Monday, May 11, 2015

Senator Elizabeth Warren and the Brookings Institution's Matthew Chingos are ignoring reality: The federal government is not making a profit off the student-loan program

Do you believe the federal government is making a profit off the student loan program? You do? Then I have some beautiful beachfront property in southwestern Oklahoma I would like to sell you. That's right--Caddo County, Oklahoma is going to be the next Hamptons! 

Caddo County, Oklahoma in springtime
Beachfront lots are still available!
Uncle Sam is not making a profit on student loans

Some people actually believe that Uncle Sam is making a bundle off the federal student loan program. Senator Elizabeth Warren is of that mind. She once said that the government's profits from the student-loan program are "obscene."

And last February, Senator Warren and five other U.S. Senators wrote Secretary of Education Arne Duncan a scolding letter charging the Department of Education with making a profit off of student loans. The Senators accused the government of overcharging student borrowers and "pocketing the profits to spend on unrelated government activities."

Senator Elizabeth Warren: Government profits on student loans are "obscene"
And apparently, the policy wonks over at the Brookings Institution also think the student loan program is producing a profit for the federal government. Matthew Chingos recently published a Brookings paper proposing to significantly lower interest rates on student loans while assessing student borrowers a fee that would be placed in a "guarantee fund" to cover student loan defaults. Chingos argued that his plan would keep the government from profiting from student loans while having a contingency fund to cover the cost of defaults.

Theoretically (and only theoretically), the government is making a profit on student loans.  The government's cost for borrowing money is about 1.9 percent on ten-year Treasury Bonds . And the government is currently loaning money to undergraduate students at a 4.7 percent interest rate. If all students paid back their loans, the government would indeed make a handsome profit.

But, as everyone knows, a high percentage of students are defaulting on their loans. According to Chingos, the government estimates only 0.6 percent of students will default, but of course that is absurd. Every year, for the past 20 years, the Department of Education has been issuing reports on the percentage of students in the most recent cohort of borrowers who default within two years of beginning the repayment phase of their loan. Over that period, that number has never been lower than about 5 percent. Last year, the figure was 10 percent--16 times higher than the DOE default estimate that Chingos cited.

In a article, Jason Delisle and Clare McCann reported that the government estimates that about 20 percent of student-loan borrowers will eventually default on their loans--that's 30 times higher than the rate cited by Chingos.

And let's not forget A Closer Look at the Trillion, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's 2013 report on the federal student loan program.   CFPB reported that 6.5 million out of 50 million outstanding student loans were in default--13 percent.

Need more data? The Federal Reserve Bank of New York issued its most recent report on household debt in February 2015. The Bank found student loan delinquency rates worsened in the 4th quarter of 2014, with 11.3 percent of aggregate student-loan debt being 90 days delinquent or in default.(up from 11.1 percent in the previous quarter).

Just one more tidbit of information. The Department of Education recently admitted that more than half of the student-loan borrowers who were signed up for income-based repayment plans, the government's most generous loan-payment option, had dropped out due to failure to file their annual personal income reports on time.  That is a clear sign that many student-loan borrowers are so discouraged that they aren't bothering to file the necessary paperwork to keep their loan status in good standing.

The Chingos Report and Senator Elizabeth's Letter to Secretary Duncan Ignore Reality

I am astonished that Michael Chingos and Senator Warren would publicly state that the government is making a profit off the student-loan program when it so clearly losing money. What's going on?

Tragically, our politicians and policy analysts simply can't face the fact that the student-loan program is out of control. It is so much easier to demand a pseudo reform based on the fantasy that the government is making money off the student loan program than to face reality.


Chingos, Matthew M. End government profits on student loans: Shift risk and lower interest rates. Brookings Institution, April 30, 2015. Accessible at:

Rohit Chopra. A closer look at the trillion. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, August 5, 2013.  Accessible at:

Jason Delisle and Clare McCann. Who's Not Repaying Student Loans? More People Than You Think., September 26, 2014. Accessible at:

Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit: February 2015. Accessible at:

Senator Elizabeth Warren, et. al to Arne Duncan, February 25, 2015. Accessible at:

Sunday, May 3, 2015

An episode of The Walking Dead: Why did the U.S. Department of Education oppose bankruptcy relief for a quadriplegic student-loan debtor?

America's insolvent student-loan debtors are the walking dead

America's student-loan crisis is beginning to resemble an episode of The Walking Dead.  Like zombies, millions of distressed student-loan debtors stumble around the American landscape, basically pushed out of the economy and suffering in silence.

Just as Deputy Sheriff Rick tries to elude the zombies in Walking Dead, President Obama treads lightly, hoping to avoid encountering the millions of student-loan defaulters. Deputy Sheriff Rick doesn't have enough shotgun shells to dispatch all "the walkers" if they show up en masse; and the Obama administration doesn't have the intellectual or moral resources to deal with the masses of people whose lives were destroyed by their student loans.

Insolvent student-loan debtors: The Walking Dead

Basically the culprits who created the student-loan crisis or helped hide its magnitude--Congress, colleges and universities, think tanks like the Brookings Institution, the Department of Education, the College Board--are huddled in their bastions much like the characters in The Walking Dead, who holed up in an abandoned department store for awhile, hoping someone with a little courage and intelligence would come to their rescue.

