Saturday, October 21, 2017

For-profit colleges have been screwing African Americans for more than 20 years. But you already knew that.

First of all, forgive me for using the word "screwing" in the headline of this essay.

Of course I used the word as a synonym for "exploiting," but I chose the vulgar word to get your attention. After all, we live in an increasingly course and profane society; and people who insist on expressing themselves in a civil fashion are drowned out in a cacophony of scatological language, race baiting, and incendiary rhetoric.

Now to the topic at hand.

The National Center for Education Statistics issued a report in early October on student-loan repayment patterns, and two independent analyses highlighted the loan repayment patterns for African Americans.  Almost half of all black students who entered postsecondary education in 2003-2004 (49 percent) had defaulted on at least one of their student loans within 12 years.

Think about this statistic for a moment.

The consequences of defaulting on a student loan are catastrophic: a ruined credit rating and a ballooning loan balance due to penalties, collection fees, and accelerating interest.  Individuals who default on their student loans will be crippled in their ability to buy a home, marry, have children, or save for retirement.  And bankruptcy relief, although not impossible, is very rare for student-loan debtors. In short, most people who default on their student loans will be burdened by their debt for the rest of their lives.

Who would construct a student-aid system that ruins the lives of half the African Americans who participate in it?

And the story gets worse.  Three out of four black students who took out student loans to attend a for-profit college defaulted within 12 years. In essence, African Americans who borrow to enroll in a for-profit institution are playing Russian roulette with their financial futures--Russian roulette with four bullets in the revolver.

As an Inside Higher Ed article noted, the Department of Education "has not collected much data on student debt that can be broken out by the race or ethnic background of borrowers." Why not? Because DOE does not want the public to know that African American are getting ripped off by the higher education industry--and the for-profits, in particular.

The historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) benefit from the status quo, the for-profit industry benefits from the status quo, and Congress benefits from the status quo because our legislators take campaign contributions from entities that depend on federal student-aid dollars--including the private equity funds that own some of the for-profit colleges.

Will these recent reports, which highlight racial exploitation, bring about change? I seriously doubt it. Everyone who is profiting from the federal student aid program is playing a short game. The insiders want to make as much money as they can before higher education collapses--and collapse is fast approaching.

Russian roulette with four bullets

References

Paul Fain. Half of black student loan borrowers default, new federal data show. Inside Higher Ed, October 17, 2017.

Robert Kelchen, New Data on Long-Term Student Loan Default Rates. October 6, 2017.

Ben Miller. New Federal Data Show a Student Loan Crisis for African American Borrowers. Center for American Progress, October 16, 2017.


Sunday, October 15, 2017

Harvey Weinstein, the Napa-Sonoma Wildfires, and California's Travel Ban: Greetings from Flyover Country


Awhile back I wrote about California's legislative travel ban, which bars state-funded travel to states that passed so-called unprogessive legislation. Eight states are now on that list, including Texas and North Carolina.

At the time I wrote, I considered California's travel ban to be arrogant, self-righteous, and gratuitous. But that was before the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the Napa-Sonoma wildfires. Now I consider the travel ban to be pathetic.

People who live in flyover country have grown accustomed to being reprimanded by the California entertainment elites--all those beautiful people who are so cool and sensitive. We've endured public scoldings from the California legislature, which passed a law that bars state-funded travel to eight of California's sister states.

And now we find that Hollywood, the capital of coolness, has been enabling a sexual predator and accused rapist for decades. Everyone in the movie business knew Harvey Weinstein was preying on vulnerable women. His own company knew; in fact Harvey's employment contract contained a clause obligating Weinstein to reimburse his employer for future sexual abuse lawsuits (he had already settled with eight accusers) and to pay escalating penalties for future sexual assault complaints.

And then came the Napa-Sonoma wildfires, which have killed at least 40 people and scorched 350 square miles of the California wine country. Firefighters are pouring in from all over the United States to help fight these fires--including firefighters from North Carolina, which is under California's travel ban.

Do you think the California legislature will bar North Carolina fire crews from tackling the blaze in the Napa Valley? No, of course not. California's politicians want all the help the state can get to put out the deadliest wildfire in California history--even help from insensitive North Carolinians.

Do you think Hollywood will ask the folks in flyover country to boycott all the  movies associated with Harvey Weinstein? No. The movie industry depends on the rubes to buy movie tickets and $10 popcorn. Puh-leeze buy a ticket to see all the movies Harvey Weinstein and his cronies vomited into American culture.

Do you think any of Hollywood's supercilious, pompous asses will apologize to middle America for all the judgmental lectures they delivered while they covered up the Weinstein scandal? No, I don't think so.

But it is not my purpose to scold Hollywood or California politicians now that the Golden State's hypocrisy has been exposed. I don't wish to descend to the level of Alex Baldwin.

No, I wish to evoke the spirit of Woody Guthrie, the great folk singer and Dust Bowl refugee who migrated to California during the Great Depression, back in the days when California state troopers turned Okies away at the state border.
"This land is your land," Guthrie sang. "this land is my land.


From the California to the New York island
From the Redwood Forest
To the Gulf Stream watersThis land was made for you and me.



So this is my message to California:

We, the people of flyover country, grieve for you as you battle the Napa-Sonoma wildfires, and fire crews from all over America will come to help. We'll even continue watching the retched movies that Hollywood grinds out ever year.

But here's the thing: This land is not just your land. It's our land. It was a land made for all of us. So let's all be a little more tolerant toward one another.









Thursday, October 12, 2017

Louisiana State University: $30 water bottles, an official personal-injury law firm, and a student's death from alcohol poisoning

I live a couple of blocks from Louisiana State University, and I occasionally visit the campus book store. Or I should say I visit the Barnes & Noble book store that operates on the LSU campus.

As I walked in a few days ago, I noticed a large stack of plastic water bottles, all bearing the LSU logo. How much does such a water bottle cost, I asked myself? I discovered there are two versions. The basic plastic water bottle is priced at $25 and the premium bottle costs 27 bucks.  Actually, the premium bottle costs almost $30 because the buyer also pays a 10 percent sales tax.

Thirty dollars for a plastic water bottle!

The campus bookstore also has a coffee bar that sells Starbucks coffee for about four bucks a pop. Incidentally, the coffee bar is not owned by Starbucks so you can't use your Starbucks gift card there to buy your Starbucks coffee.

But that's OK because most students have debit cards, which they whip out to pay for everything. And how are students paying for $30 water bottles and four-buck exotic coffee? With student loans, of course.

But the expensive items at the Barnes & Noble bookstore are small beer. LSU recently completed a $85 million leisure project that includes a a 645-foot "lazy river" water feature shaped in the letters LSU.

