Monday, January 30, 2017

Senator Charles Schumer cries bitter tears over Trump's travel ban on people coming to U.S. from countries that export terror: Where are the grownups?

I knew in my heart that President Trump had done a bad thing--a terrible thing--when he imposed a temporary ban on people traveling to the U.S. from countries that export terrorism. But I did not grasp the enormity of his iniquity until I saw Senator Charles Schumer break down in sobs over Trump's foul deed.

After all, as President Trump admitted, Senator Schumer is not a crier. He has witnessed some truly awful things during his long political career. Yet he never broke down--not once.

Senator Schumer was dry-eyed after the San Bernardino shootings and the Orlando massacre. I don't think he shed a single tear after the Russians shot down that airliner in Ukraine. As far as I know, Senator Schumer kept a stiff upper lip after the terrorists killing sprees in Paris, Brussels, and Nice.

So why did President Trump's executive order--his ill advised and poorly implemented executive order--cause Schumer to go into near hysterics?

I do not; I honestly do not know.

But this I do know. This country has some serious problems, and only grownups can solve them. And here are just a few of them:
  • The number of Americans on food stamps grew by almost 20 million people over the last eight years.
  • Accumulated student-loan debt has reached $1.4 trillion, and 8 million people are in default.
  • Mortality rates for working class Americans have spiked upward, driven by suicide and deaths related to drug and alcohol abuse.
  • Suicide rates among middle-aged people have gone up alarmingly, and crushing personal debt may be a factor.
But let's not cry about this sad news. Let's do something about it. So please, Senator Schumer, treat yourself to a nice long cry and then go back to work.

I assure you, Senator Schumer, if you begin acting like a grownup and start working on the nation's problems, you will feel much better. On the other hand, if you break down in tears every time President Trump does something you don't like, you're going to need a lot of handkershiefs.

People acting like grownups after the San Bernardino shooting

References

Alan Bjerga. Food Stamps Still Feed One in Seven Americans Despite Recovery, Bloomberg.com, February 3, 2016.

Jillian Berman. When your Social Security check disappears because of an old student loanMarketWatch, June 25, 2015.  Accessible at: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/when-your-social-security-check-disappears-because-of-an-old-student-loan-2015-06-25

Anne  Case and Angus Deaton. Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white
non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century.  Accessible at: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/10/29/1518393112.full.pdf

Editorial. Death AmongMiddle Aged Whites. New York Times, November 5, 2015.

General Accounting Office. Older Americans: Inability to Repay Student Loans May Affect Financial Security of a Small Percentage of Borrowers. GAO-14-866T. Washington, DC: General Accounting Office. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-866T

Katherine A. Hempstead and Julie A. Phillips. Rising Suicide Among Adults Aged
40–64 Years: The Role of Job and Financial Circumstances.  American Journal of Preventive Medicine 84(5):491-500 (2015).

Gina Kolata. Deaths Rates Rising Middle-Aged White Americans, Study FindsNew York Times, November 3, 2015.

Betsy McKay. The Death Rate Is Rising for Middle-Aged WhitesWall Street Journal, November 3, 2015. 


ECMC abuses the bankruptcy process: Hann v. Educational Credit Management Corp.

Last week I posted a blog about Bruner-Halteman v. ECMC, which was decided last April. In that case, a Texas bankruptcy judge awarded punitive damages against Educational Credit Management Corporation for repeatedly garnishing the wages of a bankrupt Starbucks employee in violation of her legal rights.  ECMC got slapped with $74,000 in punitive damages.

Brunner-Halteman is not the first case in which ECMC has been found guilty of abusing the bankruptcy process. In Hann v. ECMC, decided in 2013, the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision  against ECMC for continually trying to collect on student loans it claimed were owed by Barbara Hann, even though a bankruptcy judge had ruled that Hann owed ECMC nothing.

Hann v. ECMC: Sanctions are imposed on ECMC for abusing the bankruptcy process

Here is a brief rendition of the facts. Barbara Hann filed for bankruptcy in November 2004, and she dutifully listed all her debts.  ECMC filed a proof of claim in the case, alleging Hann owed ECMC more than $54,000 for unpaid student loans (including accrued interest and collection costs).

Hann objected to ECMC's claim on the grounds that she had paid her student loans in full. The bankruptcy judge held a hearing on the matter, which ECMC did not attend.

At the hearing, Hann testified that she had paid off her student loans and produced documentary evidence to support her testimony. After considering Hann's evidence, the bankruptcy judge ruled that Hann owed ECMC nothing.

Hann probably thought her student debts were behind her, but she was wrong. After her bankruptcy case was concluded, ECMC renewed its efforts to collect on Hann's old student loans. In fact, it even garnished her Social Security.

Richard Gaudreau, Hann's lawyer, contacted ECMC and told the company that Hann's student-loan debt had been discharged in bankruptcy. Nevertheless, ECMC continued trying to collect the debt.

 Gaudreau then reopened Hann's bankruptcy case and asked a new bankruptcy judge to order ECMC to stop its collection efforts.   ECMC showed up for the hearing, where it, argued that the former bankruptcy judge, who had retired, had never adjudicated the amount of ECMC's claim and that student-loan debt is generally nondischargeable. ECMC, did not, however, quantify how much it claimed Hann still owed.

Again, a bankruptcy judge ruled in Hann's favor, and the judge awarded sanctions against ECMC.  ECMC appealed this order to the First Circuit's Bankruptcy Appellate Panel, and the Panel upheld the bankruptcy court.  The BAP specifically approved the sanctions against the debt collector, explaining that ECMC's continued collection activities in spite of the bankruptcy court's ruling, "constituted an abuse of the bankruptcy process and defiance of the court's authority."

Did ECMC get the message? Apparently not. ECMC then appealed the BAP's ruling to the First Circuit Court of Appeals,  On March 29, 2013, almost nine years after Hann filed for bankruptcy, the First Circuit ruled in Hann's favor yet again. Hann owed ECMC nothing, the appellate court ruled; and the bankruptcy court had appropriately sanctioned the debt collector for abusing the bankruptcy process.

Implications of the First Circuit's ruling in Hann v. ECMC

The Hann case is extraordinary for two reasons. First, ECMC defended its right to collect on Hann's student loans all the way to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, despite its "repeated inability to identify or quantify [Hann'] outstanding debt obligation" to the bankruptcy court.

Second, the sanctions that ECMC fought were not large: only about $9,000. Clearly, it made no economic sense for ECMC to fight a pitifully small sanction award at two appellate levels. Surely, ECMC's attorney fees were many times the amount of the sanctions award.

Taken together, the Bruner-Halteman decision and the Hann decision portray ECMC as  a pretty rough outfit. It has appeared in hundreds of court cases involving student-loan debtors, and surely it knows the Bankruptcy Code. Yet it was willing to garnish Bruner-Halteman's wages 37 times in defiance of settled law and to continue trying to collect on student loans that had been discharged in bankruptcy.

Who paid ECMC's attorney fees in these two wild-hare cases? It is not entirely clear, but the Century Foundation's report on ECMC and other student-loan guaranty agencies suggests that the federal government is paying ECMC's fees.

If that is true, then you, Mr. and Ms. Taxpayer, are paying ECMC's lawyers to hound distressed student-loan debtors through the federal courts. Don't you think we should find out? And wouldn't that be a good question for the U.S. Senate to explore through its hearing process?


