that the federal student-loan program is out of control.

Let's review the evidence one more time:

  • The two-year student-loan default rate (the percentage of students from the most recent cohort who default on their loans within two years of beginning repayment) doubled in just seven years, according to DOE's own data. In 2007, DOE reported a two-year default rate of 4.7 percent. In 2013, the two-year default rate was 10 percent.
  • Almost 9 million people in the repayment phase of their loans have economic-hardship deferments and are not making payments on their student loans. Meanwhile, their loan balances are increasing due to accruing interest.
  • About 1.5 million people have signed up for income-based repayment plans, but more than half of them have already dropped out due to the fact that they didn't file their obligatory annual income reports.
We can tinker with the student-loan program in many ways as the Department of Education and the policy tanks are now doing. But the fact remains that millions of student-loan debtors are under water financially and have basically dropped out of the economy. This reality is illustrated by the fact that more that half of the people in the generous income-based repayment programs are not bothering to file their annual income reports.

The only way out of this morass is to admit how bad the crisis is, which will require DOE to tell the truth about the student-loan default rate. Then we need to crack down on higher-education institutions that are exploiting college students. Finally, we must open up the bankruptcy process to allow honest but unfortunate student-loan debtors to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy.

Bleep it, Dude. Let's go bowling. 


Robert Cloud & Richard Fossey, Facing the Student-Debt Crisis: Restoring the Integrity of the Federal Student Loan Program. Journal of College & University Law, 40, 467-498.

Kelly Field. Thousands Fall Out of Income-Based Repayment Plans. Chronicle of Higher Education, April 2, 2015.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Urban Institute's Sandy Baum: Is She a Bag Man for the Higher Education Industry?

My favorite scene in the movie Michael Clayton is a dialogue between Michael Clayton (played by George Clooney), who is a lawyer in a 600-person law firm, and Arthur Edens (played by Tom Wilkinson), a senior partner in the same firm.

Edens is a manic depressive handling a major piece of litigation for an international corporation accused of intentionally marketing a product that causes people to get cancer. During depositions, Edens has a manic episode and his continuing bizarre behavior threatens to expose the corporate client's skulduggery, potentially costing it billions.

The firm's senior partner directs Clayton to get Edens under control, and Clayton talks to him very persuasively, while implicitly threatening to have him committed to a mental institution.

But Edens is having none of it.

"Michael," Tom Wilkinson's character kindly says to George Clooney's character, "I have great affection for you and you live a very rich and interesting life, but you're a bag man not an attorney."

If I ever meet Sandy Baum, I'm tempted to say very much the same thing. Baum is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and a highly respected analyst of higher-education finance. For many years, she has co-authored the College Board's annual publications Trends in Student Aid and Trends in College Pricing; and she has conducted studies on college costs for the Brookings Institution. She has a Ph.D. in economics and is a research professor at George Washington University, a position she holds while working with the Urban Institute. Very impressive.

Over the years, Sandy Baum has emerged as one of the leading apologists for the higher education industry. Everyone knows that college costs have skyrocketed and that the federal student loan program is totally out of control. Millions of people have defaulted on their loans and millions more have obtained economic hardship deferments that excuse them from making student-loan payments.

Nevertheless, Sandy Baum coos soothingly that college costs are really not as high as they seem to be and, in any event, rising costs are not the fault of the colleges and universities. In 2013, Baum co-authored a report for the College Board that actually argued that college costs have not gone up much at all. It is true, the College Board acknowledged, that the sticker price for attending college has gone up significantly over the past ten years. But when discounts, grants and tax benefits are calculated, the real cost that students pay has remained virtually steady over the past decade. In fact, according to the College Board (as reported in the New York Times), when adjusted for inflation, the net cost of attending college (looking only at tuition and fees) has actually gone down over the past ten years.

Indeed, as Sandy Baum told the New York Times, "I think the hand-wringing about the trend [in college costs] is greatly exaggerated."