Mercilessly ridiculed for constructing this monstrosity, LSU officials solemnly defended the project. "I will put it up against any other collegiate recreational facility in the country when we are done because we will be the benchmark for the next level,"Laurie Braden,  LSU's recreation director, said in 2015. I have no idea what that means.

LSU's world-class spa is conveniently located near LSU's fraternity houses, but the frat boys apparently are not visiting it enough. Nine members of Phi Delta Theta were indicted this week on charges of hazing after Maxwell Gruver, a freshman from Georgia, died of "acute alcohol intoxication" while at a drinking party.

Hazing is a crime in Louisiana, but the frat boys' lawyers insist that the drinking incident was not hazing. As a matter of fact, a fraternity member lured Gruver to the drinking site by directing him to report for "Bible study." And perhaps that is the proper description of an incident that left Gruver's system pickled with five times the legal amount of alcohol in his system.

In any event, what's the big deal? According to experts, Gruver "probably slipped out of consciousness and died without pain . . ., as if under anesthesia." And no one was charged with murder because, hey, college boys will be college boys.

Mr. Gruver's death will soon be forgotten.  All that matters at LSU is football. LSU's stadium was expanded to seat 103,000 fans, including the high rollers who sit in air-conditioned executive suites and drink premium liquor while the plebeians sweat it out in the cheap seats.

Everyone wants to be associated with the LSU Tigers. In fact, the Tigers have an official personal-injury law firm by the name of Dudley DeBosier. What does it mean to be the LSU Tigers' official injury law firm? Dudley DeBosier explains it to us on its web site:

"Being the Official Injury lawyers of LSU Athletics means more to us than just a simple sponsorship," the firm assures us:
It means hot boudin, jambalaya, fried catfish, and more gumbo than you can eat. It’s thousands of smiling faces walking in between stately oaks and broad magnolias on a Saturday morning. It’s the sound of Tiger Stadium as you cheer on your team with 100,000 of your closest friends. It’s the traditions, tailgates, and everything else we love about Louisiana.
 Got it. So if I get maimed on Interstate 10 by an 18-wheeler, I'm going to hire Dudley DeBosier to sue the trucking company because--well, Dudley DeBosier is LSU's official injury law firm.

Meanwhile, LSU is tearing down an old dorm and constructing new, more luxurious student housing. Some LSU officials feel that the students should live in at least as much splendor as Mike the Tiger--LSU's mascot, who resides in a "habitat" that looks like Club Med.

LSU officials say they are only providing all these amenities because this is what today's students demand. And indeed, the student body voted to pay for the lazy river with student fees.  From the students' perspective, I suppose, the cost of going to college is immaterial. After all, everything is paid for with student loans; and if the costs go up, Uncle Sam and Wells Fargo are always there to loan students more money.




Maxwell Gruver probably "died without pain" from alcohol poisoning


Meanwhile, Mike the Tiger has his own private swimming pool.

References


Rebekah Allen, Grace Toohey, and Emma Discher. 10 booked in LSU fraternity hazing death case. The (Baton Rouge) Advocate, October 12, 2017, p. 1.

Alla Shaheed. LSU's 'lazy river' leisure project rolls on, despite school's budge woesFox News, May 17, 2015.

Lela Skene. LSU fraternity pledge Maxwell Gruver's 'off the charts' blood-alcohol level shocks experts. The (Baton Rouge) Advocate, October 11, 2017.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Bloomberg reports that student-loan delinquencies have ticked upward: Another sign of growing misery among student debtors

Shahien Nasiripour, writing for Bloomberg.com, wrote an article last month about rising student-loan delinquency rates. As of June 30th, 18.8 percent of student borrowers were at least one month late on their loan payments.  That's about 3.3 million college borrowers.

The Department of Education's June report showed a slight uptick from the delinquency rate one year earlier, when 18.6 percent of student debtors were a month late on their loan payments.

What does this mean?

Yelena Shulyatyeva, a senior economist for Bloomberg Intelligence, professed to be mystified. "There's no fundamental reason for that to be happening," Shulyatyeva said.

James Kvaal, who was President Obama's Deputy Director of White House Domestic Policy, also seemed stumped by rising delinquency rates. "That the trend has stalled," Kvaal said, "is not yet a warning sign, but it is a question mark."

Nasiripour, who has done some fine reporting on the student loan crisis, summarized why this development is puzzling to many policy experts. "After all," she wrote, "the U.S. economy has improved since June of last year, with lower unemployment, higher household incomes and increased wealth, federal data show." Moreover, Nasiripour pointed out "Consumers are more confident about the economy, and their own personal finances, too, according to Bloomberg Consumer Comfort data."

But rising delinquency rates are just one more sign that the student loan program is in meltdown. Let's tick off some more disaster indicators:
  • Last year, 1.2 million Americans defaulted on their student loans at an average rate of 3,000 defaults a day.
  • A recent report released by the National Center for Education Statics revealed that almost 6 people in ten who first enrolled for postsecondary education in 1995-96 had not paid off their student loans 20 years later.
  • As reported by the Wall Street Journal, more than half the students at a thousand colleges and schools had not reduced their student-loan debt by one penny seven years into repayment.
  • According to a 2016 report from the Government Accounting Office, half the people who entered income-driven repayment plans to lower their monthly loan payments were removed from their IDRs for failing to recertify their income.
  • Brookings Institution report noted that more than one out of four people (28 percent) in a recent cohort of student borrowers defaulted on their loans within five years of beginning repayment. The default rate among students who attended for-profit colleges was 47 percent.
Congress, the Department of Education, and the higher education industry refuse to face reality. I suppose all the people who should be addressing this crisis are hoping they will be retired and playing golf in Florida when the student-loan program collapses.

And collapse it will. In the meantime, millions of student-loan debtors are buried under a mountain of debt.

I believe the federal bankruptcy courts are slowly awakening to this crisis and that they are increasingly willing to rule compassionately toward distressed student debtors who seek bankruptcy relief.  The Murray decision out of Kansas, which was affirmed on appeal last month, is a heartening sign.

The Murrays were fortunate enough to have been represented by an able attorney, and they also received assistance in the form of an amicus brief filed by the National Consumer Law Center and the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.

Unfortunately, few insolvent student debtors are able to find attorneys to take their cases. If American lawyers understood the student-loan crisis for what it is--a human rights issue, they might take up some of these cases as volunteers, much as the civil rights lawyers did in the 1960s, when attorneys from across the United States came South at the risk of their lives to represent civil rights activists.

I am convinced that the solution to the student-loan catastrophe lies with the federal bankruptcy courts. Congress does not have the collective courage to address this problem legislatively, and the higher education industry--like a cocaine addict--survives from day to day on regular infusions of federal student-aid money.

