Sunday, April 30, 2017

Parents Plus Loans can be a nightmare: "Teach your children well . . ."

Teach your children well,

Their father's hell did slowly go by.



Teach the Children Well

Lyrics by Graham Nash

More than three million parents have taken out student loans for their children's college education. Eleven percent are in default, and another 180,000 are delinquent in their payments.

Congress created the Parent Plus program in 1980, which allows parents to obtain student loans to supplement the loans their children take out to finance their college studies. As Josh Mitchell reported in the Wall Street Journal last week, outstanding indebtedness on Parent Plus loans now tops $77 billion. 

The government issues Parent Plus loans with little regard to whether the parents can pay them back. Many parents who take out Parent Plus loans have subprime credit scores, which means they run a high risk of default. As Mitchell pointed out,  the Parent Plus default rate is higher than the home mortgage default rate during the 2008 housing crisis.

Without question, Parent Plus loans are being issued recklessly. "This credit is being extended on terms that specifically, willfully ignore their ability to repay," a spokesperson for Harvard Law School's Legal Services Center charged. "You can't avoid that we're targeting high-cost, high-dollar-amount loans to people who we know can't afford them."

To its credit, the Obama administration recognized that lending standards for Parent Plus loans were too lax. In 2011, the Department of Education introduced modest underwriting rules to prevent parents with low credit ratings from taking out Parent Plus loans.

But the higher education industry protested, arguing that tighter underwriting standards for Parent Plus loans would reduce college access for low-income and minority students. In response to this pressure, the Department of Education withdrew the new rules.

Obviously, people who are taking out student loans for their children are older; two thirds of Parent Plus borrowers are between the ages of 50 and 64. Many of them have student loans of their own. Some parents took out Parent Plus loans expecting their children to get good jobs and take over the loan payments.  But sometimes that doesn't happen, and the parents find themselves responsible for paying off loans they can't afford to repay.

Parents who default on Parent Plus loans risk having their income-tax refunds seized and their Social Security checks garnished. And bankruptcy is rarely an option. Parents who default on their children's student loans will find it difficult to discharge those loans in bankruptcy even if they are unemployed or in ill health.

In an NPR podcast, Michelle Singletary, a finance columnist, pointed out that many parents take out Parent Plus loans to help their children attend expensive colleges their families can't afford. It is difficult, Singletary acknowledged, for parents to tell their children that a particular elite college is simply out of financial reach.

The child might say, "But this is my dream college." If that happens, Singletary advised, the parent must have the wisdom and fortitude to say, "Honey, you need to find another dream."

Or, as songwriter Graham Nash might put it, "Teach your children well" regarding their college choices because if you borrow money for your child to go to college and can't pay it back, you will enter financial hell, a hell that will go by slowly.



References

Tom Ashbrook. Parents On the Hook for Student Loans. NPR Onpoint (podcast), April 26, 2017.

Josh Mitchell. The U.S. Makes It Easy for Parents to Get College Loans--Repaying Them Is Another StoryWall Street Journal, April 24, 2017. 

Note: Quotations in this essay come from the sources cited in the reference list.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Whittier Law School is closing: "They shoot horses,don't they?"

Whittier Law School is closing. And well it should.

Whittier Law School, which a Daily Caller writer described as "one of America’s crappiest law schools," has a crummy record by almost any measurement. In 2016, 174 Whittier graduates took the California Bar Exam, and only 40 passed. That's a 22 percent pass rate, compared to a 62 percent pass rate among California law-school graduates as a whole.

And Whittier Law graduates are having a hell of a time finding jobs as lawyers. Less than 30 percent of Whittier's class of 2016 landed long-term jobs as attorneys ten months after graduating, according to an article published in abovethelaw.com. And only 2 percent found jobs in large law firms, which generally pay the highest salaries.

Yet, in spite of low employment rates and  a dismal bar-passage record, Whittier charges its students a lot of money. It cost $45,000 a year to attend Whittier Law School in 2016, not including books and living expenses. On average, Whittier's 2016 graduates left school owing $179,000 in student-loan debt.

Clearly it was time to put Whittier Law School out of its misery before it attracted another class of students who would graduate with massive debt and little chance of getting an attorney's job that would pay enough to justify $179,000 in student loans.

Of course, the law-school faculty objected. In fact some of them filed a lawsuit in an unsuccessful effort to persuade a judge to stop the law school from closing.

Law-school dissenters even trotted out that old bromide about the law school's commitment to diversity. The law school's web site avowed that it sought to provide "a high quality education to students of diverse backgrounds and abilities--students who might not otherwise have been able to receive a legal education and who are now serving justice and enterprise around the world."

What a load of bull!

It is true that U.S. News & World Report recently ranked Whittier as the nation's second most diverse law school. A majority of its students are nonwhite and a majority are women. But a law school that leaves its graduates with an average of $179,000 in student loans and little prospect of a lawyer's job is not doing anything positive toward promoting diversity.

I commend the Whittier Board of Trustees for having the courage to close Whittier Law School. Other universities need to do the same--at least two dozen by my reading of data compiled by Law School Transparency.

There are simply not enough law jobs for people who graduate from second- and third-tier law schools, and the cost of attending these schools is more likely to leave graduates with a lifetime of indebtedness than a lucrative career as an attorney.

After all, as Jane Fonda's character said in an old movie about endurance dancing, "They shoot horses, don't they?"

"They shoot horses, don't they?"

References

Sonali Kohli, Rosanna Xia, and Teresa Watanabe. Whittier Law School is closing, due in part to low studentachievement. Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2017.

Elizabeth Olsen. Whittier LawSchool Says It Will Shut Down. New York Times, April 19, 2017.


Staci Zaretsky. Whittier Law School Will Close, Leaving Disaster In Its Wake. abovethelaw, April 20, 2017.