And--if there has been an increase in college costs, it is because the states have cut back on their support for higher education. "So it's not that colleges are spending more money to educate students," Baum told NPR radio. "It's that they have to get that money from someplace to replace their lost state funding--and that's from tuition and fees from students and families."

So which is it, Sandy? Has college tuition gone up due to reduced state funding or have costs not gone up after adjusting for inflation, grants, and tax benefits?

And if everything is under control, why did Baum praise President Obama for encouraging students to sign up for long-term income-based repayment plans--plans that can extend the student-loan repayment period to 20 or 25 years? In fact, Baum even recommended that long-term repayment plans be the "default option" for college students who take out student loans.

Paul Campos, in a New York Times op ed essay, challenged the notion that the states' support for higher education has gone down, which is the standard reason the higher education industry gives for rising college costs. According to Campos, "[P]ublic investment in higher education in America is vastly larger today, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it was during the supposed golden age of public funding in the 1960s." 

Campos thinks a major explanation for rising college costs is "the constant expansion of university administration." Campos cites data that administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, which is reportedly 10 times the rate of growth for tenured faculty positions.

In my opinion, Campos' analysis of college costs is more accurate and helpful than the self-serving explanations that are offered by the higher education industry and the entities that issue reports that align with its interests--the College Board, the Urban Institute, and the Brookings Institution.

Campos is right. An increase in the number of administrators is at least part of the reason for rising college costs. And a lot of those administrators are making too much money, particularly when their salaries are compared to the salaries of the faculty members who are actually teaching students.


Sandy Baum & Michael McPherson. Obama's Aid Proposals Could Use a Reality Check. Chronicle of Higher Education, August 26, 2013. Accessible at:

Paul Campos. The Real Reason College Costs So Much. New York Times, April 5, 2015, Sunday Review Section, p. 4.

College Board. Trends in College Pricing 2013. Accessible at:

Andrew P. Kelly(2013, October 24. New data on tuition prices: Is it possible it's even worse than we thought? AEI Ideas blog. Accessible at:

Richard Perez-Pena (2013, October 25). Despite Risking Stick Prices, Actual College Costs Stable Over the Decade, Study Says. New York Times, p. A14.

Note: Quotes by Sandy Baum come from the Perez-Pena article or the Campos essay, both of which appeared in the New York Times and are cited in the references.

Janet Napolitano, President of University of California, writes a hollow review of a book about the Tsarnaev brothers

Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California and former Secretary of Homeland Security, recently reviewed Masha Gessen's book about the Tsarnaev brothers for the Times Book Review section. Napolitano's review is remarkably shallow and self-serving, but we should reflect upon it nevertheless because Napolitano's vapid analysis of the Boston Marathon bombing is an apt example of the intellectual hollowness of America's governmental and educational leadership.

Janet Napolitano was Secretary of Homeland Security when the Boston Marathon bombing occurred, and she begins her review by slyly patting herself on the back for doing such a great job in catching the bumbling Tsarnaev brothers after their terrorist attack. Let's read what Napolitano said:
As secretary of homeland security, I immediately mobilized the department to assist Boston emergency responders and to work with the F.B.I. to identify the perpetrators. Because the Boston Marathon is an iconic American event, we suspected terrorism, but no group stepped forward to claim credit. Massive law enforcement resources--local, state and federal--had to be organized and deployed so that, within just a few days, we had narrowed the inquiry from the thousands of spectators who had come to cheer on the runners to just two, who had come to plant bombs.
She acknowledges that the Russians tipped off the F.B.I about Tamerlan, the older Tsarnaev brother, before the attack occurred; but, hey, the Russians are so unreliable. After all, Napolitano writes, "Russia routines presumes all young urban Muslim men to be radical."

Napolitano then goes on to debunk Gessen's theory that Tamerlan Tsarnaev may have been an F.B.I . informant and that the Bureau delayed telling local law enforcement authorities about his identity because they wanted to get to him first and kill him.  Such a theory, Napolitano maintains, is "laughable."