American colleges, like drug addicts, survive from day to day on regular infusions of federal student-aid money.


References

Andrea Fuller. Student Debt Payback Far Worse Than BelievedWall Street Journal, January 18, 2017.


Shahien Nasiripour. More Americans Are Falling Behind on Student Loans, and Nobody Quite Knows Why. Bloomberg.com, September 28, 2017.

The Wrong Move on Student LoansNew York Times, April 6, 2017.

US. Government Accounting Office. Federal Student Loans: Education Needs to Improve Its Income-Driven Repayment Plan Budget Estimates. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Accounting Office, November, 2016.

Jennie H. Woo, Alexander H. Bentz, Stephen Lew, Erin Dunlop Velez, Nichole Smith, RTI International,  (2017, October). Repayment  of Student Loans as of 2015 Among 1995-96 and 2003-04 First-Time Beginning StudentsFirst Look (NCES 2018-410). U.S. Department of Education. Washington DC; National Center for Education Statistics. [Sean A Simone, Project Officer]


Saturday, October 7, 2017

Alan and Catherine Murray discharged more than $200,000 in student loans in a Kansas bankruptcy court and their victory was affirmed on appeal: Good news for middle-income college borrowers

In a previous essay, I wrote about Alan and Catherine Murray, a married couple in their late forties who defeated Educational Credit Management Corporation in a Kansas bankruptcy court.  ECMC appealed, and the Murrays prevailed again--a victory that has important implications for middle-income student-loan debtors.

The Murrays took out student loans in the 1990s to obtain undergraduate degrees and master's degrees. Their total indebtedness was $77,000, which they consolidated in 1996 at an interest rate of 9 percent.

Over the years, the Murrays paid $54,000 toward paying off these loans--70 percent of the amount they borrowed. But they obtained economic hardship deferments during periods of financial stress, which allowed them to skip some loan payments.  And they entered into an income-based repayment plan to lower their monthly payments to a manageable level.

Although the Murrays handled their student loans in good faith, interest on their debt continued to accrue; and they made no progress toward paying off their debt. In fact, when they filed for bankruptcy in 2014, their loan balance had ballooned to $311,000--four times what they borrowed!

Judge Dale L. Somers, a Kansas bankruptcy judge, gave the Murrays a partial bankruptcy charge. It was clear, Judge Somers ruled, that the Murrays could not pay off their total student-loan indebtedness and maintain a minimal standard of living. And it was also clear that their financial situation was not likely to change. Finally, Judge Somers concluded, the Murrays had handled their student loans in good faith--an essential requirement for discharging student loans in bankruptcy.

On the other hand, Judge Somers determined, the Murrays could pay off the original amount they borrowed ($77,000) and still maintain a minimal standard of living. Thus, Judge Somers discharged the accumulated interest on the Murrays' debt, but required them to pay back the original amount they borrowed.

ECMC, the Murrays' ruthless creditor, appealed Judge Somers' decision. ECMC argued, as it always does, that the Murrays should be put in a long-term income-based repayment plan (IBR) that would last from 20 or 25 years.

But U.S. District Court Judge Carlos Murguia, sitting as an appellate court for the appeal, affirmed Judge Somers' decision. "The court agrees with Judge Somers' findings and conclusions that [the Murrays] made a good faith effort to repay their loans," Judge Murguia wrote.

Significantly, Judge Murguia, ruling in the capacity of an appellate judge, explicitly rejected ECMC's argument that the Murrays should be placed in an IBR and that none of the Murrays' $311,000 debt should be forgiven.

"The court disagrees," Judge Murguia wrote. "Under the circumstances of this case, debtors' payments under an IBR plan are insufficient even to stop the accrual of additional interest, and such payments directly contravene the purpose of bankruptcy."  Judge Murguia noted that Judge Somers had not discharged all of the Murrays' indebtedness--only the accumulated interest. "He discharged that portion--the interest--that had become an undue hardship on debtors, denying them a fresh start."

ECMC v. Murray is an important case for two reasons: First, this is one of the few student-loan bankruptcy court decisions that have granted relief to middle-income student borrowers. The Murrays' combined income was about $95,000.

Second, the key ruling by both Judge Somers and Judge Murguia was their finding that the interest on the original debt would constitute an undue hardship for the Murrays if they were forced to pay it back. Furthermore, this would be true even if the Murrays were placed in an IBR because the monthly payments under such a repayment plan were insufficient to stop the accrual of interest.

There are hundreds of thousands of people in circumstances very similar to the Murrays. Their loan balances have doubled, tripled or even quadrupled due to accumulating interest. People in this situation will never pay off their total indebtedness. But most of these people, like the Murrays, can pay off the amount they originally borrowed if only the accumulated interest were wiped out.

Let us hope student loan debtors situated like the Murrays will learn about ECMC v. Murray and find the courage to file bankruptcy and seek a discharge of their student loans--or at least the accumulated interest.  After all, it is the accumulated interest, penalties and fees that have put millions of student borrowers in a hopeless situation. The Murray decision offers a fair and reasonable solution for these people and gives them a fresh start. A fresh start, after all, is the core reason that  bankruptcy courts exist.


References

Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation (Bankr. D. Kan. 2016), aff'd, No. 16-2838 (D. Kan. Sept. 22, 2017).


Friday, October 6, 2017

Why won't Congress do a few things to ease the student debt crisis like stop the government from garnishing Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters?

James Howard Kunstler posted a blog last week in which he challenged Congressional Democrats to introduce legislation to counteract the effect of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010). In that case, you may recall, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can give as much money as they like to political campaigns. 

All sensible people agree that Citizens United triggered a new level of corruption in national politics as corporations pump millions of dollars into Congressional campaign coffers in order to protect their venal interests.

President Obama complained publicly about Citizens United while he was in office.  But he didn't do anything about it, even though he could have ameliorated its effect through legislation when the Democrats controlled the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Democrats can still put a Citizens United override on their legislative agenda as Kunstler challenged them to do:
That’s your assignment Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and the rest of the Democratic Party leadership. Get serious. Show a little initiative. Do something useful. Draw up some legislation. Get behind something real that might make a difference in this decrepitating country. Or get out of the way and let a new party do the job.
And of course there are plenty of other things the Democrats can do to promote fairness and justice in our society. As Gretchen Morgenson pointed out in a New York Times article last year, hedge fund managers get a special tax break allowing them to pay lower taxes on their income than most Americans.  That's right: a hedge fund manager is taxed at a lower rate than a New York school teacher.  President Obama could have closed that loophole in the tax law by executive action, but he didn't.