Friday, April 21, 2017

Recent Navient and National Collegiate Student Loan Bankruptcy Rulings – March 2017: A Must-Read Article by Steve Rhode

If you are overwhelmed by your student loans and thinking about filing for bankruptcy, you should read this essay by Steve Rhode. Mr. Rhode examined recent bankruptcy court adversary proceedings in which student borrowers brought complaints against Navient or National Collegiate Student Loan Trust. As Mr. Rhode relates, debtors often won significant relief in these lawsuits--sometimes through settlement agreements.

Why is Mr. Rhode's article important to you?

First, his article contains links to adversary complaints that were drafted by attorneys. If you file your own adversary complaint against your student-loan creditor, you can use these complaints as templates to file your own complaint.

Second, the proceedings Mr. Rhode examined show various theories under which debtors sought to have their loans discharged. Some of those theories might work for you.

I am frankly surprised that debtors were so successful in the cases Mr. Rhode analyzed. I wonder whether Navient and National Collegiate Student Loan Trust are more amenable to settlement than Educational Credit Management Corporation and the U.S. Department of Education. ECMC and the Department of Education have opposed bankruptcy relief in a multitude of cases, even in cases where it was clear the debtor was desperate. (See for example, Roth v. ECMC and Abney v. U.S. Department of Education.)

Mr. Rhode has presented us with a very useful analysis of recent adversary proceedings against Navient and National Collegiate Student Loan Trust. A trend may be developing toward better bankruptcy outcomes for distressed student-loan debtors. Wouldn't that be a terrific development?




******

Out of curiosity I decided to take a look at recent bankruptcy Adversary Proceedings that had closed against Navient and National Collegiate Student Loan Trust. I looked at a number of cases and it appears people who filed their own Adversary Proceeding against their student loan holders had a less favorable outcome. Those people represented by an attorney, fair better.

At the very least, while the debt may not have been completely eliminated there were certainly some very deep discounts in the amount owed. Also the outcomes in all cases is not always apparent.

For example in Medina v. National Collegiate Student Loan Trust there was an apparent settlement agreement that contained a “release of liability. The Adversary Proceeding was then dismissed. – Source

Medina had asserted in his lawyer prepared complaint that his student loans should be discharged because his flight school was a “sham,” the loans were not used for a qualified educational purpose, and the school was not properly certified. These are issues raised over in this article. – Source

In the case Ard-Kelly v Sallie Mae the debtor owed $913,997 in loans. Of those loans all but $250,595 could be included in a $0 monthly Income Contingent Repayment plan. – Source

It appears all but $219,070 was found to be dischargeable in bankruptcy. While $219,070 is still a lot of money, it’s only 24% of the original balance stated. – Source

In Cotter v. Navient, the debtor had filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy but was said to have still owed about $29,000 in student loan debt. Cotter stated, “Plaintiff incurred this student loan attending a school named ComputerTraining.com. The campus was located at 550 Polaris Parkway Westerville Ohio 43082. The Plaintiff started classes at said school on November 16, 2007 and was able to finish however the education he received was substandard, outdated and useless to him. Furthermore the school promised lifetime job placement assistance along with assistance with interviewing and resumes. The school he attended closed soon after he finished. The school in question is currently part of a class action lawsuit for fraud.” – Source

Following the court action regarding this debt the $29,000 balance was reduced to $2,500 with payments of $35.79 per month at 1% interest. This is about a 92% reduction in the amount owed. The debt will be fully repaid in 72 months. – Source

In Proctor v. Navient the debtor had co-signed for student loans for someone who was not a relative or dependent and said to not be qualified student loans protected in bankruptcy. – Source

The $188,787 balance was reduced to $15,535 at 3% interest and payments of $107.28 per month for 180 months. This is about a 92% reduction in the amount owed. – Source

So as you can see, recent closed bankruptcy Adversary Proceeding cases do result generally in some significant reductions in debt owed.

Steve Rhode
Get Out of Debt Guy
Twitter, G+, Facebook

This article by Steve Rhode first appeared on Get Out of Debt Guy and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.

Income-Driven Repayment Plans for Managing Crushing Levels of Student-Loan Debt: Financial Suicide

By the end of his first term in office, President Obama knew the federal student loan program was out of control. Default rates were up and millions of student borrowers had put their loans into forbearance or deferment because they were unable to make their monthly payments. Then in 2013, early in Obama's second term, The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a comprehensive report titled A Closer Look at the Trillion that sketched out the magnitude of the crisis.

What to do? President Obama chose to promote income-driven repayment plans (IDRs) to give borrowers short-term relief from oppressive monthly loan payments. Obama's Department of Education rolled out two generous income-driven repayment plans:  the PAYE program, which was announced in 2012;  and REPAYE, introduced in 2016.

PAYE and REPAYE both require borrowers to make monthly payments equal to 10 percent of their adjusted gross income for 20 years: 240 payments in all.  Borrowers who make regular payments but do not pay off their loans by the end of the repayment period will have their loans forgiven, but the cancelled debt is taxable to them as income.

The higher education industry loves PAYE and REPAYE, and what's not to like? Neither plan requires colleges and universities to keep their costs in line or operate more efficiently. Students will continue borrowing more and more money  to pay exorbitant tuition prices, but  monthly payments will be manageable because they will be spread out over 20 years rather than ten.

But most people enrolling in PAYE or REPAYE are signing their own financial death warrants. By shifting to long-term, income-driven repayment plans, they become indentured servants to the government, paying a percentage of their income for the majority of their working lives.

And, as illustrated in an ongoing bankruptcy action, a lot of people who sign up for IDRs will be stone broke on the date they make their final payment.

In Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, a Kansas bankruptcy judge granted a partial discharge of student-loan debt to Alan and Catherine Murray.  The Murrays borrowed $77,000 to get bachelor's and master's degrees, and paid back 70 percent of what they borrowed.

