Friday, February 16, 2018

Congress enacts teeny weeny student-loan reform legislation: Is the glass half full or half empty?

As reported by Steve Rhode, Congress passed a very modest student-loan reform bill late last year.  Titled the Stop Taxing Death and Disability Act, the new law eliminates an unfair tax on forgiven student loans.

Prior to passage of this law, the government would forgive student loans held by debtors who became permanently disabled, but the amount of the forgiven debt was considered taxable income by the IRS. You may remember the story of Will Milzarski,  a military veteran who was wounded and disabled while fighting in Afghanistan.  The Department of Education forgave about a quarter of a million dollars in student loans, but the IRS sent Mr. Milzarski a tax bill for $62,000.

The Stop Taxing Death and Disability Act, which was adopted by Congress with bipartisan support, eliminates this unfair tax provision. Under the new law, all student-loan debt (including private student loans) that is forgiven due to the death or disability of the debtor is exempt from federal income taxes.

In addition, the law gives a tax break to the parents of student-loan debtors. Parents who owe student loans on behalf of their children may obtain a student-loan discharge if their child becomes disabled.  And parents who obtain such a discharge won't be taxed on the forgiven debt.

So, is the glass half full or half empty?

On the good side, passage of this modest and noncontroversial bill is a sign that Republicans and Democrats can work together to pass student-loan reform legislation. The bill's three co-sponsors--Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Chris Coons (D-Delaware), and Angus King (I-Maine) are to be commended for getting this little bill adopted.

But on the other hand, as Mr. Rhode pointed out, the bill did not address the enormous tax liability that college borrowers face who are in income-driven repayment plans (IDRs).  More than six million student debtors are enrolled in IDRs, and most of them are making monthly loan payments so small that they will never pay off their loans.  Why? Because the monthly payments aren't large enough to cover accruing interest on the underlying debt.

People locked into IDRs are obligated to make monthly loan payments for terms that stretch out for 20, 25 and even 30 years. At the end of the repayment term, any remaining unpaid debt is forgiven, but the amount of the forgiven debt is considered taxable income.

In other words, a student debtor who successfully completes a 20-year IDR sheds one unpayable debt to the Department of Education and acquires another unpayable debt to the IRS.

Nevertheless, the fact that Congress passed the Stop Taxing Death and Disability Act is a good sign. Maybe Democrats and Republicans can build on this tiny victory to enact more sweeping student-loan reform.

For example, perhaps a bipartisan coalition could rally behind the Warren-McCaskill bill to stop the IRS from garnishing the Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters. Who in good conscience could vote against that bill?

And is it too much to hope that Congress might someday reform the Bankruptcy Code and allow suffering student-loan borrowers to discharge their crushing student loans in bankruptcy?

Will Milzarski, Wounded Veteran (photo credit: Chicago Tribune)


References

Associated Press. Wounded Michigan vet gets student loan debt forgiven, but now IRS wants $62,000Chicago Tribune, October 20, 2017.

Judith Putnam. Student debt forgiven, but wounded vet gets $62,000 tax billUSA Today, October 20, 2017.

Representative John Delaney press releaseDelaney and Katko File Legislation to Help Americans Struggling with Student Loan Debt, May 5, 2017.

Representative John Katko press release. Reps. Katko and Delaney File Legislation to Help Americans Struggling with Student Loan Debt. May 8, 2017.

Steve Rhode. 15 Seconds of Positive News About Student Loans and Congress. Get Out of Debt Guy, February 15, 2108.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

For the sake of the economy, let's forgive all student-loan debt

Forty-four million people are burdened by student loans--totally about $1.5 trillion in outstanding debt. What would happen if the federal government just forgave all those loans?

Researchers at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College asked that question, and their answer might surprise you. Forgiving all this debt, they say, would boost the Gross National Product by $86 billion to $108 billion a year over a ten-year period. Released from their student loans, millions of people would see an immediate increase in their disposable income, permitting them to buy homes, save for retirement, purchase consumer goods, and start families.