References

Bruner-Halteman v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 12-324-HDH-13, ADV. No. 14-03041 (Bankr. N.D. Tex. 2016).

Hann v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 711 F.3d 235 (1st Cir. 2013).

John Hechinger. Taxpayers Fund $454,000 Pay for Collector Chasing Student Loans. Bloomberg.com, May 15, 2013. Accessible at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-05-15/taxpayers-fund-454-000-pay-for-collector-chasing-student-loans.html

Natalie Kitroeff. Loan Monitor is Accused of Ruthless Tactics on Student Debt. New York Times, January 1, 2014. Acccessible at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/02/us/loan-monitor-is-accused-of-ruthless-tactics-on-student-debt.html?_r=0

Robert Shireman and Tariq Habash. Have Student Loan Guaranty Agencies Lost Their Way? The Century Foundation, September 29, 2016. Accessible at https://tcf.org/content/report/student-loan-guaranty-agencies-lost-way/

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Alan and Catherine Murray are Poster Children for the Student Loan Crisis: Income-Driven Repayment Plans for Distressed Student-Loan Debtors are Insane

In a recent post, I wrote about Alan and Catherine Murray, who won a partial discharge of their student-loan debt in a bankruptcy case decided in December 2016.  Educational Credit Management (ECMC), the creditor in their case, is appealing the decision. We should all hope ECMC loses the appeal, because the Murrays are the poster children for the student-loan crisis.

Alan and Catherine Murray: Poster Children for the Student-Loan Crisis

Alan and Catherine Murray, a married couple in their late forties, took out 31 federal student loans to get bachelor's degrees and master's degrees in the early 1990s. In all, they borrowed about $77,000, not an unreasonable amount, given the fact that they used the loans to get a total of four degrees.

In 1996, the Murrays consolidated all those loans, a sensible thing to do; and they began making payments on the consolidated loans at 9 percent interest.  Over the years they made payments totally $58,000--or 70 percent of what they borrowed.

Nevertheless, during some periods, the Murrays obtained economic hardship deferments on their loans, which allowed them to skip some payments. Interest continued to accrue, however; and by 2014, when the Murrays filed for bankruptcy, their $77,000 debt had ballooned to $311,000!

Fortunately for the Murrays, Judge Dale Somers, a Kansas bankruptcy judge, granted them a partial discharge of their massive debt. Judge Somers ruled that the Murrays had managed their student loans in good faith, but they would never be able to pay back the $311,000 they owed. Very sensibly, he reduced their debt to $77,000, which is the amount they borrowed, and canceled all the accumulated interest.

 Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC), the Murrays' student-loan creditor, appealed Judge Somers' ruling. The Murrays should have been placed in an income-driven repayment plan (IDR), ECMC argued, which would have required them to pay about $1,000 a month for a period of 20 years.

Obviously, ECMC's argument is insane. As Judge Somers pointed out, interest was accruing on the Murrays' debt at the rate of almost $2,000 a month. Thus ECMC's proposed payment schedule would have resulted in the Murrays' debt growing by a thousand dollars a month even if they faithfully made their loan payments. By the end of their 20-year payment term, their total debt would have grown to at least two thirds of a million dollars.

The Murrays' case is not atypical: Billions of dollars in student loans are negatively amortizing

You might think the Murray case is an anomaly, but it is not. Millions of people took out student loans, made payments in good faith, and wound up owing two, three, or even four times what they borrowed. In other words, millions of student loans are negatively amortizing--they are growing larger, not smaller, during the repayment period.

For example, Brenda Butler, whose bankruptcy case was decided last year, borrowed $14,000 to get a bachelor's degree in English from Chapman University, which she obtained in 1995. Like the Murrays, she made good faith efforts to pay off her loans, but she was unemployed from time to time and could not always make her loan payments.

By the time Butler filed for bankruptcy in 2014, her debt had doubled to $32,000, even though she had made payments totally $15,000--a little more than the amount she borrowed.

Unfortunately for Ms. Butler, her bankruptcy judge was not as compassionate as the Murrays' judge. The judge ruled that Butler should stay on a 25-year repayment plant, which would terminate in 2037, 42 years after she graduated from Chapman University.

Here is sad reality. Millions of people are seeing their total student-loan indebtedness go up--not down--after they begin repayment. According to the Brookings Institution,  more than half of the 2012 cohort of student-loan borrowers saw their total indebtedness go up two years after beginning the repayment phase.  Among students who attended for-profit colleges, three out of four saw their loan balances grow larger two years into repayment.

An analysis by Inside Higher Ed concluded that less that half of college borrowers (47 percent) had made any progress on paying off their student loans 5 years into repayment. In the for-profit sector, only about a third (35 percent) had paid anything down on their student loans  over a 5-year period.

And the Wall Street Journal reported recently that half the students at more than a thousand colleges and schools had not reduced their loan balances by one dime seven years after their repayment obligations began.

The Federal Student Loan Program is a Train Wreck

Awhile back, Senator Elizabeth Warren accused the federal government of making "obscene" profits on student loans because the interest rates were higher than the government's cost of borrowing money. Warren's charge might have been true if people were paying back their loans, but they are not.

Eight million people are in default and millions more are seeing their student-loan balances grow larger with each passing month.  The Murrays are the poster children for this tragedy because they handled their loans in good faith and still wound up owing four times what they borrowed.

In short, the federal student loan program is a train wreck. Judge Somers' solution for the Murrays was to wipe out the accrued interest on their debt and to simply require them to pay back the principle. This is the only sensible way to deal with the massive problem of negative amortization.



References

Butler v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, No. 14-71585, Adv. No. 14-07069 (Bankr. C.D. Ill. Jan. 27, 2016).

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

Andrea Fuller. Student Debt Payback Far Worse Than BelievedWall Street Journal, January 18, 2020.

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).

Ruth Tam. Warren: Profits from student loans are 'obscene.' Washington Post, July 17, 2013.



Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Texas bankruptcy court slaps ECMC with punitive damages for repeatedly garnishing a Starbucks employee's paychecks in violation of the automatic stay provision: "The Ragged Edge"

Anyone who has dealt with Educational Credit Management Corporation as a debtor knows that it is a ruthless and heartless organization. As one of the federal government's student-loan debt collectors, it has harassed hapless creditors thousands of time. It was ECMC that opposed bankruptcy relief for Janet Roth, an elderly woman with chronic health problems who was living on less than $800 a month.

But the Roth case does not fully display ECMC's callousness.  A better illustration of its merciless behavior is found in Bruner-Halteman v. ECMC, decided by a Texas bankruptcy court last April.

Bruner-Halteman was a single mother who worked at Starbucks, living, as the bankruptcy court observed, "on the ragged edge where any adversity can be catastrophic." She owed about $5,000 on a student loan issued by Sallie Mae, and she was in default.

In 2012, ECMC garnished Bruner-Halteman's  Starbucks wages, and she filed for bankruptcy, which, under federal law, triggers an automatic stay of all garnishment activities. ECMC received notice of the bankruptcy filing, and even participated as a creditor in Bruner-Halteman's bankruptcy proceedings. But it continued to garnish Bruner-Halteman's wages for almost two years.