And then there's corporal punishment in the schools. Researchers are unanimous that beating children with boards is not good for them, and the United Nations has identified corporal punishment as a human rights abuse.

In the waning days of the Obama administration, Secretary of Education John King, Jr. condemned corporal punishment in an open letter to the nation's school leaders. But why didn't King speak up sooner? Corporal punishment in schools is a wrong that Obama's Department of Education could have stopped with an administrative regulation. Why didn't it? 

And then there's the student-loan program, which has brought suffering to millions.  According to the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Education garnished the Social Security checks of 173,000  student-loan defaulters in 2015, a practice that Senator Elizabeth Warren bitterly condemned. The amount the government collects each year is a pittance--about one eighth the amount Hillary Clinton spent during the 2016 election season. And most of the money the Feds collect goes to paying interest and penalties without reducing the debtors' loan balances at all.

Senator Warren and Claire McCaskill filed a bill to stop the garnishment of student debtors' Social Security checks, but the measure never made it out of committee. Why won't Senator Schumer and Representative Pelosi get behind that bill? Who could decently oppose it?

In fact, there are numerous noncontroversial things our Congressional representatives could do to ease widespread suffering among the nation's poorest Americans. But  our Congressional representatives are not doing these things. 

Why? Two reasons.

 First, they don't want to do noncontroversial good things because that would mean sharing the credit with their political enemies.

And second, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, John McCain, Mitch McConnell and all our other bozo representatives don't work for us. They work for the lobbyists, their campaign contributors, and the global financial institutions; and that keeps them pretty busy.




References

Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. Letter to Governors and State School Officers, November 22, 2016.

James Howard Kunstler. Homework AssignmentClusterfuck Nation, September 29, 2017.

Gretchen Morgenson. Ending Tax Break for Ultrawealthy May Not Take Act of CongressNew York Times, May 6, 2016.


Senator Elizabeth Warren Press Release, December 20, 2016. McCaskill-Warren GAO Report Shows Shocking Increase in Student Loan Debt Among Seniors

United States Government Accountability Office. Social Security Offsets: Improvement to Program Design Could Better Assist Older Student Borrowers with Obtaining Permitted Relief. Washington DC: Author, December 2016).

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Long-term student-loan repayment rates are shockingly low: A new report from the National Center for Education Statistics

Last month, the Department of Education released its latest report on three-year default rates for the 2014 cohort of student borrowers. DOE reported a three-year default rate of 11.5 percent, up slightly from the Department's 2016 report.

A student-loan default rate of 11.5 percent doesn't seem so bad. After all, nearly 90 percent of the 2014 cohort are not in default.

But wait a minute. Instead of looking at default rates, let's look at repayment rates. How  many people are paying off their loans?

It's not a pretty picture. A few days ago, the National Center for Education Statistics produced a report on student-loan repayment rates; and the NCES's findings are alarming. The report is packed with incomprehensible, technical jargon and far too many tables and appendices, but if you dig around in the report,  you get to the heart of the matter.

Among borrowers who were first-time students in 1995-1996 (more than 20 years ago), less than half had paid off their loans by 2015. According to NCES, only 41.3 percent of the students in this cohort had paid off their loans 20 years after first entering postsecondary education.

What is the status of the other 59 percent? About 31 percent were still making payments in 2015, 13.8 percent had their loans in deferment, and 13.7 percent were in default.

In the 2003-2004 cohort of borrowers, only 23.5 percent had paid off their loans 12 years after beginning their studies. Three quarters of borrowers in this cohort were still making payments, had loans in deferment, or were in default.

As we would expect, student borrowers who obtained bachelor's degrees or higher had the best repayment rates. Nevertheless, in the 1995-96 cohort, only half of these people had paid off their student loans twenty years after they first enrolled in college.

The bottom line is this.  By giving out deferments and encouraging student debtors to enter long-term repayment plans, the Department of Education has kept its official student-loan default rates artificially low. But the fact remains that almost 60 percent of a cohort borrowers who took out student loans in the mid-nineties had not paid off their loans 20 years later.

And remember, people in the repayment phase who aren't paying down their loans or who are making token payments are seeing their loan balances grow larger with each passing month. An individual who hasn't paid back his or her student loans after 20 years is probably never going to pay them back because the loan balance is out of control.

That should scare Betsy DeVos and her minions at DOE. But she is focused on propping up the for-profit college industry and not the appalling data that show that a majority of college borrowers cannot pay off their student loans even when given 20 years to do so.

Presiding over a looming disaster


References

Andrew Kreighbaum. Post-Recession Borrowers Struggle to Repay Loans. Inside Higher Ed, October 5, 2017.

Jennie H. Woo, Alexander H. Bentz, Stephen Lew, Erin Dunlop Velez, Nichole Smith, RTI International,  (2017, October). Repayment  of Student Loans as of 2015 Among 1995-96 and 2003-04 First-Time Beginning Students. First Look (NCES 2018-410). U.S. Department of Education. Washington DC; National Center for Education Statistics. [Sean A Simone, Project Officer]


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Nihilistic old white guys who commit murder: We will see more Stephen Paddocks

Old and in the way, that's what I heard them say
They used to heed the words he said, but that was yesterday
Gold will turn to gray and youth will fade away
They'll never care about you, call you old and in the way.

Old and In the Way
lyrics by David Grisman
Sung by the Grateful Dead

Americans are accustomed to serial killers. According to the New York Times, mass shootings have occurred in the United States at the rate of more than one a day over the last 477 days.

We can sort these killers into discrete categories. Some are religious extremists--the Boston Marathon bombers, the Orlando shooter, the San Bernardino murderers. Some are disaffected young men: the killers at Columbine, Sandy Hook, and the Charleston, SC church.

And there is at least one more category: disaffected, older white men. Stephen Paddock,an affluent  64-year-old man, who killed or wounded more than 500 people in Las Vegas a few days ago, is the latest old white guy to commit (or at least attempt to commit) mass murder. Before Paddock, there was James Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old geezer from Illinois who shot a group of Republican congressmen while they were practicing for a charity baseball game. And don't forget John Russell Houser.  Houser, a 59-year-old loner, opened fire in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, killing two people and injuring nine others before shooting himself.

What did these men have in common? All were older white men, all attacked complete strangers, and all committed suicide (or allowed themselves to be killed by the police). And I think it is fair to say that these three men had lost all sense of purpose as they entered old age.

Let's face it. Growing old is no fun.  As we grow older, we realize we did not achieve all our dreams and that our time on earth is drawing to a close. We feel our strength and vigor ebb away as we hunker down for the last stage of life.  Our regrets and mistakes loom larger and larger in our minds while our meager triumphs and happy times grow dim in our memories.

