Showing posts with label Adam Looney. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Adam Looney. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Department of Education is slow to forgive loans of student borrowers defrauded by Corinthian Colleges: State Attorneys General urge DOE to move more quickly

Yesterday, nineteen state attorneys general and the Director of the Hawaii Office of Consumer Protection delivered a letter to Betsy DeVos, U.S. Education Secretary, urging the Department of Education to quickly process fraud claims brought by former students of Corinthian Colleges.

The state AGs asked DeVos to approve "swift automatic group discharge" to students in Corinthian cohorts where fraud has been found. Alternatively, the AGs asked DeVos to process individual fraud claims faster.

Corinthian Colleges closed and filed for bankruptcy in 2015, leaving behind more than 350,000 former students who took out loans to pay Corinthian's tuition. Many of these student borrowers were induced to attend Corinthian through fraud, and the nineteen AGs claim there are defrauded Corinthian students in all 50 states.

So far, DOE has discharged 27,000 borrowers from their federal loan debt, but that number is a small fraction of the former students who are entitled to debt relief. Thousands have filed "borrower defense" claims, asking DOE for loan forgiveness, but DOE is not processing these claims quickly. Meanwhile, many Corinthians students are still paying on their loans or defaulted and are subject to having their wages garnished and their credit ruined.

According to the state AGs, DOE notified 23,000 Corinthian student borrowers in January that their loan forgiveness applications had been approved and that "forgiveness should be completed within the next 60-120 days." It's been nearly 180 days since that announcement, and these loans have still not been discharged.

What's going on?

I think the Department of Education is simply overwhelmed by the meltdown of the student loan program. Almost half the people in a recent cohort of students who attended for-profit colleges defaulted within five years. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, half the students who attended more than 1,000 colleges and schools have not paid down one dime of their student loans seven years after their repayment obligations began.

In addition, the first beneficiaries of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program will be eligible for debt relief before the end of this year, and DOE has no idea how many people are eligible to have their loans discharged under that program.

Personally, I think Secretary DeVos should adopt the AGs' suggestion and grant swift automatic group discharges to all Corinthian students who were in DOE's "Designated Fraud Cohorts." Or better yet, I think DOE should forgive the loans of all 350,000 former students.

Admittedly, there are probably some people who completed a Corinthian program and actually got a good job, but I'll bet there aren't many. Undoubtedly, the default rate for Corinthian students is extraordinarily high largely due to the fact that Corinthian's students did not get well-paying jobs at the conclusion of their studies.

I recognize there are risks associated with a mass loan forgiveness program. If all 300,000 of Corinthian's former students are granted a discharge, then ITT Tech's former students will ask for blanket loan forgiveness. ITT Tech also closed and filed for bankruptcy, and it has 200,000 former students.

It is shocking to contemplate, but millions of Americans will never pay back their student loans. In addition to the for-profit college students, there are the law graduates who accumulated mountains of debt and can't find law jobs. And then there are the poor saps who got liberal arts degrees from expensive liberal arts colleges; many of them will never pay back their loans.

The 19 state AGs are right to urge Secretary DeVos to grant automatic group discharges for thousands of former Corinthian students. But Corinthian Colleges is the tip of the iceberg. Millions of student borrowers will never pay back their loans, and the ultimate loss to taxpayers will be in the billions.



References

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

Tamar Lewin. Government to Forgive Student Loans at CorinthianNew York Times, June 9, 2015, p. A11.

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).


Andrew Kreighbaum. State AGs Want Action on Student Loan Discharge. Inside Higher Ed, June 6, 2017.

Lisa Madigan, Illinois Attorney General. Letter to Betsy DeVos, US. Secretary of Education, June 5, 2017.

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, 2017.

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

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

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



Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Susan Dynarski's Fix for the Student Loan Crisis: Simplistic, Dangerous, and Ineffective

Susan Dynarski published an essay recently in the Business section of the Sunday Times with the provocative title of "America Can Fix Its Student Loan Crisis. Ask Australia." Her prescription is simplistic, dangerous, and ineffective.

Essentially, Dynarski recommends putting American student borrowers into income-based, long-term repayment plans. She doesn't say how long, but she wrote approvingly of the English system--which, she attests, gives students 30 years to pay off their loans.

She also recommends putting student borrowers into a payroll withholding system whereby
debtors have their monthly loan payments deducted from their paychecks based on a percentage of their income.  When borrowers' incomes go up, their payments would be larger; if their incomes go down, their payments would be reduced as well.

Dynarski's proposal is very close to what the Obama administration is already doing--pushing millions of student borrowers into income-based repayment plans that stretch out over 20 or 25 years.