In fact, ECMC garnished Bruner-Halteman's wages 37 times AFTER she filed for bankruptcy--a clear violation of the law. Moreover, ECMC had no reasonable excuse for its misbehavior. In fact, ECMC refunded the wages it garnished on 17 occasions but kept on garnishing this poor woman's wages. Indeed, the garnishments did not stop until Bruner-Halteman  filed a lawsuit for damages in the bankruptcy court.

The bankruptcy court held a three-day trial on Bruner-Haltman's claims and heard plenty of evidence about the stress Bruner-Halteman experienced due to ECMC's illegal garnishments.  On April 8, 2016, the court awarded her actual damages of  about $8,000, attorney fees, and $74,000 in punitive damages.

Here is how the bankruptcy judge summarized ECMC's conduct:
ECMC's systematic, knowing, and willful disregard of the automatic stay and the protections afforded a debtor by the bankruptcy system was particularly egregious and offends the integrity of the the bankruptcy process. . . The indifference shown by ECMC to the Plaintiff and the bankruptcy process is gravely disturbing.
The court was particularly offended by the fact that ECMC repeatedly refunded the amounts it garnished but did not stop the garnishment process. "The callousness of the refund process is particularly rattling," the court wrote.

"In order to process a refund," the court noted, "an ECMC employee had to make the determination that the debtor had an active bankruptcy case, but that did nothing to convince ECMC that it should be cancelling the wage garnishments . . ." Instead, ECMC processed the refunds "at whatever pace it chose" while Bruner-Halteman "was doing everything she could to make ends meet."

At the conclusion of its opinion, the court summarized ECMC's behavior as follows:
A sophisticated creditor, ECMC, active in many cases in this district and across the country, decided that it could continue to garnish a debtor's wages with full knowledge that she was in a pending bankruptcy case. The Plaintiff, a woman who suffers from a severe medical condition, was hurt in the process. She was deprived of the full use of her paycheck. She incurred significant attorneys' fees in trying to fix the situation. A garnishment of a few hundred dollars may not be much to everyone, but to Kristin Bruner-Halteman, it meant a lot.
I will make just two comments about ECMC's merciless and cruel behavior in the Bruner-Halteman case. First, $74,000 might be a significant punitive-damages award for some organizations, but 74 grand is peanuts to ECMC.  After all, the Century Foundation reported recently that ECMC, a nonprofit organization, has $1 billion in cash and unrestricted assets. A punitive damages award of a million dollars would have been more appropriate.

Second, Ms. Bruner-Halteman was not awarded damages for ECMC's outlaw conduct until April 8, 2016, almost exactly four years after ECMC's first  wrongful garnishment.  Obviously, ECMC knows how to stretch out the litigatin process  to wear down its adversaries.

ECMC's name has appeared as a named party in more than 500 court decisions. A little dust-up like the one it had with Bruner-Haltemann is simply the price of doing business in the dirty commerce of harassing student-loan defaulters. And you can bet no one at ECMC missed a meal or lost any sleep because of the Bruner-Halteman case.

Perhaps Senator Elizabeth Warren, who publicly bemoans the excesses of the student loan industry, should hold Senate hearings and ask ECMC's CEO a few questions. Questions like: How much do ECMC executives pay themselves? How did ECMC accumulate $1 billion in unrestricted assets? And who is paying ECMC's attorney fees for hounding all those American student-loan borrowers--millions of whom, like Bruner-Halteman, are living "on the ragged edge"?

References

Bruner-Halteman v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 12-324-HDH-13, ADV. No. 14-03041 (Bankr. N.D. Tex. 2016).

Robert Shireman and Tariq Habash. Have Student Loan Guaranty Agencies Lost Their Way? The Century Foundation, September 29, 2016. Accessible at https://tcf.org/content/report/student-loan-guaranty-agencies-lost-way/








Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A Kansas bankruptcy court discharged all the accrued interest on a married couple's student loans: Murray v. ECMC

Do you remember political consultant James Carville's famous line during the 1992 presidential campaign? "It's the economy, stupid," Carville supposedly observed. That eloquently simple remark became Bill Clinton's distilled campaign message and helped propel him into the presidency.

Something similar might be said about the student-loan crisis: "It's the interest, stupid." In fact, for many Americans, it is the interest and penalties on their student loans--not the amount they borrowed--which is causing them so much financial distress.

The Remarkable case of Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation

This truth is starkly illustrated in the case of Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, which was decided last December by a Kansas bankruptcy judge.  At the time they filed for bankruptcy, Alan and Catherine Murray owed $311,000 in student-loan debt, even though they had only borrowed about $77,000. Thus 75 percent of their total debt represented interest on their loans, which had accrued over almost 20 years at an annual rate of 9 percent.

As Judge Dale Somers explained in his ruling on the case, the Murrays had taken out 31 student loans back in the 1990s to obtain bachelor's degrees and master's degrees. In 1996, when they consolidated their loans, they only owed a total of $77,524.

Over the years, the Murrays made loan payments when they could, which totaled $54,000--more than half the amount they borrowed. Nevertheless, they entered into several forbearance agreements that allowed them to skip payments; and they also signed up for income-driven repayment plans that reduced the amount of their monthly payments. Meanwhile, interest on their debt continued to accrue. By the the time the Murrays filed for bankruptcy in 2014, their $77,000 debt had grown to almost a third of a million dollars.

The Murrays' combined income was substantial--about $95,000. Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC), the creditor in the case, argued that the Murrays had enough discretionary income to make significant loan payments in an income-driven repayment plan.  In fact, under such a plan, their monthly loan payments would be less than $1,000 a month,

But Judge Somers disagreed. Interest on the Murrays' debt was accruing at the rate of $65 a day, Judge Somers pointed out--about $2,000 a month. Clearly, the couple would never pay off their loan under ECMC's proposed repayment plan. Instead,  their debt would grow larger with each passing month.

On the other hand, in Judge Somers' view, the Murrays had sufficient income to pay off the principle of their loan and still maintain a minimal standard of living. Thus, he crafted a remarkably sensible ruling whereby the interest on the Murrays' debt was discharged but not the principle. The Murrays are still obligated to pay the $77,000 they borrowed back in the 1990s plus future interest on this amount, which would begin accruing at the rate of 9 percent commencing on the date of the court's judgment.

Judge Somers Points the Way to Sensible Student-Debt Relief

In my view, Judge Somers' decision in the Murray case is a sensible way to address the student debt crisis.  Eight million people have defaulted on their loans, and 5.6 million more are making token payments under income-driven repayment plans that are often not large enough to cover accruing interest. Millions of Americans have obtained loan deferments that allow them to skip their loan payments; but these people--like the Murrays--are seeing their loan balances grow each month as interest accrues.

Judge Somers' decision doesn't solve the student-loan crisis in its entirety, but it is a good solution for millions of people whose loan balances have doubled, tripled and even quadrupled due to accrued interest, penalties, and fees.

Obviously, Judge Somers' solution should only be offered to people who dealt with their loans in good faith.  Judge Somers specifically ruled that the Murrays  had acted in good faith regarding their loans. In fact, they paid back about 70 percent of the amount they borrowed.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, ECMC appealed the Murray decision, hoping to overturn it. Nevertheless, let us take heart from the fact that a Kansas bankruptcy judge reviewed a married couple's financial disaster and crafted a fair and humane solution.


References

Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 14-22253, ADV. No. 15-6099, 2016 Banrk. LEXIS 4229 (Bankr. D. Kansas, December 8, 2016).








