Unfortunately, the Times does not grasp this simple fact: True relief for student-loan debtors will require radical action, far more radical than the Times is willing to contemplate.
Last Sunday, a Times editorial addressed the issue of fraud in the for-profit college sector. As the Times pointed out, "The federal government's decades-long failure to curb predatory behavior in the for-profit college industry has left untold numbers of Americans with crushing debt while providing useless degrees--or no degrees at all--in return."
The Times then went on to praise the Obama administration for creating new oversight rules for the for-profit college industry. And the Times expressed approval of the Department of Education's decision to forgive the student-loan indebtedness of some individuals who attended Corinthian Colleges (about 3,000 people so far).
But, as the Times pointed out, DOE has yet to grant relief to any of the 4,000 people who claim they were defrauded by Corinthian and have asked to have their student-loans forgiven.
The Times expressed the fear that DOE's "legendary bureaucracy will drag its feet and make it difficult for deserving plaintiffs to get relief." And the Times ended its rather tepid editorial by stating vaguely that "the department needs to do a much better job of reaching out to people who have potential [fraud] claims."
The Times editorial is on the right track; obviously DOE needs to speed up the process of reviewing fraud claims by students who attended for-profit colleges. But I don't think the Times recognizes the enormity of the student-loan problem in the for-profit college sector.
A recent study by the Brookings Institution reported that there are almost 1.2 million people who attended the University of Phoenix who have more than $35 billion in outstanding student loans. According to the Brookings study, 45 percent of a recent cohort of former University of Phoenix students defaulted on their loans within five years.
More alarmingly, for the for-profit sector as a whole, nearly three quarters of students who attended for-profit schools (74 percent) owed more than they originally borrowed two years after beginning repayment (for the 2009 cohort). And nearly half the students who attended for-profit schools (47 percent) defaulted within five years of beginning repayment.
And Brookings default data did not take into account the fact that many former students have obtained economic-hardship deferments and are not making their student-loan payments. Those people are not counted as defaulters even though they are not paying down their loans.
For-profit colleges are encouraging their former students to sign up for economic-hardship deferments as a strategy for keeping their institutional default rates down. Tragically, most of the people who obtain economic-hardship deferments receive only phantom relief because the interest continues to accrue on their unpaid debt. When those economic-hardship deferments come to an end, the people who held them will find that the principal of their loans went up during the deferment period.
IN SHORT, IT IS INDISPUTABLE THAT HALF OF THE PEOPLE WHO TOOK OUT STUDENT LOANS TO ATTEND FOR-PROFIT COLLEGES WILL DEFAULT AT SOME POINT IN THE LOAN REPAYMENT PERIOD. In other words, about half of the federal student-aid money flowing into for-profit colleges will never be paid back.
If the Times grasped the magnitude of the student-loan crisis in the for-profit college sector it would surely recommend more aggressive action by the Feds. What is needed is not a more streamlined fraud review process (as the Times recommended), but something close to blanket amnesty for at least half of the people who borrowed money to attend for-profit colleges.
Put another way, DOE needs to craft a secular version of Pope Francis's "Year of Mercy," whereby millions of people who attended for-profit colleges can have their loans forgiven with little or no red tape.
Obviously some case-by-case review needs to occur to make sure student loans aren't forgiven for students who got good value from attending for-profit colleges and can afford to pay back their loans. But--based on the default rates--a majority of the people who attended for-profit colleges should have their loans forgiven.
What is the best process for sorting through this mess? Bankruptcy. Student-loan defaulters who attended for-profit institutions should have their loans forgiven by bankruptcy courts without the necessity of adversary hearings. If a bankruptcy court concludes that a student-loan debtor is insolvent, that person's loans should be forgiven unless the government can show fraud or bad faith.
But the burden should be on the government to show that an insolvent student-loan debtor who attended a for-profit college is not entitled to bankruptcy relief--not on the debtor.
Obviously, I have painted an ugly picture: massive student-loan forgiveness and default on billions and billions of dollars in student-loan debt. But most of the defaulters who attended for-profit colleges will never pay their loans back, whether or not their loans are forgiven.
It is time to wipe the slate clean. The for-profit college industry should be shut down and the people who were injured by it deserve a fresh start. We can take action now or we can take action later. But eventually, the federal government will have to face facts: the for-profit colleges are a rogue industry and have ruined the economic prospects of millions of people.
Kelly Field, "U.S. Has Forgiven Loans of More Than 3,000 Ex-Corinthian Students, Chronicle of Higher Education, September 3, 2015. Accessible at: http://chronicle.com/article/US-Has-Forgiven-Loans-of/232855/?cid=pm&utm_source=pm&utm_medium=en
Tamar Lewin, "Government to Forgive Student Loans at Corinthian Colleges," New York Times, June 8, 2015. Accessible at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/09/education/us-to-forgive-federal-loans-of-corinthian-college-students.html?_r=0
Speedy Help for Victims of College Fraud. New York Times, September 27, 2015, Times Review Section, p. 10.