And as death approaches, we find we are not afraid. At times we almost long for death. This movie lasted too long; we want to see "The End" appear on our movie screens. And we don't give a damn who shows up at our funerals.

In a healthy culture, old people derive meaning and purpose from their families--especially their grandchildren. If they are fortunate, they are respected for their wisdom and are sought out for wise counsel.  Some of us belong to civic organizations or take comfort from religious faith.

But in postmodern America, a lot of old white guys don't have any of that. They lost the families they started when they were young. Their jobs, which were obsessions when they were in their twenties and thirties, now seem tedious. They've lost all interest in religion and find religious people excruciatinglyboring.

And some of these old guys become nihilists; and some of them have guns.

I wish I believed the Stephen Paddocks of this world are the rarest of aberrations, that we will not see the likes of him again in our lifetime.

But I know differently. Our culture does not honor the old; it offers no solace to the elderly. The indignity of our approaching death reveals itself, the meaninglessness of existence becomes apparent; and some old men express their disappointment through murder.

Stephen Paddock, mass murderer

References

477 Days. 521 Mass Shootings. Zero Action From CongressNew York Times, October 3, 2017.

Betsy DeVos sabotages Obama's borrower-defense rule for processing student borrowers' fraud claims: She fears students will get "free money"

The collapse of Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech shined a light on the seedy for-profit college industry.  Both for-profit college companies filed for bankruptcy under a cloud of accusations of fraud and misrepresentation.

Together, Corinthian and ITT Tech had more than half a million former students. Thousands of them filed so-called "borrower defense" claims, petitioning the Department of Education to forgive their student loans because they were defrauded by the institutions they attended. About 65,000 borrower-defense claims are now pending.

What to do? The Obama Administration prepared borrower-defense regulations that were scheduled to take effect on July 1, 2017; but Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos blocked their implementation, saying the rules would be rewritten through the "negotiated rule making" process. DeVos' decision will allow the for-profit industry a voice in reshaping the rules to their liking.

Why did DeVos block the Obama-era regulations? She said the regulations drafted by the Obama administration would allow students to get "free money" by having their loans forgiven.  In other words, DeVos apparently assumes students who file fraud victims are themselves engaging in fraud by seeking debt relief.

This latest caper from DeVos' Department of Education tells us all we need to know about President Trump's least qualified cabinet appointee . Time and time again, DeVos has made decisions to benefit the for-profit colleges at the expense of students; and she has hired consultants who have worked in that sleazy industry.

Millions of people have borrowed money to attend overly expensive for-profit colleges only to receive educational experiences that are virtually worthless. Some were defrauded, some obtained degrees that did not lead to good jobs, and some just paid too much for substandard postsecondary programs. Unless these people obtain relief from their student-loan debt, they will never get on their feet financially.

The Obama administration's borrower-defense regulations were drafted to determine which for-profit students are fraud victims entitled to student-loan debt relief. In my mind, however, it is impossible to efficiently decide on a case-by-case basis which student borrowers are entitled to debt relief due to fraud. That would require hundreds of thousands of individual due-process hearings.

No, the only way to give worthy student-loan debtors a fresh start is through bankruptcy. Congress must amend the Bankruptcy Code to treat student loans like any other consumer debt.

If insolvent student-loan debtors were given reasonable access to bankruptcy, millions of cases would be filed and at least half a trillion dollars in debt would be wiped out.

A half trillion dollars in student-loan debt relief would be a big hit to the U.S. treasury, but let's face it. Millions of student loans will never be paid back. It would be far better for the overall national economy if student borrowers were given a fresh start rather than be forced into 20- and 25-year repayment plans in which borrowers make token monthly payments that don't even cover accruing interest.

DeVos either doesn't understand the magnitude of the student-loan debt crisis or she doesn't  care. Either way, she is a disaster who needs to be cashiered.

Betsy DeVos: Having a good laugh at college students' expense

References

James Briggs. Former ITT Tech students got promise of help, then silence. USA Today, May 22, 2017.

Corinthian Colleges Students Eligible For Loan Discharge. National Bankruptcy Forum, June 22, 2017.

Andrew Kreighbaum. Devos: Borrower-Defense Rule Offered 'Free Money'. Inside Higher ED, September 26, 2017.

Chad Miller.  Understanding 'Borrower Defense to Repayment": A New Yellow Brick Road to Federal Student Loan Forgiveness. American Action Forum, November 1, 2016.

Michael Stratford. More Debt Relief for Corinthian Students. Inside Higher Ed, March 28, 2016.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Department of Education's Official 3-Year Student-Loan Default Rate is Baloney

During the First World War, it is said, the British military kept three sets of casualty figures: one set to deceive the public, a second set to deceive the War Ministry, and a third set to deceive itself.

Over the years, the Department of Education has released its annual 3-year student-loan default rate in the autumn, about the time the pumpkins ripen. And every year the default rate that DOE issues is nothing but bullshit. I can't think of another word that adequately conveys DOE's mendacity and fraud.

This year, DOE reported that 11.5 percent of the the 2014 cohort of debtors defaulted on their loans within three years and that only ten institutions had default rates so high that they can be kicked out of the federal student-loan program. That's right: among the thousands of schools and colleges that suck up student-aid money, only ten fell below DOE's minimum student-loan default standard.

Why do I say DOE's three-year default rate is fraudulent?

Economic hardship deferments disguise the fact that millions of people aren't making loan payments. First of all, DOE has given millions of student-loan borrowers economic-hardship deferments or forbearances that allow borrowers to skip their monthly loan payments.  These deferments can last for several years. 

But people who are given permission to skip payments get no relief from accruing interest. Almost all these people will see their loan balances grow during the time they aren't making payments. By the time their deferment status ends, their loan balances will be too large to ever pay back.

The colleges actively encourage their former students to apply for loan deferments in order to keep their institutional default rates down. And that strategy has worked brilliantly for them. Virtually all of the colleges and schools are in good standing with DOE in spite of the fact that more than half the former students at a thousand institutions have paid nothing down on their loans seven years after beginning repayment.

Second,  DOE's three-year default rate does not include people who default after three years.  Only around 11 percent of student borrowers default within three years, but 28 percent from a recent cohort defaulted within five years. In the for-profit sector, the five-year default rate for a recent cohort of borrowers was 47 percent--damn near half.

DOE's income-driven repayment plans are a shell game.  As DOE candidly admits, the Department has been able to keep its three-year default rates low partly through encouraging floundering student borrowers to sign up for income-driven repayment plans  (IDRs) that lower monthly loan payments but stretch out the repayment period to as long as a quarter of a century.