Monday, January 23, 2017

A Bipartisan Solution to the Student Loan Crisis: What if Betsy DeVos and Senator Elizabeth Warren Worked Together to Craft A Fix?

At the conclusion of Betsy DeVos's Senate hearing last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren refused to shake DeVos's hand. If this is a sign of enmity between Senate Democrats and the Trump administration over education policy, this is a scary development for distressed student-loan debtors.

Millions of borrowers are drowning in student loan debt--now pushing $1.4 trillion dollars. Eight million have defaulted, and millions more are teetering on the edge of default. Now is the time for Republicans and Democrats to work together.

What if Secretary of Education DeVos and Senator Warren cooperated to solve the student loan crisis? Thinks what they could achieve.

Here's a plausible scenario:

1. During the first month of the Trump administration,  Secretary of Education DeVos calls a press conference to announce that the federal government will stop garnishing Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters.

At the press conference, Secretary DeVos is flanked by several U.S. Senators, including Senators Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Lamar Alexander. Senator Warren announces she will introduce legislation barring the government from garnishing Social Security checks of student-loan defaulters.

2. Next, DeVos issues a directive to DOE bureaucrats, ordering them to speed up the process for processing so-called "Borrower Defense" claims by students who are trying to get their student loans discharged on the grounds that their colleges defrauded them.

DOE responds quickly, and thousands of debtors who were scammed by shady for-profit colleges get their loans discharged. Warren and her Senate compadres issue press releases praising DeVos's action.

3.  Shortly thereafter, DeVos tells reporters that she agrees with the Obama administration's stance on arbitration clauses in student enrollment documents. The for-profits routinely require their students to sign these clauses, which forces students to arbitrate their fraud claims in unfriendly forums.  The Obama administration said it opposed these clauses but did not do anything to stop them from being used.

DeVos says, as of the day of her announcement, DOE will not allow any for--profit college to participate in the student-loan program that forces students to sign coercive arbitration agreements. Senators Warren and Senate Democrats applaud DeVos's step.

4.  In spring of 2017, Senator Warren holds Senate hearings on the student loan guaranty agencies, which rake in millions of dollars in fees from collecting student loans. Warren points out that four of these agencies have each amassed $1 billion in unrestricted assets, even though they are non-profit companies. She subpoenas the agencies' records and learns that the guaranty agencies' CEOs are paid millions in salaries and benefits for harassing destitute student borrowers.

DeVos testifies at Warren's Senate hearing, pledging DOE will do what it can to rein in the debt collectors.  DeVos makes good on her pledge by terminating its contract with Education Credit Management Corporation, perhaps the nation's most ruthless student-loan debt collector.

5. A bill passes Congress that disbands the student-loan guaranty agencies and abolishes all fees and penalties that have been applied to defaulted student loans over the past 20 years. President Trump signs the bill.

6. With bipartisan support and Trump's blessing, another bill is approved by Congress to amend the Bankruptcy Code to eliminate the restriction on discharging private student loans in bankruptcy.

Trump signs these bipartisan student-loan reform bills and give the bill-signing pens to Senator Warren. Senator Warren then shakes Secretary DeVos's hand.


What will it take for Senator Warren to shake Betsy DeVos's hand?
References

Paul Crookston. Betsy DeVos Hearing Ends with Handshakes — Except from Elizabeth Warren. National Review, January 18, 2017.

Natalie Kitroeff. Loan Monitor is Accused of Ruthless Tactics on Student Debt. New York Times, January 1, 2014. Acccessible at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/02/us/loan-monitor-is-accused-of-ruthless-tactics-on-student-debt.html?_r=0

Robert Shireman and Tariq Habash. Have Student Loan Guaranty Agencies Lost Their Way? The Century Foundation, September 29, 2016. Accessible at https://tcf.org/content/report/student-loan-guaranty-agencies-lost-way/

U.S. Department of Education. U.S. Department of Education Takes Further Steps to Protect Students from Predatory Higher Education Institutions. March 11, 2016. Accessible at http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-takes-further-steps-protect-students-predatory-higher-education-institutions?utm_content=&utm_medium=email&utm_name=&utm_source=govdelivery&utm_term=

Saturday, January 21, 2017

May you fare well, President Trump. Reflections on the VMI Marching Band and the 2016 inaugural parade

Look away, we're bound away
Across the wide Missouri.

Growing up in Oklahoma, I viewed many small-town parades.  Most of them began with a marching band and ended with horseback riders followed by sanitation workers who scooped up the horse poop. I was surprised therefore, as I watched last night's inaugural parade, to see the cadets of Virginia Military Institute as the last group to march past the presidential viewing stand.

I found myself deeply moved as I watched hundreds of marching VMI cadets filing by President Trump's viewing party in perfect formations. All those cadets, men and women; all those young people of every race and ethnicity; and all showing by their grave countenances that they were proud to be Americans and to be participating in the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States.

As the cadets marched by President Trump, the VMI band played Shenandoah, that quintessentially American song, made more poignant to me by the VMI bagpipes.  Oh Shenandoah: our great American song of loss and longing, of our restless quest for fulfillment somewhere far away in the West.

Our presidential election season was shockingly brutal, and even some of our elected Congresspeople were so offended by the outcome that they boycotted Donald Trump's inauguration. Some of them even claim Donald Trump is not a legitimate President.

But I saw the TV cameras linger on President Trump's face as the VMI cadets strode by in their grey uniforms and scarlet capes. He looked somber, respectful, and fully in charge.

Hearing Shenandoah's strains wafting through the ranks of those earnest young cadets , I was reminded of our country's noble heritage--our ancestors' sacrifices and courage. My own father spent more than three years in a Japanese concentration camp--for what? Surely it was to protect our right to choose our leaders in free elections.

I am content with the outcome of this election. I am hopeful Donald Trump will restore our national pride. I hope we move forward with courage and confidence in the new year, supporting the man we chose to lead us.

In any event, we're bound away, all of us in America, 'cross the wide Missouri. So let's not whine about it.






Friday, January 20, 2017

Department of Education inflated student-loan repayment rates for nearly every school and college in the United States! Playing for Time

The Wall Street Journal published a story a few days ago that is truly shocking.  Based on WSJ's analysis, the Department of Education has inflated student-loan repayment rates for 99.8% of all colleges, universities, and trade schools in the United States.

Earlier this month, DOE acknowledged that a "coding error" had caused the Department to mistakenly under report the student-loan default rates at many schools and colleges. But the magnitude of the error wasn't generally known until the Journal published its own analysis.

According to WSJ, at least half the students who attended more than a thousand colleges and trade schools had either defaulted on their student loans within 7 years of beginning repayment or failed to pay down even one dollar of their student loan debt.

This news is shocking, but not surprising. DOE has been misleading the public for years about  student-loan default rates.  Last autumn, for example, DOE reported a 3-year default rate of about 10 percent, a slight decrease from the previous year. But that figure did not take into account the people who had obtained forbearances or deferments and weren't making payments.  The five-year default rate for a  recent cohort of  student debtors is more than double DOE's three-year rate: 28 percent.


And last September, DOE mislead the public again. The Department  identified 477 schools where more than half the students had defaulted or failed to pay down their loan balances 7 years into repayment. But we now know the figure is more than double that number: 1029.