Unfortunately, the Murrays were unable to make their monthly payments for a time, and they put their loans into deferment.  Interest accrued over the years, and by the time they filed for bankruptcy, their student-loan indebtedness had grown to $311,000--four times what they borrowed.

A bankruptcy judge concluded that the Murrays had handled their loans in good faith but would never pay back their enormous debt--debt which was growing at the rate of $2,000 a month due to accruing interest.  Thus, the judge discharged the interest on their debt, requiring them only to pay back the original amount they borrowed.

Educational Credit Management Corporation, the Murrays' student-loan creditor, argued unsuccessfully that the Murrays should be place in a 20- or 25-year income-driven repayment plan. The bankruptcy judge rejected ECMC's demand, pointing out that the Murrays would never pay back the amount they owed and would be faced with a huge tax bill 20 years from now when their loan balance would be forgiven.

ECMC appealed, arguing that the bankruptcy judge erred when he took tax consequences into account when he granted the Murrays a partial discharge of their student loans. Tax consequences are speculative, ECMC insisted; and in event, the Murrays would almost certainly be insolvent at the end of the 20-year repayment term, and therefore they would not have to pay taxes on the forgiven loan balance.

What an astonishing admission! ECMC basically conceded that the Murrays would be broke at the end of a 20-year repayment plan, when they would be in their late sixties.

So if you are a struggling student-loan borrower who is considering an IDR, the Murray case is a cautionary tale. If you elect this option, you almost certainly will never pay off your student loans because your monthly payments won't cover accumulating interest.

Thus at the end of your repayment period--20 or 25 years from now--one of two things will happen. Either you will be faced with a huge tax bill because the amount of your forgiven loan is considered income by the IRS; or--as ECMC disarmingly admitted in the Murray case--you will be broke.


References

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

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

Trump Administration Cancels Grace Period and Adds on Big Student Loan Collection Charges: Article by Steve Rhode

This excellent essay by Steve Rhode appeared earlier on the Personal Finance Syndication Network, PFSyncom and on Mr. Rhode's web site titled Get Out of Debt Guy.  contains a variety of good advice and information about all manner of consumer debt problems, including student loans. You can learn more about Steve Rodes here.

******
If the recent position by the Department of Education under the Trump administration is any indication of what is to come for federal student loan debtors, watch out.

On March 16, 2017 the Department of Education rolled back protections and policies impacting those who hold FFEL federal student loans. The most recent numbers say about 4.2 million loan holders are in default on these loans at this time. Millions will be impacted by this policy change effective immediately as FFEL loan holder default.

The Obama administration had issued guidance in 2015 that when someone defaulted on a FFEL student loan that they had 60 days to bring the loan back into compliance and current and avoid the tacked on collection charges of up to 16% of the loan balance. This could be accomplished through programs such as the student loan rehabilitation program. It would all debtors to get back on track without exploding their student loan balances with massive collection costs beyond the already unaffordable amounts due.

Under the Obama administration policies, “A guaranty agency cannot charge collection costs to a defaulted borrower who, within the 60-day period following the initial notice, enters into a repayment agreement, including a rehabilitation agreement, and who honors that agreement.” – Source

The rationale given for this clarification was the distinction between a debtor who defaulted but intended to repay and one who was not going to make arrangements and thus cost significantly more to collect from. If a debtor defaulted and then entered into a repayment arrangement what would justify 16% of the loan balance in collection costs? Nothing.

But this policy of giving defaulted FFEL loan holders a grace period to get back on a payment plan goes back to the 1980s and 1990s. This was not an Obama policy.

In 1986, the Department of Education adopted regulations to establish the procedures for referring defaulted debt, which include giving the debtor notice of the proposed offset and an opportunity to avoid the offset by entering into a satisfactory repayment agreement. This policy was restated in 1992 when the then Department of Education said “the borrower could avoid the adverse consequences (report of the default status of the debt, liability for collection costs, and further collections actions) by making a timely agreement to repay the debt voluntarily.”

That’s all changed now. According to the “Dear Colleague” letter that was just released, the Trump Department of Education is withdrawing those policies and so debtors who default on FFEL student loans will have no grace period and will now face large collection fees to be immediately tacked on to the loan balance due. In essence, those who can least afford the default will be penalized and have no incentive to rehabilitate their loans. – Source

The Betsy DeVoss Department of Education says the reason to roll back these rules and policies is because there was an insufficient public comment period when the policies were put into place. Does anyone really believe the FFEL student loan debtors would argue against such a policy? It leaves you wondering why the policy could not have been left in place during a new public comment period and then a decision made. To me it sure seems like a Ready-Fire-Aim approach at dealing with student loan collections and student loan debtors in trouble.

But then of course, the immediate and obvious beneficiary of such a position is going to the be collectors and guaranty agencies who administer those loans.

What do you think? Comment below.

Steve Rhode

Get Out of Debt GuyTwitter, G+, Facebook

This article by Steve Rhode first appeared on Get Out of Debt Guy and was distributed by the Personal Finance 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Governor Cuomo's plan to offer free public college education for New Yorkers will wreck private colleges in the Empire State

Like Bernie Sanders, I buy my clothes at Joseph A. Banks, where almost everything Banks sells is on sale almost all the time. For example, Joseph A. Banks sells very good men's dress shirts for $89, but this week they are on sale for 2 for $89. 

The on-sale-all-the-time business model works well for Joseph A. Banks, but it is not working that well for private liberal arts colleges--particularly the nondescript little colleges that are so common in the Northeast and upper Midwest.  These colleges are now discounting freshman tuition by  an average of 48.6 percent, the same discount rate that Joseph A. Banks sells its shirts. For undergraduates as a whole, the average discount is 42 percent. 