President Obama expanded the IDR options by introducing PAYE and REPAYE, repayment plans which allow borrowers to make payments equal to 10 percent of their discretionary income (income  above the poverty level) for 20 years.

But most people who sign up for IDRs are making monthly payments so low that their loan balances are growing year by year even if they faithfully make their monthly loan payments. By the time their repayment obligations cease, their loan balances may be double, triple, or even quadruple the amount the originally borrowed.

Alan and Catherine Murray, who obtained a partial discharge of their student-loan debt in bankruptcy in 2016, are a case in point. The Murrays borrowed $77,000 to obtain postsecondary education and paid back about 70 percent of that amount. But they ran into financial difficulties that forced them to obtain an economic hardship deferment on their loans.  And at some point they entered into an IDR.

Twenty years after finishing their studies, the Murrays' student-loan balance had quadrupled to $311,000!  Yet a bankruptcy court ruled that the Murrays had handled their student loans in good faith, and they had never defaulted.

DOE is engaged in accounting fraud. If the Department of Education were a private bank, its executives would go to jail for accounting fraud. (Or maybe not. Wells Fargo and Bank of America's CEOs aren't in prison yet.)  The best that can be said about DOE's annual announcement on three-year default rates is that the number DOE releases is absolutely meaningless.

This is what is really going on. More than half of the people in a recent cohort of borrowers have not paid down one penny of their student-loan debt five years into the repayment phase of their loans.  And the loan balances for these people are not stable. People who are not paying down the interest on their student loans are seeing their loan balances grow.

In short, DOE is operating a fraudulent student-loan program.  More than 44 million Americans are encumbered by student-loan  debt that totals $1.4 trillion.  At least half that amount--well over half a trillion dollars--will never be paid back.

Betsy DeVos' job is to keep the shell game going a little longer, which she is well qualified to do. After all, she is a beneficiary of Amway,  "a multi-level marketing company," which some critics have described as a pyramid scheme.

Betsy DeVos: The perfect person to oversee DOE's student-loan shell game

References

Paul Fain. Federal Loan Default Rates Rise. Insider Higher ED, September 28, 2017.

Paul Fain. Feds' data error inflated loan repayment rates on the College ScoreboardInside Higher Ed, January 16, 2017.

Andrea Fuller. Student Debt Payback Far Worse Than BelievedWall Street Journal, January 18, 2017.

Adam Looney & Constantine Yannelis, A crisis in student loans? How changes in the characteristics of borrowers and in the institutions they attended contributed to rising default ratesWashington, DC: Brookings Institution (2015).

Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 14-22253, ADV. No. 15-6099, 2016 Banrk. LEXIS 4229 (Bankr. D. Kansas, December 8, 2016), aff'd, Case No. 16-2838 (D. Kan. September 22, 2017).

Joe Nocera. The Pyramid Scheme Problem, New York Times, September 15, 2015.







Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Scary Report From the Federal Reserve Bank: More Than Half of a Recent Cohort of Student-Loan Borrowers Did Not Reduce Their Debt by One Penny Over Five Years

Steve Rhode commented recently on a Federal Reserve Bank report published last July. As Mr. Rhode pointed out, the Feds reported that home ownership among young people declined by 8 percent over an 8-year period (2007 to 2015);  and the Feds concluded that a substantial reason for this decline is rising levels of student-loan debt.

The Fed report also observed that more young Americans are living with their parents than in previous years. In 2004, about one third of 23-25-year-olds lived with their parents. In 2015, 45 percent of people in this age bracket were living with mom and dad--a big increase.

These are alarming statistics, but the Fed's report also included information that is even scarier. More than half of student-loan borrowers in the 2009 cohort of borrowers had not paid down their student loans by even one penny five years after beginning repayment.

According to the Fed report, 59 percent of the 2009 cohort who owed $5,000 or less had not reduced their debt by even a dollar by 2014.  Well over half of people with very modest levels of student debt were delinquent on their loans, in default, or had failed to reduce their original loan balance by even a fractional amount.

Among people who owed between $50,000 and $100,000, 57 percent had not cut their student-loan debt by even a penny over five years. Among people owing $100,000 or more, 54 percent had made no progress on their loans during that time period.

The Fed report was commenting on a single cohort: people who took out student loans in 2009. But the repayment rates for more recent cohorts must be at least as bad. The Department of Education has been encouraging distressed borrowers to enter 20- and 25-year repayment plans, which lowers monthly payments. But in almost every case, the lower payments are not large enough to cover accruing interest, so most of the 6 million people in long-term, income-drive repayment plans are seeing their loan balances grow larger with each passing month.

And here's another scary tidbit of information. The Government Accountability Office reported in 2016 that half the people in income-driven repayment plans have been kicked out because they aren't abiding by the plans' eligibility rules.

In short, a perfect storm is brewing on the nation's economic horizon. Student loans are forcing more and more young people to postpone buying a house and to live with their parents.  Millions of people are making no progress at all toward paying off their student loans.

We can quantify some of the harm caused by the student-loan crisis, but other harms are difficult to measure. How many people have given up trying to get ahead because their student-debt grows larger with each passing month? How many have become cynical, despondent, or angry? How many of those masked antifa anarchists have student loans?

Steve Rhode put his finger on the only solution to the student-loan catastrophe. "Unless we tackle the growing problem of excessive student loan debt and allow those with unmanageable student loan debt to a fresh start in bankruptcy,"Mr. Rhode wrote, "the economic future of the days ahead is going to be less than it could have been."

Exactly. The only path out of this economic quagmire is through the federal bankruptcy courts.

The student-loan crisis is brewing into a perfect storm.

References


Zachary Bleemer, et al. Echoes of Rising Tuition in Students' Borrowing, Educational Attainment, and Homeownership in Post-Recession America. Federal Reserve Bank of New York Staff Report No. 820, July 2017.

Steve Rhode. Student Loan Debt Hurts Economy, Consumers, and Retirement Savings. Personal Finance Syndication Network, September 207.

US. Government Accounting Office. Federal Student Loans: Education Needs to Improve Its Income-Driven Repayment Plan Budget Estimates. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Accounting Office, November, 2016.



Student Loan Debt Hurts Economy, Consumers, and Retirement Savings, essay by Steve Rhode


When you live in a society like ours that is dependent on consumers to consumer goods and services, a reduction in the ability for growing sections of society to do their job and purchase stuff is going to lead to slower growth. That’s not good.

When growth slows there is less of a need for workers, jobs are cut, wages go flat, and life becomes tougher for many.

Historically, people accumulated wealth through homeownership and savings. When reaching the age of retirement the home could be sold and the equity created could be withdrawn. With less access to this type of wealth accumulation and the inability to save for retirement due to growing student loan debt, tragedy is on the horizon.