The implications of this new data are staggering. Obviously, the federal student-loan program is a train wreck. Millions of people have student loans they will never pay back. Eight million have defaulted and millions more are making payments so low that their loan balances are growing due to accruing interest.

Several large for-profit colleges have closed under allegations of fraud.  Corinthian Colleges and ITT together have a half million former students. DeVry, which just reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, has a total of more than a quarter of a million students who took out federal loans to finance their studies. Accumulated debt for DeVry students alone is more than $8 billion.

Like the inmate musicians of Auschwitz, DOE's response to this calamity has been to play for time. It has encouraged millions of people to sign up for income-drive repayment plans (IDRs) under terms such that IDR participants will never pay off their loans.  And DOE has set up a cumbersome procedure whereby students who believe they were defrauded by a college can apply to have their student loans forgiven.

But there is only one way out of this nightmare: bankruptcy relief. Ultimately Congress will have to repeal the "undue hardship" provision in the Bankruptcy Code, which has made it virtually impossible for overburdened student debtors to discharge their loans in bankruptcy.

Until that happens, President Trump's Department of Education should modify its harsh stance toward bankrupt student loan debtors. DOE must stop insisting that every bankrupt student borrower should be pushed into an IDR that stretches loan payment periods out for 20 or 25 years.

Student loan debtors who are honest and broke should be able to discharge their student loans in the bankruptcy courts. Within a couple of years that simple truth will be apparent to everyone. Why not start now to relieve the suffering of millions of Americans who got in over their heads with student loans and can't pay them back?

And let's not sell the Trump administration short. Liberals have assumed that Donald Trump will protect the for-profit colleges because of his history with Trump University. But I am not so sure. President Trump knows how to read a financial statement and he understands the value of bankruptcy. He might just do the right thing and turn this calamity over to the federal bankruptcy courts. 

Playing for Time


References

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

Thursday, January 19, 2017

DeVry University settles deceptive advertising claims with FTC for $100 million: Chicken Feed

About a year ago, the Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit against DeVry University, alleging that DeVry had engaged in deceptive advertising. Specifically, the FTC charged DeVry with making false claims about the employment prospects for DeVry graduates.

This month, DeVry settled the FTC lawsuit for $100 million, which may sound like a lot of money. But let's look at how that money will be distributed.

First, as reported by the Personal Finance Syndication Network, half the money represents loans DeVry made to its students that it will forgive.

That's right--in addition to sucking up Pell Grant money and federal student loan funds, DeVry loaned its students a lot of money--about $30 million.  DeVry has agreed to write off these loans. And DeVry students owe DeVry another $20.5 million for tuition, books and lab fees that DeVry will cancel.

In another words, fully half of the FTC settlement won't cost DeVry anything; it just forgives $50 million it loaned to its students.

The other half of the settlement--$49.4 million--is money DeVry has agreed to distribute to qualifying students who were injured by DeVry's deceptive advertisements.  Of course the  DeVry students who receive that money will be grateful, but $50 million is a drop in the bucket compared to DeVry students'  total student-loan debt. It's chicken feed.

According to a Brookings Institution report released in 2015, DeVry students have taken out more than $8 billion in federal loans over the years to attend DeVry University.  That's billion with a B.

How many students went into debt for the privilege of attending this dodgy institution? Well over a quarter of a million (274,788)!

Of course not all of those quarter of million DeVry students were injured by DeVry's allegedly deceptive advertising. And not all the $8 billion that students borrowed attend DeVry was wasted. I feel sure that at least some of students benefited from their time at DeVry and even got good jobs when they graduated.

But a lot of DeVry students were undoubtedly gypped.  Let's estimate conservatively that only $1 billion of the $8 billion borrowed can be linked to deceptive advertising or shoddy instruction. DeVry's settlement of $50 million represents just 5 percent of that loss.

If I could settle all my debt for 5 cents on the dollar, I would certainly do it.

So, as I said, DeVry's $100 million settlement with the FTC is chicken feed.  And DeVry slipped out of the FTC's lawsuit without admitting any liability.



References

DeVry University Students to Get Help With Student Loan Debt. Personal Finance Syndication Network, PFSn.com.

DeVry settles claims of deceptive advertising for $100 million. Personal Finance Syndication Network. PFYSyn.com

FTC Brings Enforcement Action Against DeVry University. Federal Trade Commission press release. January 27, 2016.

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).





Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Inside Higher Ed asked Higher Education Insiders to Pose Questions to Betsy Devos: Madeleine Kunin and Wick Sloan Win Stupid Question Award

Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump's choice for Secretary of Education, faces questions from a Senate Committee this week. Inside Higher Ed contacted several higher education "experts" and asked them to pose their own questions to Ms. DeVos.

Most of the questions were what you would expect. Several people asked DeVos hypothetical questions designed to find out if the financial status quo for higher education for higher education will change under the Trump administration.

Some of the questions, however, were down right stupid. In fact, I give the Stupid Question Award jointly to Madeleine Kunin, former governor of Vermont and deputy secretary of education under President Clinton, and Wick Sloane, an instructor at Bunker Hill Community College.

Here is Ms. Kunin's question:
"Do you support public education and the mission of the department?"
Madeleine Kunin
 I assume Kunin wants a yes or no answer.  So what do think DeVos will say--No, I don't support public education?

Governor Kunin's question was inane, but Wick Sloane's question was just as wacky.  Here's Sloan's question.
"How quickly will you put in place a federal free and reduced-price lunch program for eligible low-income college students?"
Oh yes, and Sloane also suggested the federal government should provide free bus fare and subway passes to low-income college students. Of course that would be in addition to the $150 billion the federal government doles out every year in Pell Grants, student loans, and work-study money.

Interestingly, none of the insiders asked DeVos whether she supports reasonable access to bankruptcy for student borrowers who are overwhelmed by their college-loan debt.

None asked whether the government should stop offsetting Social Security checks to elderly student-loan defaulters.

None asked whether DOE should ban for-profit colleges from putting arbitration clauses in their enrollment documents--clauses that prevent defrauded students from filing lawsuits against the colleges that bilked them.

None asked whether DOE would streamline the loan forgiveness process for students who attended for-profit colleges found guilty of defrauding their students

No, the tone of most questions from higher education insiders across the spectrum of interests was simply this: "What's in it for us?"

References



Andrew Kleighbaum. Experts offer questions they hope to see asked of Trump's education secretary pickInside Higher Education, January 17, 2017.


Obama's Department of Education grants automatic loan relief for all students who attended the American Career Institute: A puny effort--too little, too late

Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Education granted automatic debt relief to all students who attended American Career Institute. As Inside Higher Ed pointed out, this is "the first time the department has granted automatic loan relief to all students of a college without requiring individual applications." About 650 former ACI students received closed school discharges; but the rest--about 3,900 students--are getting their loans discharged en masse. In addition, DOE also announced it will grant Borrower Defense discharges to 28,000 student who had attended Corinthian Colleges.

This is a good thing, of course; but why now? And why so small a gesture?

After all, Corinthian Colleges, which closed and filed bankruptcy under allegations of fraud, had more than 300,000 students; and ITT, which also filed bankruptcy, had 191,000 enrollees.  Yet so far, DOE has only grant Borrower Defense discharges to 28,000 former Corinthian students.