Moreover, as Eric Levitz pointed out, Congress passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut last year, with most of the benefits going to the wealthy. Wouldn't it have made more sense to have forgiven $1.5 trillion in college loans instead? Most of the benefits would have gone to low-income and middle income Americans--not the rich.

Of course, our government can't simply forgive $1.5 trillion in student loans and continue the federal student loan program. The thing to do, then, is to replace the student-loan program with free undergraduate education at a public college or university.

But wouldn't that be prohibitively expensive? No it wouldn't. As Ryan Cooper argues, the total cost of tuition at public institutions was only $58 billion in 2014.  Our government invests twice that amount each year in the federal student loan program. It would actually be less expensive to American taxpayers if we simply shut down the student loan program and gave everyone a free college education at a public college.

Theoretically, it is true, the federal government is only loaning students money to attend college; it expects to get that money back at interest as students pay off their student loans. But in fact, about half of the nation's outstanding student-loan balance will never be paid back. It's just going down a rat hole for educational experiences that are overpriced and that often don't lead to well-paying jobs.

Of course, forgiving everyone's student loans and providing a free college education would have some major collateral consequences. If Americans could get a free college education at a public institution, they would stop enrolling in private colleges and for-profit schools.  If the federal government actually implemented this plan, small liberal arts institutions all over the United States would close their doors and the for-profit college industry would collapse.

But the private liberal arts colleges will be closing anyway. Harvard professor Clay Christensen predicts that half of them will close within the next 10 to 15 years as Americans figure out that it makes no sense at all to spend $200,000 to get a liberal arts degree from a nondescript college in the upper Midwest.  As for the for-profit schools, they are a cancer and should be closed down anyway.

But, critics might ask, what about the moral hazard of forgiving all that debt? Is it fair to allow people to borrow $100,000 or more to get an MBA and then not pay it back?

First of all, the student borrowers who are suffering the most have been people who borrowed a relatively small amount of money. People who have borrowed the least are most likely to default. It is true that some people whose student loans are forgiven would receive a windfall, but the vast majority of people who would benefit from wholesale student-loan forgiveness would be people who paid too much money for postsecondary education and did not get fair value.

Furthermore, whatever moral taint can be found in student-loan forgiveness is as nothing compared to fraud committed by the for-profit college industry, the exploitation by the student-loan debt collectors, and the venality of university presidents making million-dollar salaries while students are forced to borrow more and more money to pay escalating tuition rates.

And if massive student-loan forgiveness still sticks in the nation's craw, then let's just reform the bankruptcy laws and allow deserving debtors to obtain relief from their student loans in the bankruptcy courts. If the "undue hardship" provision were removed from the Bankruptcy Code, literally millions of Americans would file bankruptcy and get relief.

But the Bard College researchers have gotten to the heart of the matter. We should forgive all student loans and simply allow people to study for free to get an undergraduate education at a public university.



References

Ryan Cooper. The case for erasing every last penny of student debt. The Week, February 8, 2018.

Doug Lederman. Clay Christensen, Doubling Down. Inside Higher Ed, April 28, 2017.

Eric Levitz. We Must Cancel Everyone's Student Debt, for the Economy's Sake. New York, February 9, 2018.

Scott Fullwiler, Stephanie Kelton, Catherine Ruetschlin, and Marshall Steinbaum. The Macroeconomic Effects of Student Debt Cancellation. Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, February 2018.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Loan-Forgiveness and Income-Driven Repayment Plans Are Costing Taxpayers a Bundle of Money

The Department of Education's Office of Inspector General (OIG)issued another one of those mealy-mouth reports we've come to expect from the Department. In essence, the OIG told us something we already knew: DOE's income-driven repayment plans (IDRs) and debt forgiveness plans are costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

For several years now, the higher education community has touted income-driven repayment plans as the panacea for the rising  cost of going to college.  Back during the 2016 presidential campaign, Catharine Hill, president of Vassar College, wrote an op ed essay for the New York Times attacking Senator Bernie Sander's proposal to allow people to go to college for free.  Free college is not the answer, Hill argued. Rather we need to expand income-driven repayment programs.