Student loan debt is hurting an entire generation of consumers who are setup for financial failure at this point.

The easy access to student loans has led to a growing for-profit private student loan industry that since 2009 has been drawing in many through loans and co-signing. Private student loans exploded with the advent of the for-profit schools. As an example, read Navient Knew Loans Were Garbage When They Saddled Students With Them. Yet the current Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos seems resistant to crack down on protections from these schools.

Federal government student loans have been a blessing for many to obtain funds to attend higher education but they have been a curse as well. Schools who were qualified to receive federal funds looked at that easy money as a way to make an easy sale of a student into a seat regardless of the ability of the student to benefit from the loan and school.

Data published by the Federal Reserve Bank said, ” findings are consistent with American youth having accommodated tuition shocks not by forgoing schooling, but instead by amassing more debt.”
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York goes on to say, “Further analysis demonstrates that the tuition hike and student debt increase, despite leaving higher educational attainment unchanged, can explain between 11 and 35 percent of the observed approximate eight percentage-point decline in homeownership for 28-to-30-year-olds over 2007-15 for these same nine cohorts. The results suggest that states that increase college costs for current student cohorts can expect to see a response not through a decline in workforce skills, but instead through weaker spending and wealth accumulation among young consumers in the years to come.”

At the same time as homeownership has been declining, kids are living with their parents at an increasing rate.


As a society nothing good is going to come from lower amounts of wealth accumulation, and weaker spending.

Unless we tackle the growing problem of excessive student loan debt and allow those with unmanageable student loan debt to have access to a fresh start in bankruptcy, the economic future of the days ahead is going to be less than it could have been.

Steve Rhode


This article appeared on the Personal Finance Syndication Network web site and also on The Get Out of Debt Guy site. Steve Rhode is the Get Out of Debt Guy and has been helping good people with bad debt problems since 1994. You can learn more about Steve here.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Student-Loan Debtors Desperately Need Bankruptcy Lawyers

Too many Americans are going to court without lawyers. As Lauren Sudeall Lucas and Darcy Meals noted in an essay in The Conversation, 80 to 90 percent of people in some states are litigating their cases without attorneys, even when their opponents have legal counsel. In Georgia, the authors assert, courts heard 800,000 cases last year involving self-represented litigants.

Lucas and Meals maintain the United States has "far too few lawyers," but I disagree. As Paul Campos and others have written, there has been a downturn in the legal-services market; and law schools are churning out thousands of new attorneys who graduate with six-figure student loans and no job prospects.

The United States has enough lawyers; in fact, we have too many. The problem is this: practicing lawyers are not representing middle-class people and the poor.

Why? Because most Americans can't afford to pay an attorney to guide them through protracted litigation.  Lawyers leave law school with an average debt load of $140,000; and they must make at least $100,000 a year just to service their student loans. Consequently, attorney fees are too high for most Americans to pay.

Student debtors desperately need lawyers

Lucas and Meals didn't mention the plight of student-loan debtors, but this is a special class of people who need good bankruptcy attorneys. In 2012, Jason Iuliano wrote an important law-review article in which he reviewed bankruptcy filings in 2007. Iuliano found that 238,446 student-loan debtors filed for bankruptcy in 2007, but only a few hundred filers even attempted to discharge their student loans. This is unfortunate because Iuliano estimated that 39 percent of the student borrowers who filed for bankruptcy that year "would have been good candidates to obtain relief."

Remarkably, a few student debtors have gotten their student loans forgiven in the bankruptcy courts  even though they were not represented by a lawyer. Richard Precht in Virginia and Jaime Clavito in California filed adversary actions against the Department of Education and obtained stipulated discharges of their student loans without going to trial. These are amazing victories.

Self-appointed experts assert again and again that student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, but this is not true. In recent years, several people have wiped out their student loans in the bankruptcy courts. Moreover, without a doubt, the federal bankruptcy judges are becoming more sympathetic to distressed student borrowers; and the courts are increasingly willing to rule in favor of student-loan debtors when the Department of Education or one of its rapacious debt collectors opposes bankruptcy relief.

What needs to be done?

As I said, the United States has plenty of lawyers, but not enough of them are concerned about justice for the poor. Dozens of public advocacy groups joined lawsuits in support of transgender students who demanded the right to choose their toilet facilities, which is commendable. But 20 million Americans are being crushed by student-loan debt, and very few lawyers have come to their aid.

Where is the Southern Poverty Law Center? Where is the ACLU? Where are the legal aid clinics? Why haven't these agencies joined the fight to bring debt relief to deserving student borrowers?

Just a few able and committed lawyers could completely change the legal landscape for student-loan debtors. I estimate that 25 or 30 competent lawyers, defending a few clients in several federal circuits, could persuade the federal courts to reinterpret the "undue hardship" standard that has been applied so harshly against desperate student borrowers over the years.

In my view, the federal courts are willing to ruling in favor of student borrowers who file bankruptcy if only they are presented with good legal arguments. Many--perhaps most--bankruptcy judges are liberal minded. They know it is their job to provide a fresh start to "honest but unfortunate" debtors. Moreover, I think many are offended by the way the Trump administration has handled the student-loan catastrophe; or at least they would be offended if they were educated by student-loan debtors' attorneys.

The bankruptcy courts provide the best avenue for relief for distressed student-loan debtors

It is time to face harsh facts. Millions of Americans have committed financial suicide by taking out student loans they can't pay back. The student loan program has driven legions of people out of the national economy, preventing them from buying homes, getting married, or saving for their retirement.

Congress has not done anything to provide relief. In fact, the House of Representatives recently approved a bill that will make it almost impossible for defrauded student debtors to sue the for-profit colleges that swindled them. The Department of Education, now run by the wicked witch of the east, Betsy DeVos, is doing everything it can to advance the venal interests of the for-profit college industry.

The bankruptcy courts provide the only hope for relief from oppressive and unpayable student-loan debt. Good lawyers need to represent oppressed student debtors in the bankruptcy courts, educating the judges about the Tenth Circuit's Polleys decision, the Seventh Circuit's Krieger decision, the Eighth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel's Fern decision, and the Ninth Circuit BAP's Roth decision. The judges need to understand that federal case law now often favors the student-loan debtor.

In sum, we have enough attorneys; but we do not have enough lawyers who are willing to go toe-to-toe against the U.S. Department of  Education, the debt collectors, and the sleazy for-profit college industry.

Betsy DeVos: No friend to student-loan debtors


References

Richard Fossey. Why students need better protection from loan fraud. The Conversation, August 24, 2017.


Jason Iuliano. An Empirical Assessment of Student Loan Discharge and the Undue Hardship Standard. 86 American Bankruptcy Law Journal 495-525 (2012).