As for the small size of the gesture, I think Luke Herrine, legal director of the Debt Collective, got it right. "There's just no coherent logic whatsoever," he said. "The only thing I can think of is it would be deeply embarrassing for them to stop collecting on so much debt." It is one thing to forgive the loans of 4,000 ACI students and a small percentage of Corinthian students; it is quite another to discharge the debt of a half million people.

As for the timing, I think the Obama administration has known for quite a while that the only responsible thing to do about millions of people who took out loans to attend flaky for-profit colleges is to grant massive debt relief to nearly everyone without the necessity of reviewing each case individually. But that is a difficult thing to do politically.

I think DOE waited until a week before Obama leaves officer to offer token relief to ACI students in order to highlight the student-loan crisis when there is no time left for the Obama administration to do something substantive.

Like a retreating army that spikes its cannons before being overwhelmed by the enemy, the Obama administration may have wanted to publicize the student loan crisis to create difficulties for Trump.

Here are my thoughts on DOE's surprising but welcome action:

1) Granting debt relief to ACI students is the first small step toward doing what the federal government will inevitably be forced to do: forgive student debt to nearly all of the millions of people who attended for-profit colleges and received no economic benefit.  Billions of dollars in student loans will eventually be written off.

2) I think Obama's DOE took the action that it did for ACI students because the Obama team thinks Trump, who takes office in a few days, will try to prop up the for profits at the expense of exploited students.

But the Obamacrats may be wrong. After all, President-elect Trump knows how to read a  balance sheet, and he may quickly grasp the fact that the student loan program is a catastrophe. 

And if Mr. Trump realizes the enormity of the student loan crisis, he might actually take decisive action.  Everyone agrees that Mr. Trump understands bankruptcy and its value for distressed debtors.  President Trump might surprise everyone and ease the path to bankruptcy relief for millions of student loan debtors who will never be able to pay back their college loans.



References

Andrew Kreighbaum. Education Department announces thousands of new loan discharges. Inside Higher Ed, January 16, 2017.



Monday, January 16, 2017

The Department of Education ignores signs of an impending student loan meltdown: The Deepwater Horizon Syndrome

Deepwater Horizon, a giant offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, blew out on April 20, 2010.  Eleven workers died, and more than 200 million gallons of crude oil spewed into the Gulf.

According to the recent film about the blowout, this catastrophe could have been prevented. Instruments on the rig alerted workers that pressure was building around the concrete core and that a blowout was imminent; but supervisors convinced themselves that the instruments were malfunctioning and everything was fine. (John Malkovich, the movie's villain, plays Don Vidrine, a fiendish British Petroleum technocrat.)

John Malkovich in Deepwater Horizon
Something similar is happening with the student loan crisis. DOE issued its College Scorecard in 2015, which reported the percentage of students who are in repayment and actually paying down their loans.  DOE reported that 61.1 percent of student borrowers had made some progress toward paying down their loan balances 5 years into repayment.

But a coding error led to an erroneous report. As Robert Kelchen, a professor at Seton Hall University explained in a recent blog posting, the picture is much bleaker than DOE portrayed.

Five years into repayment, less than half of student borrowers have made any progress toward paying off their student loans. Among borrowers who attended for-profit colleges, the numbers are even more startling.  Five years into repayment only about a third of for-profit students (35 percent) had reduced their loan balances by even one dollar!

People who don't reduce their loan balances five years after beginning repayment are not likely to pay off their student loans--ever. In fact, the Brookings Institution reported in 2015 that nearly half of for-profit borrowers in a recent cohort had defaulted on their loans within 5 years (47 percent).

In short, DOE is behaving just like John Malkovich's character in the movie Deepwater Horizon. The data warn of an impending blowout; but DOE keeps pumping money to the for-profit colleges. A disaster is inevitable; and there are already millions of casualties.



References

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

Robert Kelchen. How Much Did a Coding Error Affect Student Loan Repayment Rates? Kelchen on Education, January 12, 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).

Michael Stratford. The New College Scorecard. Inside Higher Ed, September 14, 2015.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Older Americans are burdened by their children's student loans

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
David Grisman
Recorded by the Grateful Dead


The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a useful report a few days ago on student-loan indebtedness and older Americans.  Here are some of the CFPB's key findings:
  • "The number of consumers age 60 and older with outstanding student loan debt quadrupled from 2005 to 2015, increasing from about 700,000 to 2.8 million."
  • During this ten-year period, the share of older student loan borrowers more than doubled, rising from 2.7 percent to 6.4 percent of all student-loan debtors.
  • The average amount older Americans owe on student loans roughly doubled in ten years from $12,100 to $23,500.
  • Among federal student loan borrowers who are 65 years old or older, nearly 40 percent are in default.
  • In 2015, the total amount that older Americans owed for student loans was $66.7 billion.
All this is very interesting, but here is the CFPB's most disturbing finding: Almost three quarters of older Americans with student-loan debt (73 percent) reported that their loans were "for a child's and/or grandchild's education."

How did so many older Americans become burdened by loans taken out for their children or grandchildren? Two reasons: either they took out a federal Parent PLUS loan for a child's education or they co-signed a private student loan.

Currently, private banks hold about $102 billion in student loans. Except in rare circumstances, the banks will not issue private student loans unless a co-signer agrees to be responsible for the debt. In most cases, the co-signer on a private loan is a parent or grandparent. And, as the CFPB pointed out, more than half of all co-signers are 55 years or older.

This is a serious problem because a lot of older borrowers who are burdened by their children's or their grandchildren's education costs face serious financial challenges of their own. A great many are having trouble meeting their own health care costs or saving for their retirement. 

And here is the great tragedy behind the CFPB's report. Elderly people who co-sign a student loan for a child or grandchild cannot discharge that debt in bankruptcy unless they can meet the "undue hardship" test articulated by the bankruptcy courts. And that is a very hard test to meet.

And this is true whether an elderly person's debt arises from a federal student loan or a private student loan.  In fact, Congress revised the Bankruptcy Code in 2005 (under the leadership of Senator Joe Biden) to put private student loans under the same undue hardship standard that applies to federal loans.

This is unjust, and many commentators have argued that private student loans should be dischargeable in bankruptcy like any other unsecured debt. But Congress has not repaired its mistake by repealing that pernicious 2005 revision in the Bankruptcy Code.

A lot of liberal U.S. Senators and Congresspeople bleat in compassionate tones about the plight of distressed student-loan borrowers. But what have they done to bring tangible relief to millions of people--including elderly people--who are suffering under the weight of overwhelming debt?

Perhaps our national legislators will read the CFPB report and realize that elderly people who become overburdened by debt they incurred to educate their children or grandchildren should be able to discharge that debt in bankruptcy if they become insolvent without having to meet the Bankruptcy Code's undue hardship restriction.

But that will never happen. To paraphrase an old Grateful Dead song, Congress treats older Americans like they're just old and in the way.




References

Ron Lieber. The Big Pause You Should Take Before Co-Signing a Student LoanNew York Times, August 12, 2016.

Sirota, David. Joe Biden Backed Bills to Make It Harder For Americans To Reduce Their Student DebtInternational Business Times, September 15  , 2015. Accessible: http://www.ibtimes.com/joe-biden-backed-bills-make-it-harder-americans-reduce-their-student-debt-2094664

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Department of Education's "Heightened Cash Monitoring" list and its list of programs that failed DOE's Gainful Employment Rule: Big Trouble Ahead for American Higher Education

As the Obama administration limps to a close, the U.S. Department of Education issued two lists that should scare the heck out of anyone working in the field of higher education.