Finally, Napolitano points out that Gessen's book failed to answer some basic questions such as "How
and why did the two brothers shift from living somewhat aimless young lives to bombing the marathon?" But Napolitano herself offers no answer to that question, in spite of the fact that she was Secretary of Homeland Security when the attack occurred and should have some insight about the Tsarnaev's bizarre turn toward murder.

Napolitano ends her puff piece with a rhetorical salute to the people of Boston for turning out as spectators for the annual Boston Marathons that followed the 2013 bombing. "People there call it 'Boston Strong,'" she concludes with a flourish, "[but] I call it resilience, that enduring strand of the American fabric that, in the end, will outlast the most dastardly plot against it." Blah, blah, blah.

Janet Napolitano: blah, blah, blah
Personally, I found Napolitano's comments about the Boston Marathon bombing to be about as substantive as a rice cake. It is disturbing to me that the president of the University of California has nothing interesting to say about a major act of terrorism that occurred on her watch as Secretary of Homeland Security.

And now I will share my own theory about the Boston Marathon bombing. Personally, I don't believe the Tsarnaev brothers were radicalized in Chechnya or Dagestan or seduced by the Internet as some commentators theorize. I think the brothers were turned toward murder by the culture of Boston and Cambridge. Cambridge in particular, where Dzhokhar went to high school, is the epicenter of postmodern nihilism--the studied belief that there are no ultimate truths and that life is to be lived purely for the pursuit of power, recognition, and self-gratification.

For affluent young people like the ones who attend Boston's many elite colleges, nihilism can have a cheerful, even jaunty, aspect. Indeed, cheeky cynicism is expected of the young, and Boston's intelligentsia cultivate feigned world-weariness as a substitute for thought.

But nihilism has an ugly aspect when it is embraced by outcasts, by people who know they will never be insiders, will never have the opportunities that beckon to all the affluent young people who casually attend classes in Boston's many elitist colleges and universities.

Who can doubt that these two brothers, seeing nothing around them but affluent arrogance and easy self-regard, turned bitter; and turning bitter, they plotted their revenge.

It is a shocking thing to say, but I believe that the terrorism that the Tsarnaev brothers embraced was nurtured and metastasized in the culture that many Americans mistakenly think is the very acme of liberalism and tolerance--the culture of Boston and Cambridge.

Radicalized in Cambridge


Janet Napolitano. Blood Ties. New York Times Book Review, April 12, 2015, p. 1.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

President Obama's "Student Bill of Rights" would be laughable if the student-loan crisis weren't so tragic

President Obama recently released what he laughably called his "Student Bill of Rights." The Bill of Rights has just four parts:

I. Every student deserves access to a quality, affordable education at a college that is cutting costs and increasing learning.
II. Every student should be able to access the resources needed to pay for college.
III.Every borrower has the right to an affordable repayment plan.
IV. And every borrower has the right to quality customer service, reliable information, and fair treatment, even if they struggle to repay their loans.
You want this ludicrous, so-called "Bill of Rights" boiled down into a single sentence?President Obama is basically saying everyone has the right to borrow money at a reasonable interest rate to attend college and to be treated courteously by the debt collectors.

This ridiculous document does nothing to rein in college costs or to effectively regulate the for-profit college industry. It does nothing to ease the suffering and hardship of millions of people who have defaulted on their student loans.

What would a real Student Bill of Rights look like?  Something like this:

I. Insolvent people who took out student loans in good faith have the right to have their student loans discharged in bankruptcy.

II. Elderly people who are living entirely off their Social Security income should not have their Social Security checks garnished because they defaulted on a student loan.

III. People should not be required to sign covenants not to sue as a condition for enrolling at a for-profit college.

IV. All colleges and universities that benefit from the federal student-loan program should be subject to an open-records law that would require them to disclose their financial affairs and their decision-making process for admitting students.

V. Student-loan defaulters should not have excessive fees and penalties added to their student-loan debt.

VI. A statute of limitations should apply to all efforts to collect on unpaid student loans. The statute of limitations should be six years, just as it is in most jurisdictions for lawsuits for breach of contract or nonpayment on a debt.