Basically, more and more people are buying a liberal arts education at wholesale prices. And even with steep discounts, private colleges are having trouble luring new students to their campuses.

And now New York's private colleges face a new threat. Governor Andrew Cuomo launched a plan to provide a free college education at New York's public colleges and universities to families with annual incomes of $125,000 a year or less.  This may pose a mortal blow to many private liberal arts colleges in the Empire State.

Charles L. Flynn Jr., president of the College of Mount Saint Vincent, said Governor Andrew Cuomo's plan has thrown the New York marketplace for higher education" into confusion." Indeed, private schools in New York compete with New York's public universities for students, and Cuomo's free-college-education scheme will definitely hurt private institutions. A report prepared by the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York estimates that  Cuomo's plan will cause enrollments to decline at New York private colleges by 7 to 15 percent. 

What can the private liberal arts colleges do to meet this threat? Not much. As President Flynn told Inside Higher Ed, his college already discounts freshman tuition by 50 percent. “How can I go above that?” he said. “We don’t have a lot more aid to throw.”

New York has more than 100 private colleges and universities, many of them obscure: institutions like Daemen College, Houghton College, Saint  John Fisher College, Hilbert College, Medaille College, Trocaire College, Canisius College, Molloy College, Cazenovia College,and Roberts Wesleyan College. Most of these schools draw the bulk of their students from families residing inside the state. 

Unless private New York colleges have elite status--Hamilton College, Barnard College, Sarah Lawrence College, etc.--they have little to offer that cannot be obtained at a SUNY institution for less money.  And thanks to Governor Cuomo, many New York families can now choose between a small liberal arts college that offers discounted tuition and a public university they can attend for free. 

The wolf is now at the door for New York's small liberal arts colleges.



References

Rick Seltzer. A Marketplace in ConfusionInsider Higher Ed, April 13, 2017.

Tuition Discounts at Private Colleges Continue to Climb (Press Release). National Association of College and University Business Officers, May 16, 2016.

Report: Effects and Consequences of the Excelsior Scholarship Program On Private, Not-for-Profit Colleges and Universities. Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York, March 2017.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Bankrupt student-loan debtors need GOOD LAWYERS: The sad case of Ronald Joe Johnson v. U.S. Department of Education

We often hear that student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy---don't even try. But in fact, quite a few people have gotten relief from their student loans in the bankruptcy courts. And a few student-loan debtors have gone to bankruptcy court without lawyers and been successful.

But if you go to bankruptcy court to shed your student loans, you should bring a good attorney because the Department of Education or one of its agents will be there to meet you, and DOE and its proxies have battalions of skilled lawyers who will fight you every step of the way.


The Sad Case of Ronald Joe Johnson v. U.S. Department of Education

Johnson v. U.S. Department of Education, decided in 2015, illustrates why student-loan debtors should have good lawyer to represent them in the bankruptcy courts.  In that case, Judge Tamara Mitchell, an Alabama bankruptcy judge, refused to discharge Ronald Joe Johnson's student loans even though he and his wife were living on the edge of poverty. If Mr. Johnson had been represented by a competent attorney, I think he might have won his case.

In 2015, Johnson filed an adversary proceeding in an Alabama bankruptcy court, seeking to have his student loans discharged. The U.S. Department of Education opposed a discharge (as it almost always does), and a lawyer from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Birmingham, Alabama showed up to represent DOE and make sure Johnson lost his case.

Johnson had taken out student loans in the 1990s to enroll in some sort of postsecondary program, which Judge Mitchell did not bother to describe in her opinion. Johnson testified that he had enrolled for four semesters but had only completed one of them,  He testified further that his studies had not benefited him at all.

In 2000, Johnson obtained a Direct Consolidation Loan  in the amount of about $25,000, with interest accruing at 8.25 percent per year. Although he paid approximately $10,000 on the loan, mostly through wage garnishments and tax offsets, he hadn't reduced the principal by even one dollar. In fact, when Johnson appeared in bankruptcy court in 2015, his debt had grown to over $41,000.

Mr. Johnson desperately needed relief from his student loans. He testified at trial that he made about $2,000 a month working at two jobs; he was a municipal employee and also an employee at a local Walmart. His wife suffered from diabetes, which required expenditures for insulin and other supplies; and of course some of his income had been garnished by the government.

Unfortunately for Mr. Johnson, he signed a formal stipulation of facts that a DOE lawyer had cunningly prepared. In that stipulation, Johnson affirmed that it would not be an "undue hardship" for him to repay his student loans.

Although Mr. Johnson did not know it at the time, he lost his adversary proceeding the instant he signed his name to DOE's prepared stipulation. Debtors cannot discharge their student loans in bankruptcy unless they can show undue hardship; and Mr. Johnson admitted in writing that paying back his loans would not be an undue hardship.

If Ronald Joe Johnson had been represented by a lawyer, he would never have signed that document. Moreover, a lawyer would have told him to bring evidence to court documenting his wife's medical expenses.

In short, Johnson was a sitting duck when he walked into Judge Mitchell's bankruptcy court without legal counsel. Judge Mitchell noted that he admitted that his loans did not present an undue hardship and that he had not brought any evidence of the expenses he had incurred to treat his wife's diabetes.

And then Judge Mitchell walked Johnson through the the three-pronged Brunner test and concluded that he failed all three prongs.  He was able to pay back his loans and maintain a minimal standard of living, Judge Mitchell ruled; and he had not shown any additional circumstances indicating he could not pay back the loans in the future.

Finally, Judge Mitchell ruled that Johnson failed the good faith test because he had made virtually no loan payments other than payments made through income-tax offsets and wage garnishments.

Mr. Johnson had gone to court to argue reasonably that he believed he had paid down his loans through income-tax offsets and wage garnishments. All he asked for was relief from the interest and penalties that had been added to his debt.