Lauren Sudeall Lucas and Darcy Meals. Every year, millions try to navigate US courts without a lawyer. The Conversation, September 21, 2017







Thursday, September 21, 2017

Does Citizens Bank routinely make student loans to people attending non-approved foreign colleges?

Awhile back, I posted an essay on Decena v. Citizens Bank, a bankruptcy court case that was decided last year in New York. Lorelei Decena had borrowed $161,000 to attend St. Christopher's College of Medicine in Senegal, West Africa. At the time Decena was studying at St. Christopher's, the school was not on the Department of Education's approved schools list.

After graduating, Ms. Decena returned to the United States to pursue a medical career. To her dismay, she discovered that her St. Christopher medical degree did not qualify her to take her medical boards exams in the U.S.; and she filed for bankruptcy.

As almost everyone knows, student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy unless the debtor can meet the "undue hardship" standard articulated in 11 U.S.C. sec. 523 of the Bankruptcy Code. The undue hardship standard applies not only to federal student loans but to private student loans as well. This is a very difficult standard to meet, and some courts have applied it harshly.

Fortunately, for Ms. Decena, the bankruptcy court ruled that her loans from Citizens Bank were not covered by the undue hardship rule because St. Christopher's College of Medicine was not on the Department of Education's approved schools list when she studied there. Thus her student loans could be discharged in bankruptcy like any other consumer loan.  A great victory!

A few days ago, I was contacted by another New Yorker who had borrowed about $160,000 in student loans from Citizens Bank to attend a medical school in Great Britain. This school, like Decena's school, was not on DOE's approved schools list when he attended. And somewhat like Decena, this New Yorker discovered that his overseas medical degree does not qualify him to practice medicine in New York.

Obviously, this fellow has a very good argument that his student loans can be discharged in bankruptcy in the same manner as Ms. Decena's loans.  He contacted Citizens Bank and was told that the bank had sold the loan to a debt collection company.  He then wrote the debt collector and enclosed a copy of the Decena case. So far, no response.

What's going on here? Is Citizens Bank routinely making student loans to people enrolled in overseas medical schools?  And is it lending money to people attending foreign schools that are not on the Department of Education's approved schools list?

Although it is not well known, the Department of Education gives out student loans for Americans to attend foreign colleges and universities; and there are universities from all over the world on DOE's approved schools list.  Some of these institutions are foreign medical schools.

In my view, the government should not be lending money for people to study at foreign universities. The United States has plenty of colleges. Moreover, post-secondary enrollments are in decline in the U.S.; and there are lots of empty seats at American institutions.

And I don't think private banks should be lending money to people so they can study at foreign medical schools, particularly when it is unclear whether a foreign medical degree qualifies graduates to practice medicine in the U.S.

But if our government and the banks are going to continue the reckless practice of handing out student loans for people to study in foreign countries, then the people who accept those loans should be able to discharge their student debt in bankruptcy if they discover that their foreign degrees are worthless to them.



References

Decena v. Citizens Bank, 549 B.R. 11 (Bankr. E.D.N.Y. 2016).

Note: Citizens Bank appealed the bankruptcy court's decision to a federal district court, arguing that it had not received proper service of the lawsuit. The district court vacated the bankruptcy court's ruling based on a technicality without disturbing the underlying rationale of the bankruptcy court's decision in favor of Ms. Decena. Citizens Bank v. Decena, 562 B.R. 202 (E.D.N.Y. 2016).










Thursday, September 14, 2017

Birmingham-Southern cuts tuition in half: Making a virtue of necessity


I'm a Methodist, Methodist 'tis my belief
I'm a Methodist till die
Till old grim death comes a knockin' at the door
I'm a Methodist till I die.

Methodist Pie
sung by Red Foley and others

Birmingham-Southern College, a Methodist school in Alabama, is slashing its tuition price by half.  Current tuition: $35,840. Next year's tuition: $17,650.

Linda Flaherty-Goldsmith, BSC's president, put a positive spin on this development. "The marketplace spoke, and we listened," Flaherty-Goldsmith said in a prepared statement. "Students and families are telling colleges all across the United States--and they're telling us--that encountering a high published price is a real barrier to a high-quality education.  We want to make sure that the best and brightest students have access to the kind of personalized, challenging, hands-on educational experience that BSC provides."

Forgive me for being cynical, but that statement sounds like bullshit from the public relations department. For one thing, BSC isn't really cutting its net tuition rate. Ninety percent of BSC students were already paying less than the sticker price. In fact, college officials admitted that next year's net tuition price will be about what students are paying this year.

Basically, BSC has been doing what almost all small private colleges have been doing--jacking up the posted tuition rate and then cutting the real cost in half by granting scholarships and grants.

As Flaherty-Goldsmith admitted, this strategy isn't working. Families were scared off by BSC's sticker price, a price that only about 10 percent of BSC students were actually paying.

I wish BSC well, but I don't think slashing published tuition rates will bump up enrollment. Small colleges across the United States have tried all sorts of gimmicks to attract more students, but a third of all private institutions with enrollments under 3,000 ran deficits last year.

Colleges have tried advertising campaigns, "signature" academic experiences, study abroad opportunities, and online instruction to lure students through the door, but many are losing the battle to remain solvent.

Let's face facts. How many students are willing to pay $35,000 a year or even $17,000 a year to get a liberal arts degree from an undistinguished small college in Birmingham, Alabama?Apparently not very many.

There was a time when a college's religious affiliation was a draw for some American families. Back in the 1950s, some Methodists sent their children to Methodist schools, and Catholics sent their sons and daughters to Catholic colleges.

But that time is long past.  It is getting harder and harder to articulate what it means to be a Methodist college as opposed to a Catholic college or even a publicly funded institution. 

And it is getting more and more difficult to explain the value of a liberal arts education to a fragmented culture in which all values are relative and Eurocentric values are particularly suspect.

As I say, I wish BSC well. But small liberal arts colleges are becoming increasingly irrelevant, and the high tuition that most of them charge has accelerated their decline.

In my mind, it is too late to ratchet back tuition rates. The small colleges' former clients are drifting toward community colleges, trade schools, and regional public universities. Their customers have departed, and they are not coming back.

And I don't feel sorry for the small colleges that are dying. I feel sorry for the schmucks who took out student loans to pay BSC's sticker price.

BSC president Linda Flaherty-Goldsmith


References

Associated Press. Birmingham-Southern cutting tuition, fees next fall. Seattle Times, September 13, 2017.

Rick Seltzer. Birmingham-Southern Cuts Tuition in Half. Inside Higher Ed, September 13, 2017.