VII. The government and its collection agents should stop trying to force bankrupt debtors into 25-year repayment plans as they did in the Roth case, the Myhre case, and the Lamento case.

VIII. Students who take out loans from private banks and private financial institutions should be able to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy under the same terms that apply for discharging other debts.

But the Obama administration, Congress,  and the higher-education industry don't really want to effectively curb the excesses of the student-loan industry.  They want to tinker around the edges of this huge problem, while the colleges and the debt collectors gorge themselves on student-loan money.

There's good money in student loans.

What was your first clue, Sherlock? A Chronicle of Higher Education writer explains that some colleges are gaming their student-loan default rates

Colleges must keep their student-loan default rates down or they will lose their right to participate in the federal student loan program. If a college's three-year default rate (as measured by the Department of Education) reaches 30 percent for three consecutive years, that college can be kicked out of the federal student loan program. And most colleges cannot survive without federal student-aid money.

Ben Miller, writing for Chronicle of Higher Education, explains how colleges can artificially keep their student-loan default rates down, hiding the fact that a lot of their students are not paying back their loans.  As Miller points out, DOE's student-loan default measure only calculates the percentage of defaulters who default within three years of beginning repayment--which is a very short window of time.
[B]ecause the measure tracks results for such a short time, it is possible for colleges to game the metric by artificially lowering the number of students who default within three years. How? A college can encourage borrowers to ask for a forbearance--an option in which the federal government allows borrowers to stop making payments without their loans becoming delinquent or heading toward default. Since it takes almost a year to default, the college needs borrowers to enter forbearance for a couple of years, ensuring they cannot show up in the default rate, even if they never make a single payment.
In fact, as Senator Harkin's Senate Committee documented in its report on the for-profit college industry, many for-profits aggressively encourage students to apply for economic hardship deferments, which are ridiculously easy to obtain.

That is probably why the three-year student-loan default rate for for-profits actually went down a bit according to DOE's 2014 student-loan default rate report. The for-profits are adept at getting their former students to sign up for economic hardship deferments that obscure the fact that these students are not making their loan payments.

Miller argued persuasively that a better measurement of student-loan defaults would be compare the number of students going into repayment at a college compared to the number of graduates.  Students who are going into repayment without graduating have lower rates of success than graduates in terms of getting good jobs, and they also have higher student-loan default rates.  Therefore, a college that has a high level of students beginning repayment compared to the number of graduates is probably a college that has a high student-loan default rate.

So what did Miller find?  Among public 4-year institutions, 84 students went into repayment for every 100 graduates.  But in the 4-year for-profit sector, 233 students went into repayment for every 100 graduates.  In other words, more than twice as many students attending 4-year for-profit institutions began repayment (in the most recent cohort of borrowers) than obtained degrees.

That is a very bad sign, and a strong indicator that the for-profits have much higher student-loan default rates than DOE's anemic metric shows.  It seems reasonable to conclude that the true student-loan default rate in the for-profit sector is at least twice as high as DOE reports; it is probably at least 40 percent!

The Obama administration surely knows that the number of students who default on their loans is much higher than DOE reports every year and that the true default rate for students who attended for-profit institutions is alarmingly high.

But so far at least, the for-profits have evaded effectively regulation; and they have hidden their true default rates by encouraging their former students to sign up for economic hardship deferments. Meanwhile they suck up about one quarter of all the federal student-aid money while only enrolling about 11 percen of all the post-secondary students.

Some day this house of cards will collapse, and the public will realize that the for-profit colleges have unacceptably high student-loan default rates. And we will have to face the fact that millions of people --mostly low-income and minority students--have defaulted on their loans and have had their lives wrecked by the fact that they attended for-profit institutions.


Ben Miller. Student-Loan Default Rates Are Easily Gamed. Here's a Better Measure. Chronicle of Higher Education, March 26, 2015.