Dynarski says long-term student-loan repayment plans make sense because college graduates benefit from their college experience over their entire lives. "A core principle of finance is that the length of debt payments should align with the life of the asset," she writes didactically. "We pay for cars over five years and homes over 30 years because homes last a lot longer than cars." Likewise, Dynarski reasons, "[a]n education pays off over a lifetime, so it makes sense that student loans should be paid off over a long term."

Dynarski urges the United States to follow the example of those savvy Europeans, who give students longer to pay off their student loans than we do here in the U.S. "All the international student loan experts I have spoken with are shocked by how little time American students are given to pay off their student loans," she informs us. Shocked!

Simplistic

Dynarski's simplistic proposal is based on erroneous premises.  First of all, contrary to Dynarski's view, many student borrowers do not have college experiences that benefit them over a lifetime. Students who borrow to attend for-profit colleges and have substandard experiences don't receive a lifetime of benefits. Perhaps that is why almost half of a recent cohort of students  who attended for-profit colleges defaulted within five years. People who drop out of college before graduating don't receive a lifetime of benefits either, although they may acquire a lifetime of debt.

And many people who borrow money to obtain liberal arts degrees are not receiving much benefit. I for one received almost no benefit from the sociology degree I obtained from Oklahoma State University many years ago. But at least I didn't borrow money to pay for it.

People who borrow $100,000 or more to get degrees in sociology, history, women's studies, religious studies, etc. generally are paying far more than their degrees are worth.  In fact, 45 percent of recent graduates take jobs that don't even require a college degree.  And in the workplace as a whole, about a third of college graduates are in jobs that don't require a college education.

Moreover, Dynarski's comparison between American college financing and Europe is not very useful. As she herself points out, higher education in many European countries is free, and most European countries have a bigger social safety net for their citizens than the U.S. does. It is one thing to pay on student loans for 20 years if health care is free and an old-age pension is assured. It is quite another thing for people to pay on their student loans over a majority of their working lives while saving for retirement and paying for health insurance.

Ineffective

If we think about Dynarski's proposal for just a few moments, we can see how ineffective it is for solving the student loan crisis. American higher education is the most expensive in the world, and stretching out students' loan repayments for 25 or 30 years will do nothing to get those costs under control. In fact, the reason so many higher education insiders favor long-term income-based repayment plans is because it enables them to continue jacking up tuition prices.

And Dynarski's plan takes no account of accruing interest.  Borrowers who make small monthly loan payments due to their low salaries won't be paying off interest as it accrues. Most Americans who enter these plans will never pay off their loan balances even if they faithfully make their monthly loan payments for 300 consecutive months.  Isn't it also a core principle of finance that people should actually pay off their loans?

Dangerous

Finally, Dynarkski's proposal is simply dangerous to the long-term well being of Americans who go to college.  Basically, she is proposing a special tax that everyone who borrows to attend college must pay over the majority of their working lives. Student loan payments will just be another deduction from people's paychecks--like federal income tax withholding and Social Security contributions.

Essentially, Dynarski is proposing a modern-day sharecropper system very much like the one that prevailed in the American South prior to World War II. The sharecropper system of the 1930s required tenant farmers to pay a portion of their crops to Southern plantation owners; the modern system forces college students to pay a portion of their future wages to the government over a majority of their working lives.

Both sharecropper systems are unjust: and Dynarski, by pitching the new sharecropper system in the Business section of the  New York Times, has become an apologist for exploitation.



References

Mathew Boesler. More College Grads Finding Work, But Not in the Best Jobs. Bloomberg.com, April 7, 2016. Accessible at http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-04-07/more-college-grads-finding-work-but-not-in-the-best-jobs

Susan Dynarski. American Can Fix Its Student Loan Crisis. Ask Australia. New York Times, July 10, 2016. Business  Section, p. 6.

The Labor Market for Recent College Graduates. Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2016. Accessible at https://www.newyorkfed.org/research/college-labor-market/index.html

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). Accessible at: http://www.brookings.edu/about/projects/bpea/papers/2015/looney-yannelis-student-loan-defaults


Saturday, June 18, 2016

Student-Loan Default Rates Go Down As Enrollment in Income-Driven Repayment Plans Goes Up:" It Hurts So Much To Face Reality"

Earlier in the week, the Department of Education issued a press release that contains good news about the student loan program. Or does it?

DOE reported that enrollment is increasing in the Department's various income-driven repayment plans (IDRs), including PAYE, REPAYS and six other income-based student loan repayment programs.  About 5 million are now enrolled in IDRs, up 117 percent from March of 2014.