But Johnson's arguments fell on deaf ears. He and his wife are stuck with a debt that grows larger every day and will probably never be repaid.

Why can't student debtors find good lawyers?


Why can't people like Ronald Joe Johnson find good lawyers to represent them in bankruptcy court There are at least three reasons:

First, lawyers are expensive, and people who go to bankruptcy court don't have money to hire a good lawyer.

Second, bankruptcy lawyers are not keeping up with recent trends in the bankruptcy courts  and many believe--incorrectly--that it is impossible to discharge student loans in bankruptcy. Thus, even if Mr. Johnson had had money to pay a lawyer, a bankruptcy attorney might have told him that it would be pointless to try to shed his student loans in bankruptcy.

Third, legal aid clinics and poverty law centers, which should be representing people like Mr. Johnson, aren't interested in the student-loan crisis. They would prefer to provide pro bono legal services in landlord-tenant disputes or fight courthouse battles over traditional civil rights issues.

In fact, I called the Southern Poverty Law Center, which maintains an office in Alabama, and asked if the Center would help desperate student-loan debtors. I was told the SPLC does not do that kind of work.

Distressed student-loan debtors need legal representation in the bankruptcy courts, but they are not likely to get it. Nevertheless, some bankruptcy judges have begun issuing sensible, compassionate, and well-reasoned decisions on behalf of people like Ronald Joe Johnson.  Unfortunately for Mr. Johnson, Judge Tamara Mitchell is not a a compassionate bankruptcy judge.

References

Johnson v. U.S. Department of Education, 541 B.R. 750 (N.D. Ala. 2015).



Thursday, April 13, 2017

Great article by Steve Rhode: "Trump Department of Education Operating Beyond Logic on FFEL Collection Fee Change"

This excellent essay by Steve Rhode appeared earlier on the Personal Finance Syndication Network, PFSyncom and on Mr. Rhode's web site titled Get Out of Debt Guy.  contains a variety of good advice and information about all manner of consumer debt problems, including student loans. You can learn more about Steve Rodes here.
*****

A couple of days ago I wrote about the Trump Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos who told student loan guaranty agencies with FFEL federal student loans to disregard the guidance provided by the Obama administration regarding defaults.

That specific 2015 guidance said student loan debtors who defaulted had up to 60 days after default to enter into a satisfactory repayment plan or rehabilitation to avoid up to 16 percent collection fees being added to their balance on day one of default. The logic was that debtors who entered such repayment plans were not going to incur collection fees that warranted adding 16 percent of the student loan balance. Plus there is underlying guidance to support that position.

In a mind blowing twist, the company who was at the heart of the underlying court case who brought this issue to light, USA Funds who is now Great Lake Higher Education, said that even though the Trump administration rolled back the inability to charge the 16 percent collection fee on day one, they are not going to do it.

Great Lakes said, “Since the U.S. Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague Letter on July 10, 2015, our guarantors have not assessed collection fees on borrowers who entered into rehabilitation agreements within 60 days of default on or after July 10, 2015. Notwithstanding the Education Department’s March 16, 2017, decision, prompted by a request from a federal judge, to withdraw that Dear Colleague Letter, the Great Lakes Affiliated Group Guaranty Agencies will continue their practice of not assessing collection costs on borrowers who agree to rehabilitate their loans within 60 days of default.” – Source

So did the DeVos Department of Education even talk to Great Lakes before falling face first into this? Logically you’d assume they didn’t since Great Lakes obviously did not want to reverse course on this.

My favorite quote on this matter came from Danielle Douglas-Gabriel with the Washington Post who said, “In light of the Education Department’s recent action, USA Funds is seeking to dismiss its lawsuit against the agency.” So not only is the collection company at the heart of this issue not going to charge the collection fee but they are dismissing the lawsuit as well.

So what was the purpose at all for the Department of Education to reverse course on this? None I can see. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Steve Rhode

Get Out of Debt GuyTwitter, G+, Facebook


This article by Steve Rhode first appeared on Get Out of Debt Guy and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Why borrow money to get a college education? John Kenneth Galbraith, education and The Good Society

More than 40 million Americans are burdened by student loans; and collectively, they hold $1.4 trillion in student-loan debt. A great many of these people are finding it difficult to repay what they borrowed. Last year, Americans defaulted from the government's direct lending program at the rate of 3,000 a day. About 8 million people  are in default on their loans. Almost 6 million are unable to repay their loans over the standard 10-year repayment period and have enrolled in income-driven repayment plans that stretch their monthly payments over 20 or 25 years.

Why should Americans go into debt to get a college education? Is a college degree so valuable that it makes sense to borrow money to get one--even when it might take a person a quarter of a century to repay the debt?

The higher education industry argues ad nauseam that workers with college degrees make more money than people who have no degrees--about a million dollars on average over their working lifetimes. But of course, this bald statement does not explain why going to college has gotten so expensive or why a college degree is useful beyond its power to raise lifetime income.

John Kenneth Galbraith: Education and The Good Society

About 20 years ago, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote a book titled The Good Society. Galbraith defined the good society as a society in which  "all of its citizens . . .  have personal liberty, basic well-being, racial and ethnic equality,[and] the opportunity for a rewarding life" (p. 4).

Galbraith argued that the achievement and sustenance of a good society depends on education. He devoted a chapter of his book to education, which, Galbraith wrote, was valuable in three senses.

A. Economic value of education

First, Galbraith acknowledged that education has economic value not only for the individual but for society as a whole. At the personal level, education enables individuals to raise their economic status.

To make this point, Galbraith pointed to the upward mobility of European migrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Most of these immigrants arrived in the United States in utter poverty; yet by the second or third generation, their descendants had scrambled into the middle class.