Indeed, DOE has expanded income-driven repayment options. President Obama's administration rolled out the PAYE and REPAYE, programs that allow student borrowers to pay 10 percent of their adjusted income for 20 years in lieu of the standard 10-year repayment plan. Borrowers who make regular payments for 20 years will have their loan balances forgiven.

As outlined by OIG, the Department of Education offers six income-driven repayment plans and two loan forgiveness plans. Of course, all the student loans under these plans accrue interest. Even an idiot knows that borrowers who makes loan payments that aren't large enough to pay accruing interest will never pay off their loans.

So it shouldn't surprise anyone that DOE's flexible spending plans and loan forgiveness plans are costing the taxpayers billions of dollars because the government is loaning people more money than they will ever repay.

As the OIG reported, DOE's loan balance for income-driven repayment plans increased from $7.1 billion to $51.5 billion between 2011 and 2015. That's an increase of 625 percent in just four years.

Meanwhile, government subsidies for income-driven repayment plans ballooned from $1.4 billion to $11.5 billion over the same four years--an increase of more than 800 percent.

Why did our government create these insane flexible repayment plans?  I can think of one primary reason.

IDRs allow DOE to maintain the fiction that the vast majority of college borrowers are paying back their loans. For most of the people in these plans, an IDR is the only alternative to default. In fact, DOE has encouraged college-loan defaulters and people in danger of default to sign up for IDRs.

But most people in income-driven repayment plans are not paying off their loans because their payments aren't large enough to cover accrued interest. Thus, while IDR participants are not officially in default, they are only making token payments on loans they will never pay off.

What is the OIG's advice to DOE about how to handle the enormous cost of its income-driven repayment plans and its loan forgiveness programs? Here is OIG's gobbledygook recommendation:
We recommend that the Department enhance its communications regarding cost information related to the Federal student loan program's IDR plans and loan forgiveness plans to make it more informative to decision makers and the public.
That's right: All OIG can think of to recommend is more transparency!

As the Wall Street Journal reported about 20 months ago, 43 percent of college borrowers--approximately 9.6 million people--weren't making loan payments as of January 1, 2016. Some of these borrowers were in default, some had delinquent loans and some had loans in forbearance or deferment.

And thanks to DOE's income-driven repayment plans, an additional six million people are making payments too small to pay off their loans.

It is time for DOE to be more than transparent. It needs to admit that about half the people who took out student loans will never pay them back. Thus, of the $1.4 trillion in outstanding student loans, more than half of it will never be collected.



References

Paul Fain. Costs Mount for Federal Loan Programs. Inside Higher Ed, February 5, 2018.

Catharine Hill. Free Tuition Is Not the AnswerNew York Times, November 30, 2015, p. A23.

Josh Mitchell. More Than 40% of Student Borrowers Aren't Making Payments. Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2016.

U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General (2018, January 31). The Department's Communication Regarding the Costs of Income-Driven Repayment Plans and Loan Forgiveness Programs. ED-OIG/A09Q0003. Washington DC: Author

U.S. Government Accountability Office (2016 December). Federal Student Loans: Education Needs to Improve Its Income Driven Repayment Plan Budget Estimates. Washington DC: Author.


Friday, February 2, 2018

Massachusetts Attorney General organizes volunteer lawyers to represent indigent college debtors in bankruptcy: This is A VERY BIG DEAL

Maura Healey, Massachusetts Attorney General,  announced last month that her office is partnering with the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce to organize volunteer lawyers to represent distressed college debtors in bankruptcy.

This is a VERY BIG DEAL for a least four reasons:

Dispelling the myth that student loans can't be discharged in bankruptcy

First, as Steve Rhode pointed out, AG Healey's initiative gives the lie to the myth that student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. The Department of Education and the student-loan industry want college borrowers to believe their student loans are not dischargeable, and they have been successful in  perpetuating that falsehood.