First, a few days ago, DOE issued its most recent list of colleges that it flagged for "Heightened Cash Monitoring." More than 500 colleges are on that list.

At about the same time, DOE also released its list  of post-secondary programs that failed DOE's "gainful employment" rule.  More than 800 programs are on that list.

DOE's Heightened Cash Monitoring List: 539 institutions

Let's look first a DOE's Heightened Cash Monitoring List. Most of the schools on this list are for-profit institutions, which shouldn't surprise anyone. Is anyone shocked to discover that Lubbock Hair Academy in Lubbock, Texas and the Institute for Therapeutic Massage in Haskell, New Jersey are on that list?

A lot of the colleges on DOE's Heightened Cash Monitoring List are nonprofit liberal arts schools, and that isn't surprising either. The small liberal arts colleges are finding it more and more difficult to attract students, and a number are on shaky financial ground.  Colleges on the list include secular institutions like Pine Manor College and Mount Ida College in Massachusetts and religious institutions like St. Gregory's University in Shawnee, Oklahoma and St. Mary of the Woods College in Indiana.

But I was surprised that DOE put 38 foreign colleges on its Heightened Cash Monitoring List. Who would have thought the federal government would issue student loans to Americans studying abroad? But it does, and some of those foreign schools have financial concerns that got them on DOE's Heightened Cash Monitoring List.

Here are just a few of the foreign schools that made the list: Medical University of Gdnask in Poland; Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto, Canada; and the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham, England.

But what surprised me most was the number of public institutions that were flagged by DOE for Heightened Cash Monitoring--84! In Minnesota, more than 30 public colleges and universities made the list, including regional universities like Bemidji State University and Minnesota State University in Mankato. Nine public institutions in Alabama are also on the list, including the University of North Alabama and the University of West Alabama.

In short, DOE's latest Heightened Cash Monitoring list shows us that a lot of for-profit colleges, non-flagship public colleges, and small liberal arts colleges are under financial strain. Not all of the 539 schools on that list will fail in coming years; but certainly some of them will.

More Than 800 Programs Failed DOE's Gainful -Employment Rule

The Department of Education adopted a Gainful-Employment Rule in 2014, which was designed to protect students from enrolling in expensive for-profit colleges that did not prepare them for good jobs. Under this rule, programs risk losing federal student aid money if their graduates do not make enough money on average to justify the expense of getting their education. Specifically, programs fail the Gainful-Employment Rule if their graduates have student-loan payments that exceed 12 percent of their total earnings or 30 percent of their discretionary income.

Over 800 higher-education programs failed DOE's gainful-employment test, which it released this week. As reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, 98 percent of the failing programs were offered by for-profit institutions. But even the mighty Harvard University made the list for one of its programs--a certificate program in theater arts.

Here is what surprised me about the list of programs that failed the gainful-employment test: Only two law schools were on it. Florida Coastal School of Law and Charleston School of Law, both for-profit law schools failed to meet the debt-to-earning ratio that the Gainful Employment rules requires.

Given the damning evidence compiled by Law School Transparency, I was puzzled by the small number of law schools that failed DOE's gainful employment rules.  After all, LSAT scores for students at 7 law schools are so low that Law School Transparency estimates that 50 percent of their graduates are at "extreme risk" of failing their bar exams. And LSAT scores at 26 schools are so low that a quarter of their graduates run an extreme risk of failing their licensing exams.

Conclusion: Big Trouble Ahead For Higher Education

DOE's Heightened Cash Monitoring List and its list of programs that failed the Gainful-Employment Rule are warning signs that a number of higher education institutions are in trouble. For-profit institutions, non-prestigious public college, and small liberal arts schools are all surviving on federal student-aid money. If DOE turns off the spigot to any of the schools on these two lists, those schools will certainly close within a few months.

If higher education leaders are not concerned about the financial health of their industry, they certainly should be.

Gee, I'm scared!



References

Andrew Kreighbaum. Latest Heightened Cash Monitoring List. Inside Higher Ed, January 12, 2017.

Law School Transparency. 2015 State of Legal Education.

Karen Sloan. Two Law Schools Get an 'F' for High Debt From Education Dept. Law.com, January 11, 2017.

U.S. Department of Education press release. Obama Administration Announces Final Rules to Protect Students from Poor-Performing Career College Programs, October 30, 2014.

U.S. Department of Education press release. Education Department Releases Final Debt-to-Earnings Rates for Gainful Employment Programs. January 9, 2017.

Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez. Over 800 Programs Fail Education Dept.'s Gainful-Employment Rule. Chronicle of Higher Education, January 9, 2017.

Fernanda Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez. Here Are the Programs That Failed the Gainful-Employment RuleChronicle of Higher Education, January 9, 2017.





Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Student Loan Bubble: Eerily Similar to the Home Mortgage Crisis

A few months ago, Steve Rhode posted a thought-provoking blog titled "The Student Loan Bubble That Many Don't Want to See."  He argued that student-loan indebtedness is in a bubble that will soon burst, creating two huge problems:

First, when the student-loan market collapses, postsecondary education will be out of reach for most people,  which will "put a drag on the overall economy as fewer and fewer people will be able to pay for tuition that outpaces inflation."

Second, a sharp contraction in federal student-loan revenue along with a shrinking student base will force many colleges to cut tuition, putting them under enormous financial stress. Rhode predicts that "[m]any schools, public and private, will fail."

Mr. Rhode sees a parallel between the the student loan program and the overheated housing market that led to a global financial crisis in 2008.  Just as financiers packaged home mortgages into mortgage-backed securities called ABS, the banks have bundled student loans into so-called SLABS, or student-loan asset backed securities.

The home-mortgage market went into free fall when investors woke up to the fact that the ratings services (Moody's, Fitch, etc.) had rated ABS as investment grade when in fact a lot of them were junk because they were packed with mortgages that were headed for default.

Now we see Moody's and Fitch downgrading SLABS based on the fact that student borrowers are not paying off their loans as investors expected. More than 5 million borrowers have signed up for income-driven repayment plans that lower monthly loan payments and stretch out the repayment period from 10 years to 20 or even 25 years. SLABS investors now don't know when or how much they are going to be paid on their investments.

Some policy commentators reject the notion that the student-loan market is in a bubble. In a book published last year, Beth Akers and Matthew M. Chingos wrote: "Student loans have a zero chance of becoming the next housing crisis because the market is too small and essentially functions as a government program rather than a market." Akers and Chingos point out that student debt represents only 10 percent of overall consumer debt while home mortgages accounts for 70 percent of household indebtedness.

Personally, I think Steve Rhode is right: Higher education is sustained by a student loan bubble that the nation's colleges and universities refuse to see. In fact, there are eerie similarities between the housing market before it crashed in 2008 and the current level of student-loan indebtedness.

First,  higher education at many colleges and universities is wildly overpriced, just as the housing market was overpriced in the early 2000s. This is particularly true in the for-profit sector and at private liberal arts colleges.

As as been widely reported, liberal arts colleges are now discounting tuition for freshman students by almost 50 percent--a clear sign that their posted tuition prices are too high. And for-profit colleges are seeing enrollment declines. University of Phoenix, for example, has seen its enrollments drop by about half over the past 5 years.