This remarkable achievement was made possible, Galbraith argued, by education. "For upward escape, either by the individual or by his or her children, education is the decisive agent," Galbraith wrote.

But education is also critical to society as a whole, Galbraith continued, because it contributes to societal stability. "For one thing,' Galbraith wrote, "education has a vital bearing on social peace and tranquility; it is education that provides the hope and the reality of escape from the lower, less-favored social and economic strata to those above."

B. Intrinsic value of education

Galbraith then went on to articulate the intangible rewards of education:
Education is, most of all, for the enlargement and the enjoyment of life. It is education that opens the window for the individual on the pleasures of language, literature, art, music, the diversities and idiosyncrasies of the world scene. The well-educated over the years and centuries have never doubted their superior reward; it  greater educational opportunity that makes general and widespread this reward.
In this passage, Galbraith summarized perhaps what academicians across the country have been saying for years--that higher education, and liberal arts education in particular, enhances the quality of our lives.

C. Education is an indispensable component of a modern and complex democratic society


 Finally, Galbraith argued persuasively that education is necessary to maintain a modern and complex democratic society. As societies advance economically and accept more and more responsibility for social welfare, Galbraith wrote, the problems of government become more complex and diverse.
There must then be either a knowledgeable electorate intellectually abreast of these issues and decisions or a more or less total delegation of them to the state and its bureaucracy. Or there must be surrender to the voices of ignorance and error. These, in turn, are destructive of the social and political structure itself.
Further, Galbraith wrote, education not only makes democracy possible, it also makes it necessary. Democracy "is the natural consequence of education and economic development," he argued, because there is no other practical design for governing people, who because of their educational attainments, expect to be heard and cannot be kept in silent subjugation."

American higher education today is eroding The Good Society

I think almost everyone would agree with Galbraith that education has both economic and intrinsically life-enriching  benefits. But let's look at the state of higher education today--20 years after Galbraith wrote The Good Society.

First, the federal government allows for-profit colleges and schools to prey on unsophisticated young Americans, particularly those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged.  Millions have taken out student loans to pay for educational experiences that are overpriced and often do not lead to good jobs.  Consequently, students who attended for-profit schools have a five-year default rate of 47 percent. Meanwhile, many of the schools themselves have been charged with fraud.

Even reputable private liberal arts colleges are charging more for a liberal arts degree than the degree is worth in economic terms. It is simply indefensible for someone to pay $150,000 to $200,000 to get a four-year degree in history, English, sociology or philosophy.  People who borrow to attend these expensive institutions are often unable to pay off their loans over 10 years and are forced into income-driven repayment plans that obligate them to make loan payments for 20 and even 25 years. For these people, higher education was not a liberating experience; rather it became the instrument by which they became economically enslaved.

Perhaps more importantly, contemporary higher education has morphed into a distorted version of its former character. Today, students shout down speakers who espouse disfavored points of view on political or social issues. Our civilization's heritage of literature, history and philosophy are disparaged and dismissed as irrelevant and even racist.

Indeed, students now think they are more qualified to decide what is important to study than their professors.  At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, students took down an image of Shakespeare and replaced it with the photo of Audre Lorde an obscure black female writer.

Will Lorde's photo remain in a place of honor indefinitely? Not likely. The incoming freshman class may decide that another writer is more important than Shakespeare or Lorde.  

And if the freshman class chooses to discard Lorde's photo for another writer--perhaps someone who has more "likes" on Facebook--who are the faculty to demure? After all, students at some colleges are paying about $5,000 a seat to attend an undergraduate class. Shouldn't they have the absolute right to dictate what it is they want to study?

Tragically, education and the good society have become uncoupled. In fact, in some sort of bizarre reversal, education may now be eroding the Good Society rather than nurturing it.

John Kenneth Galbraith: some old white guy whose work you need not read


References

John Kenneth Galbraith. The Good Society: The Humane Agenda. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Olivia Sylvester. Students remove Shakespeare portrait in English dept., aiming for inclusivityDaily Pennsylvanian, December 11, 2016.






Monday, April 10, 2017

The New York Times rightly criticizes Betsy Devos for rescinding DOE directive forbidding lenders from gouging student-loan defaulters: But the Times ignores the harm caused by income-driven repayment plans

A few days ago, the New York Times criticized Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for rescinding a Department of Education directive forbidding student-loan debt collectors from gouging borrowers who default on their  student loans. Under President Obama, DOE directed the debt collectors not to assess 16 percent penalties on defaulters who quickly agreed to payment plans that would bring their loans back into good standing.

The Time is right to Criticize DeVos. As the Times pointed out in its editorial, student borrowers in the government's direct student-loan program are now defaulting at the rate of 3,000 a day. It is unjust to assess penalties against defaulters that far exceed the administrative cost of bring defaulted loans back into good standing.

But the Times rebuke went off the rails when it touted the virtues of long-term income-driven repayment plans for distressed debtors. The Times cited allegations that the lenders were not telling loan defaulters about "affordable" income-driven repayment plans (IDRs) that might cost borrowers as little as zero a month.

The Times is simply wrong to tout IDRs as "affordable." It is true that people who enter these plans may only be obligated to make token payments and perhaps no payment at all if they are unemployed or live below the poverty line.

But many people in IDRs are making monthly payments so small that the payments do not cover accruing interest. Thus their loan balances grow larger with each passing month. People in 20- and 25-year repayment plans will find they owe much  more than they borrowed when their payment obligations come to an end.

It is true that the unpaid portion of their loans will be forgiven for people who successfully complete these IDRs, but the amount of the cancelled debt is considered income by the IRS.  Under current IRS regulations, the only people who can escape that tax bill are people who are insolvent at the time the debt is forgiven.

Does that sound affordable to you?