As scholar Jason Iuliano wrote in a law review article, almost a quarter of million student loan debtors filed for bankruptcy in 2007, but only a few hundred even tried to discharge their student loans. But the Massachusetts Attorney General's initiative demonstrates that competent attorneys believe these loans can be wiped out in bankruptcy, and that is welcome news.

Legal representation means that more college borrowers will win their bankruptcy cases

Second, having experienced and committed lawyers representing student-loan debtors in bankruptcy court means more college borrowers will be successful. I once thought student-loan debtors could win their cases against the Department of Education and their agents even if they went to court without lawyers.

And indeed a few debtors have gotten relief from student loans in the bankruptcy courts, even though they went to court without attorneys. Richard Precht, Jaime Clavito, and George and Melanie Johnson come to mind.  But the debt collectors--and Educational Credit Management Corporation, in particular--have appealed their losses in the appellate courts, where it is very difficult for debtors to defend their interests.

In the Hedlund case, for example, a student-loan creditor fought Michael Hedlund in the appellate courts for 10 years!  And creditors often got debtors' victories reversed by appellate courts. In a heartbreaking loss, George and Melanie Johnson got their victory snatched away after a bankruptcy judge reversed his earlier decision to discharge their loans. The judge backtracked after his original decision was vacated by an appellate judge.

With competent attorneys, however, college borrowers can fight DOE and its venal agents until hell freezes over. And eventually some of debtors' victories in the bankruptcy courts will be upheld at the federal circuit court level.  Once the federal appellate courts endorse a more humane approach to handling student-loan bankruptcies, we will see more deserving debtors get relief.

Attorneys can defend college borrowers from dastardly creditor tactics

Third, if energetic and competent lawyers begin representing college borrowers in the bankruptcy courts, debtors will have able advocates to fend off what Rafael Pardo labeled "pollutive litigation" by the debt collectors.  Indigent debtors cannot counter unscrupulous tactics by creditors' lawyers unless they themselves have lawyers. In the Bruner-Halteman case, for example, ECMC repeatedly garnishing the wages of a bankrupt student debtor in violation of federal law. Had Bruner-Halteman not had an attorney, she would have been crushed.

A State Attorney General is now in open conflict with Betsy Devos and the Dept. of Education

 Finally, Massachusetts AG Maura Healey is now in open conflict with our federal government's heinous policy of fighting bankruptcy relief for college borrowers who are truly suffering. In the Myhre case, DOE opposed bankruptcy relief for a quadriplegic student-loan borrower who was working full time and yet unable to survive financially. In the Abney case, DOE fought bankruptcy relief for Michael Abney, a man in his forties who had a record of homelessness and who had a monthly income of about $1100 a month. In Roth, ECMC fought Janet Roth all the way into an appellate court. Poor Ms. Roth was living on Social Security income amounting to less than $800 a month.

Conclusion

For the first time, we will soon see a state attorney general's office and aggressive and competent lawyers going on the attack against Betsy DeVos' Department of Education, which has become nothing more than a shill and a lackey for the corrupt student-loan business.  Hurrah for AG Maura Healey!

AG Healey has introduced a model for progressive state governments to attack a vicious federal agency and bring relief to millions of college borrowers who have their backs against the wall.  California, I call on you to rally to AG Healey's standard. New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Texas and Florida: respond to Healey's bugle call and join the fight.

It is time for state governments to fight the corrupt and sleazy student-loan industry and to bring it down.  AG Healey and the Massachusetts Bar Association have shown the nation the path toward justice.



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).

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

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

Rafael Pardo. The Undue Hardship Thicket: On Access to Justice, Procedural Noncompliance, and Pollutive Litigation in Bankruptcy. 66 Florida Law Review 2101 (2014).

Steve Rhode. Mass AG and Bar Association Lead Way to Help Student Loan Debtors to Help File Bankruptcy. getoutofdebtguy.org (blog), January 29, 2018.

Roth v. Educational Credit Management Corporation490 B.R. 908 (9th Cir. BAP 2013).