Of course, if the United States was a humane society--which it isn't--people who were overwhelmed by student-loan debt could discharge their loans in bankruptcy. But Congress passed several laws making it quite difficult for insolvent student-loan debtors to get relief from the bankruptcy courts.

Still--a few brave souls make the effort, filing adversary actions in the bankruptcy courts, often without lawyers. And recently, the bankruptcy courts have begun to take notice of the nightmare that the student-loan program has become; and the courts have been discharging some student loans.

But every time an intrepid spirit tries to get relief from oppressive student loans in a bankruptcy court, lawyers for the Department of Education or one of the government's private debt-collection agencies show up to oppose relief. In fact, it is fair to say that the official position of the U.S. government--President Obama's government--is that no one should be relieved of student-loan debt in bankruptcy.

In virtually every student-loan bankruptcy case, the lawyers for DOE and the debt-collection companies argue that student-loan debtors should be put in 25-year income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) rather than have their loans discharged. Of course, this is a heartless position to take, and in some cases it is downright ridiculous.

In Stevenson v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, for example, Educational Credit Management Corporation argued that a woman in her 50s, who had a record of homelessness and was living on less than $1000 a month, should be put in a 25-year IBRP in spite of her record of poverty and in spite of the fact that this woman didn't file for bankruptcy until 25 years after she took out her first student loan.  And the bankruptcy judge agreed! I don't know what ultimately happened to this poor woman, but apparently she was forced into a repayment plan that would not end until a half century after she first borrowed money to go to college.

Myhre v. U.S. Department of Education: DOE opposes bankruptcy relief for a quadriplegic student-loan debtor

But for utter, depraved heartlessness, my nomination goes to the bankruptcy case of Myrhe v. U.S. Department of Education, in which the Department of Education opposed bankruptcy relief for Bradley Myhre, a quadriplegic student-loan debtor who had no muscle control below his neck.  Myhre had suffered a catastrophic spinal injury in a swimming-pool accident, but he borrowed money to attend college and was able to work full-time. Unfortunately, his salary wasn't enough to cover the cost of paying his full-time caregiver--the person Myhre employed to feed, dress and bathe him and drive him back and forth to work.

Incredibly, DOE--Arne Duncan's DOE--opposed bankruptcy relief for Myhre and argued that he shouldn't have spent money for cable television since that was money he could have applied to paying off his student loans.

Fortunately for Mr. Myhre, the bankruptcy court rejected DOE's arguments and granted him relief from his student loans. In fact, the court praised him for his courage. "Mr, Myhre is an articulate and personable young man," the court observed, "whose mobility is determined by his wheelchair and dexterity is only sufficient to operate a directional stick control." Myhre's daily life required "bravery and tenacity," the court wrote," and Myhre had "made a truly admirable effort to return to work in order to support himself financially rather than remain reliant on government aid" (Myhre v. U.S. Department of Education, 2013, p. 704).

The Department of Education's lawyers are like Daryl in The Walking Dead

Why did the Department of Education take such a heartless position regarding Mr. Myhre's student loans? I'll tell you why. DOE is driven to stop every student-loan bankruptcy because if the bankruptcy courts ever begin reviewing the plight of insolvent student-loan debtors from a humane perspective, the judges would start granting bankruptcy relief to these unfortunate souls. And if that ever happenes, millions of honest but unfortunate people--and I mean literally millions--will be filing for bankruptcy, which would topple the entire corrupt and putrid student-loan program.  DOE simply can't let that happen.

Much like a DOE lawyer opposing bankruptcy relief for student-loan debtors, Daryl quietly dispatches zombies
And so when DOE's lawyers go to court to oppose bankruptcy relief for student-loan debtors, they behave much like Daryl in The Walking Dead.  Daryl kills zombies silently with his crossbow, dispatching them efficiently without making a noise that would attract other zombies. Likewise, DOE attorneys overwhelm student-loan debtors who go to bankruptcy court without lawyers, beating them down with canned legal briefs they keep on the hard drives of their government computers for just such contingencies.

The metaphor isn't perfect, of course. The "walkers" that Daryl drills through the brain with his arrows are frightening creatures, while the poor folks dispatched by DOE's lawyers are decent human beings entirely deserving of our pity and our aid. And of course, I would be  slandering Daryl to compare him to a DOE attorney!

But overall, I like the metaphor. Our insolvent student-loan debtors are very much like the zombies in The Walking Debt, and the Department of Education's lawyers are quite like Daryl, quietly picking off the "walkers" who make their way into the bankruptcy courts.

I don't know how this series will end, but I feel pretty sure some scary episodes lie ahead. If there is any justice in the world, distressed student-loan debtors will rise up one day by the millions; and America's cowardly politicians, college presidents, and policy wonks will wind up eating stale canned goods while holed up in the real-life equivalent of The Walking Dead's abandoned Center for Disease Control.

Quiet! Don't let the walkers hear you.

Myhre v. U.S. Department of Education, 503 B.R. 698 (Bankr. W.D. Wis. 2013).

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

Stevenson v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 436 B.R. 586 (Mass. Bankr. 2011).