The pitfalls of IDRs are illustrated in Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, a 2016 bankruptcy court decision out of Kansas. The Murrays borrowed $77,000 in the 1990s to get undergraduate and graduate degrees, and they consolidated their debt in 1996 at 9 percent interest. Over the years, they made substantial payments. According to the bankruptcy judge, they paid $54,000 on their loans--about 70 percent of the amount borrowed.

But the Murrays' loans were put into deferment for some period of time when the couple could not afford to make their monthly payments. Meanwhile, interest accrued, and by 2015, their $77,000 debt had ballooned to $311,000--four times what they borrowed!

ECMC argued that the Murrays should be put into an IDR. The most generous plan called for monthly payments set at 10 percent of the Murrays' adjusted gross income.  Their monthly payment would then be only $635 a month, quite manageable for a couple whose joint income was approximately $95,000 a year.

But the bankruptcy judge rejected ECMC's proposal.  The judge pointed out that interest was growing at $65 a day--around $2,000 a month. Thus, the Murrays' monthly payments would amount to less than half of the monthly accruing interest. The Murrays' debt would grow to well over half a million dollars over the 20-year repayment period.

Thus, if the Murrays signed up for a 20-year IDR, one of two fates awaited them: either they would be faced with an enormous tax bill or they would be so broke their tax liability would be extinguished on the grounds of insolvency. In any event, the Murrays would be in their late 60s and in no financial shape to retire.

The Obama administration promoted IDRs and even rolled out new ones: PAYE and REPAYE. These plans give struggling debtors short-term relief, but a majority of the people who sign up for an IDR will never pay off their student loans.

Almost 6 million people are currently enrolled in one IDR or another, and most are not making payments large enough to cover accruing interest. Although  IDR enrollees are not technically in default, few will ever pay back their loans.

What is the solution for these people? There is only one solution: a discharge of their loan obligations in bankruptcy.  DOE will not admit this stark fact, and neither will the New York Times. But the bankruptcy courts are beginning to figure out that IDRs do not provide the "fresh start" that the bankruptcy process is intended to provide..  We should look for some blockbuster bankruptcy court decisions in the near future as the judges wake up to the charade of IDRs.

References

Editorial, The Wrong Move on Student Loans. New York Times, April 76, 2017.

ECMC and the Department of Education are a couple of bullies: The Scott Farkus affair that never ends

Fortunately, we only see Scott Farkus once a year. He comes around every Christmas eve, when TBS runs The Christmas Story for 24 hours. Farkus, you remember, is the yellow-eyed bully that picks on Ralphie Parker and his little brother Randy. Farkus is always accompanied by his pint-sized sidekick, Grover Dill.


ECMC & DOE are real-life bullies for student debtors.

Scott Farkus, of course, is a fictional bully, but destitute student borrower are tormented by a real-life bully--Educational Credit Management Corporation. ECMC,a so-called fiduciary of the U.S Department of Education, gets well paid to hound student-loan debtors who naively try to shed their student loans in bankruptcy to get a fresh start.

Would you like some examples of ECMC's bullying behavior? Here are a few:
  • ECMC opposed bankruptcy relief for Janet Roth, a woman in her 60s with chronic health problems, who was living on Social Security income of $774 a month. 
  • ECMC successfully blocked Janice Stephenson, a woman in her fifties, from discharging her student loans in bankruptcy--loans that were almost 25 years old. At the time Stephenson filed for bankruptcy, she was living on about $1,000 a month and had a history of homelessness.
  • Last year, a bankruptcy judge slapped ECMC with punitive damages for repeatedly garnishing the wages of Kristin Bruner-Halteman, a bankrupt student debtor who worked at Starbucks. ECMC violated the automatic stay provision more than 30 times, the bankruptcy court ruled. And how much money was at stake? Ms. Bruner-Halteman only owed about $5,000.
So Scott Farkus, in a corporate form, is alive and well in American bankruptcy courts.

And Grover Dill, Farkus's little toadie, is also alive and well. The Department of Education itself bullies student borrowers in bankruptcy, almost as cruelly as ECMC.  And here are a few examples:
  • In Myhre v. Department of Education, DOE fought Bradley Myhre, an insolvent quadriplegic who tried to discharge a modest student loan in bankruptcy. DOE lost that one. The court commended Mhyre for his courage: he was working full time but he had to employ a caregiver to feed and dress him and drive him to work. 
  • DOE tried unsuccessfully to persuade a Missouri  bankruptcy court to deny bankruptcy relief to Michael Abney, a single father in his 40s who was living on $1,300 a month and was so poor he rode a bicycle to work because couldn't afford a car. 
  • Just a few months ago, the Eighth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel ruled against DOE, which had tried to keep Sara Fern from discharging her student debt in bankruptcy. Fern is a single mother of three children who takes home $1,500 a month from her job and supplements her income with food stamps and public rent assistance.
Have I described bullying behavior by ECMC and DOE? Of course I have. Every single time DOE or ECMC shows up in bankruptcy court, the argument is the same: "This deadbeat doesn't deserve bankruptcy relief, your honor. Put the worthless son of a b-tch in a 20- or 25-year income-based repayment plan."

In the past, bankruptcy courts were persuaded by these callous arguments, but judges are beginning to return to their duty. I predict the day is soon coming when a federal appellate court will overrule the precedents that have favored ECMC and DOE--most notably the harsh Brunner ruling that most federal circuits have adopted.

But for now, the bullying goes on.  Just like Scott Farkus and Grover Dill, ECMC and DOE lie in wait for hapless debtors who stagger into bankruptcy court. ECMC has accumulated $1 billion in unrestricted assets while engaging in this shameful behavior, and the federal government pays ECMC's legal fees. 

References

Abney v. U.S. Department of Education, 540 B.R. 681 (W.D. Mo. 2015).