Second, the monitoring agencies for both markets failed to do their jobs. As illustrated in the movie The Big Short, the financial ratings agencies rated mortgage backed securities as investment grade when in fact those bundled mortgages included a lot of  subprime mortgages.

Likewise, the Department of Education reports three-year default rates for student loans that vastly understates how many student borrowers are failing to pay back their loans. DOE recently reported that about 10 percent of the most recent cohort of student borrowers defaulted within three years. But the five-year default rate is 28 percent; and the five-year default rate for a recent cohort of students who attended for-profit schools is a shocking 47 percent.

And of course the government's vigorous effort to get distressed student borrowers into income-driven repayment plans also helps hide the true default rate. A high percentage of people who enter IDRs are making loan payments so low that they will never pay off their loans.

In short, Steve Rhode's analysis is correct.  A rising level of student-loan debt has created a bubble; and the bubble is going to burst. Colleges raised tuition prices far above the nation's inflation rate, knowing that students would simply take out larger student loans to pay their tuition bills. Millions of Americans paid too much for their postsecondary education and can't pay back their loans.

So far, the Department of Education has hidden the magnitude of this crisis, but the game will soon be up. Colleges are closing at an accelerating rate, stock prices for publicly traded for-profit colleges are down, and long-term default rates are shockingly high.

It is true, as Akers and Chingos pointed out, that the student-loan market is not nearly as large as the home-mortgage market when it crashed in 2008. But Akers and Chingos fail to acknowledge the enormous human cost that has been imposed on millions of Americans who took out student loans in the hope of getting an education that would lead to a better life.

Instead, all many Americans got by taking out student loans is an enormous debt load that they can't pay off or discharge in bankruptcy. Eight million Americans have defaulted on their student loans; 5.6 million are in income-driven repayment plans that stretch their payment obligations out for as long as 25 years, and millions more are playing for time by putting their loans in forbearance or deferment.

References

Beth Akers and Matthew Chingos. Game of Loans: The Rhetoric and Reality of Student Debt. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).

Anamaria Andriotis. Debt Relief for Students Snarls Market for Their Loans. Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2015.

Patrick Gillespie. University of Phoenix has lost half its students. CNN Money, March 25, 2015.

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).

Steve Rhode. The Student loan Bubble That Many Don't Want to See. Get Out of Debt Guy, July 15, 2016.

Amy Thielen. Declines at For-Profit Colleges Take a Big Toll on Their Stocks. The Street, May 8, 2015.

Kellie Woodhouse. Discounting Grows Again. Inside Higher Ed, August 25, 2015.










Friday, January 6, 2017

Globe University and Minnesota School of Business are closing: We need federal legislation to manage college shutdowns

Globe University and Minnesota School of Business (MSB) began closing their campuses last month. The two for-profit institutions once operated in three states--Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin; but a series of regulatory and court actions brought them down.

In September, a Minnesota court ruled that Globe and MSB committed fraud by inducing students to enroll in their criminal justice programs.  Not long after, the Department of Education cut them off from federal student-aid funding. No for-profit college can survive a month without federal student-loan revenue, so DOE's action amounted to a death sentence for both institutions.

The demise of Globe and MSB follow in a train of college shutdowns over the past couple of years. The casualty lists includes Corinthian Colleges and ITT, two for-profits that declared bankruptcy. St. Catharine College and Dowling College also shut their doors, along with Virginia Intermont College.

DOE has more than 500 colleges on its "heightened cash monitoring" watch list, and many of these schools will shut down within the next three or four years. In a 2015 report, Moody's Investment Services predicted colleges would close at the rate of 15 per year commencing this year.

Now is the time for Congress to pass legislation to protect colleges' former students when the institution they attended shuts down. At a minimum, Congress should do the following:

I. Congress should pass legislation requiring every defunct college to deposit all student records in a central federal depository.

First student records at failed colleges must be preserved. Former students will need access to their official transcripts for decades after their alma mater closes, but how will they get those transcripts 25 years after the institution they attended shut its doors?

Currently, some closing colleges are voluntarily making arrangements to preserve student records. Dowling College, for example, which filed for bankruptcy in 2016, sent its student records to nearby Long Island University.

But not all closing colleges will act as responsibly as Dowling. In particular, colleges that are accused of defrauding their students have no incentive to preserve student records because those records might be used against them in legal proceedings.

Congress needs to adopt legislation that requires every college that receives federal funds to send all student records, including transcripts, to a federal records depository in the event of a closure. And colleges should be required to digitize their student records according to a standardized protocol so that the process of transferring records after a college closes can be done quickly and efficiently.

II. Non-operating colleges should forgive any loans owed to them by former students.

Most nonpublic colleges depend on federal student aid money for the bulk of their revenues, but some also lend money directly to their students.  For example, Globe and MSB loaned money to their students at interest rates as high as 18 percent. According to a Minnesota court decision, the two institutions  loaned money to approximately 6,000 students between 2009 and 2016.

Globe and MSB will be defunct in a matter of weeks, but the loans they made to students are debts they may try to collect. Federal law should require every college that loans money to students to forgive those loans if the college closes. As a matter of simple justice, a college that shuts down shouldn't be chasing after students who owe it money.

III. Congress should ease the path to bankruptcy relief for students who attended for-profit colleges.

Finally, Congress needs to streamline the loan-forgiveness process for students who attend for-profit colleges and received no economic benefit from the experience. It is particularly unjust for students to be on the hook for student loans taken out to attend a for-profit college that closed after being found guilty of fraud.

Under DOE regulations, students can apply to have their student loans discharged if they can make one of two showings: 1) they were induced to enroll based on fraud, or 2) they took out loans to attend a college that closed while they were enrolled or within 120 days of being enrolled.

Unfortunately, the administrative process for resolving discharge applications is slow and entirely inadequate to deal with the potential volume of claims. After all, Corinthian Colleges and ITT, which are both in bankruptcy, have around a half million former students between them.

Currently, the Bankruptcy Code bars debtors from discharging student loans in bankruptcy unless they can show that paying back their loans would create an "undue hardship."  Most bankruptcy courts have interpreted the undue hardship standard harshly, making it incredibly difficult for most college borrowers to clear their student loans through the bankruptcy process.

Congress should pass legislation that eliminates the undue hardship standard for all people who took out loans to attend a for-profit college and wound up broke.  The five-year default rate for a recent cohort of students who attended for-profit colleges is 47 percent--a clear indication that a lot of people got no benefit from attending a for-profit institution.

Conclusion: The Nation faces a swelling tide of college closures and needs an orderly process for shutting down higher education institutions.

One thing is certain: colleges are closing at an accelerating rate; and the Nation need an orderly process to minimize the harm to defunct colleges' former students. Student records must be safeguarded, student debt to failed institutions should be wiped out, and Congress needs to amend the Bankruptcy Code to allow former for-profit college students to obtain bankruptcy relief.

Photo credit: Wisconsin Public Radio


References

Christopher Magan. Globe U. and Minnesota School of Business to start closing campuses. Twin Cities Pioneer Press, December 21, 2016.

Rick Seltzer. Virginia Intermont's campus sale begs question of how colleges close accounts. Inside Higher Ed, January 5, 2017.

State of Minnesota v. Minnesota School of Business, 885 N.W.2d 512 (Minn. Ct. App. 2016).

Alia Wong. Farewell to America's Small Colleges, Atlantic, October 2, 2015.