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

Fern v. FedLoan Servicing, 563 B.R. 1 (8th Cir. BAP 2017).


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


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/


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


Stevenson v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 463 B.R. 586 (Bankr. D. Mass. 2011). aff'd, 475 B.R. 286 (D. Mass. 2012).













Friday, April 7, 2017

3,000 people a day are defaulting on student loans and Betsy DeVos rewards the student loan indusry. You broke our hearts, Betsy!

Yesterday, the New York Times published an editorial scolding Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for allowing the student-loan servicers to slap a 16 percent penalty on student borrowers who default on their loans.

 And let's remember this: That 16 percent penalty is not 16 percent on the amount borrowed; its 16 percent on the unpaid balance plus accumulated interest.  Millions of debtors have their student loans in forbearance or deferment for years while their debt grows due to accruing interest. Thus, when they default, they may owe double, triple, or even quadruple what they borrowed. The 16 percent penalty is calculated by the total debt--not just the original loan amount.

And the lenders apply that penalty even when debtors immediately start the process of bringing their loans back into good standing. That stinks.

Secretary of Education DeVos made a big mistake when she caved in to the student-loan industry at the expense of struggling student debtors. I can think of only two explanations. Either she doesn't know what she's doing or she's in the pocket of student loan guaranty agencies and their collection agents.

But it doesn't really matter why she did it. After all, Fredo Corleone didn't know what he was doing when he betrayed his brother Michael in Godfather II. But Michael didn't cut Fredo any slack. Remember what Michael said? "I know it was you, Fredo – you broke my heart – you broke my heart!"

 As the Times noted in its editorial, 3,000 people a day in the government's direct lending program defaulted on their student loans last year--about a million people. That's a lot of people having penalties slapped on their loan balances--that's a lot of suffering that Betsy DeVos could have stopped.

It is now clear: student debtors can't look to the Trump administration for assistance. The bankruptcy courts are their only hope.

I know it was you, Betsy--you broke my hear, you broke my heart!

References

Editorial. The Wrong Move on Student Loans. New York Times, April 6, 2017.




Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Student Loan Crisis is WORSE than the 2008 Housing Crisis: The Return of "The Big Short"

As everyone knows, the housing market collapsed in 2008, triggering a major economic crisis in the United States. The nation descended into recession, and the national economy is still recovering from this catastrophe.

Steve Rhode and others have described a student loan "bubble," and I share these commentators' view that the federal student loan program as it functions now is unsustainable.  Approximately 42 million borrowers collectively owe $1.4 trillion in student-loan debt, and families are beginning to experience sticker shock. Enrollments are declining at the for-profit schools, and nonprofit liberal arts colleges are desperately scrambling to maintain their enrollments.

Many people may think the student-loan crisis--no matter how bad it is--is just a small tremor compared to the 2008 housing crisis, which was an earthquake.

But in fact, the student loan crisis has produced more casualties in terms of human suffering than the housing collapse ten years ago.

Earlier this week, Alan White of Credit Slip, an online news source on economic matters, commented on a housing-data report released recently by the Urban Institute. Based on the Urban Institute's data, White assessed the total damage from the subprime housing crisis. From 2007 to 2016, 6.7 million homes went into foreclosure and another 2 million homes were lost through short sales or deeds-in lieu of foreclosure. Thus the total number of homeowners who lost their homes in the subprime housing debacle is about 8.7 million. If we assume a majority of those homes were owned by married couples, then the total number of individuals who were injured in the housing crisis is about 16 million.

That's a lot of people, but the casualty list from the student loan crisis is larger. 

As the New York Times reported in 2015, about 10 million student borrowers have defaulted on their loans or have loans in delinquency. Almost 6 million debtors are now in income-driven repayment programs (IDRs), and those people are locked into repayment plans that last from 20 to 25 years. A majority of those people are making payments so low they are not servicing accruing interest, which means their student loans balances are growing larger (negatively amortizing) with each passing month.

So we're talking about 16 million people who defaulted, have delinquent loans, or who are in IDRs. And millions more have student loans in forbearance or deferment, which means they are not making payments on their loans but are not counted as defaulters. For most of those people, interest is accruing, which means their student loan balances are growing. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported a total of about 9 million people in deferment or forbearance in its 2013 report titled A Closer Look at the Trillion

All these numbers are fluid. Some delinquent student-loan borrowers will bring their loans current, and some defaulters will rehabilitate their loans. And some people will move from deferment status to some form of IDR.

But it is safe to say--indeed conservative to say--that about 20 million Americans have outstanding student loans they can't pay back. That's 4 million more people that were injured by the housing crisis. It's The Big Short all over again.

Alan and Catherine Murray, who received a partial discharge of their student loans in a Kansas bankruptcy court last year, are the poster children for this calamity. They borrowed $77,000 to finance their studies, and both obtained a bachelor's degree and a master's degree. They paid back $54,000--about 70 percent of what they borrowed. 

But the Murrays experienced hard times and put their loans into deferment for a few years while interest accrued at the rate of 9 percent. They now owe $311,000! Will they ever pay that back? No, they won't.

Yes, the federal loan program is in a bubble, and the suffering has already begun. The federal government is propping up this house of cards and disguising the real default rate. Congress doesn't have the courage to address the problem, and the Trump administration appears to be clueless

We must look to the federal bankruptcy courts for relief. The Murrays obtained a partial dischage of their their loans from a Kansas bankruptcy judge last year, but their case is now on appeal.  

Stay tuned for further developments.

The Big Short


References

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

Editorial, "Why Student Debtors Go Unrescued." New York Times, October 7, 2015, A 26.

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

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

Jill Schlesinger. Looking for the next bubble. Chicago Tribune, August 24, 2016.

Alan White, Foreclosure Crisis Update. Credit Slip, April 5, 2017.