At the same time, student-loan hardship deferments, loan delinquencies, and new defaults are going down.  According to DOE:
As of March 31, 2016, about 350,000 [Direct Loan] recipients were deferring their payments due to unemployment or economic hardship, a 28.6 percent decrease from the prior year. In that same time period, there was a 36.6 percent decrease in the number of FFEL recipients in a deferment status due to unemployment or economic hardship.
DOE also reported that delinquency rates are down 10.6 percent from last year, and student-loan default rates are also down.

Is this good news? Yes and no.

Obviously, a trend toward fewer economic-hardship deferments, fewer student-loan defaults, and fewer lower delinquencies is a good thing. It is especially heartening to see a decline in the number of people who have loans in deferment, because these people see their loan balances go up due to accruing interest during the time they aren't making loan payments.

But this good news comes at a cost. DOE's report is a clear indication that more and more people are signing up for long-term income-based repayment plans that stretch out their repayment period for as long as 20 to 25 years.  According to DOE, five million people are in IDRs now, and DOE hopes to enroll 2 million more by the end of 2017. Clearly, long-term repayment plans has become DOE's number one strategy for dealing with rising student-debt loads.

What's wrong with IDRs? Four things.

Growing Loan Balances. First, as I have said many times, most people in IDRs are making payments based on a percentage of their income, not the amount of their debt; and most people's payments are not large enough to cover accruing interest on their loan balances. Thus, for almost everyone in a 20- or a 25-year repayment plan, loan balances are going up, not down.

This was starkly illustrated by a recent Brookings Institution report. According to a paper published for Brookings by Looney and Yannelis, a majority of borrowers (57 percent) saw their loan balances go up two years after beginning the repayment period on their loans. For students who borrowed to attend for-profit instiutions, almost three out of four (74 percent) saw their loan balances grow two years after entering the repayment phase

Reduced Incentives for Colleges to Rein in Tuition Costs.  As more and more borrowers elect to join IDRs, the colleges know that tuition prices becomes less important to students.Whether students borrow $25,000 to attend college or $50,000, their payment will be the same.

In fact, some IDRs actually may act as an inverse incentive for students to obtain more postsecondary education than they need.  I have several doctoral students who are collecting multiple graduate degrees. I suspect they are enrolled in the 10-year public-service loan forgiveness plan, the government's most generous IDR. Since monthly loan payments are based on income and not the amount borrowed, I think some people have figured out that it makes economic sense to prolong their studies.

Psychological Costs of Long-Term Repayment Plans. Third, there are psychological costs when people sign up for repayment plans that can stretch over a quarter of a century, a cost that some bankruptcy courts have noted. And these psychological costs are undoubtedly higher for people who sign up for IDRs in mid-life. Brenda Butler, for example, who lost her adversary proceeding in January of this year, signed up for a 25-year income-based repayment plan when she was in her early 40s, after struggling to pay back her student loans for 20 years. As the court noted in Butler's case, her loan obligations will cease in 2037--42 years after she graduated from college. That's got to be depressing.

A Drag on Consumer Spending. Finally, people who are making loan payments for 20 years have less disposable income to buy a home or a car, to marry, to have children, and to save for their retirement.  In fact, in the Abney case decided in late 2015, a bankruptcy court in Missouri rejected DOE's argument that a 44-year old truck driver should enter a long-term repayment plan to service loans he took out years ago for a college education he never completed.

As the court pointed out, Mr. Abney was a truck driver who was not likely to see his income increase markedly. Forcing him into a long-term repayment plan would diminish his ability to save for retirement or even to buy a car.

"It Hurts So Much To Face Reality"

As Robert Duvall sang in the movie Tender Mercies (the best contemporary western movie of all time), "it hurts so much to face reality."

Without a doubt, DOE is refusing to face reality by huckstering college-loan debtors into long-term student-loan repayment plans. DOE has adopted this strategy to keep student-loan defaults down, but IDRs do not relieve the burden of indebtendess for millions of student borrowers. Lowering monthly loan payments by stretching out the repayent period makes rising tuition more palatable, but it does nothing to check the rising cost of a college education--which has spun out of control.

In short, IDRs are creating a modern class of sharecroppers, whereby millions of people pay a percentage of their incomes over the majority of their working lives for the privilege of getting a crummy education from a college or university that has no incentive to keep tuition costs within the bounds of reason.

Image result for tender mercies movie
"It hurts so much to face reality."

References

Abney v. U.S. Department of Education540 B.R. 681 (W.D. Mo. 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). Accessible at: http://www.brookings.edu/about/projects/bpea/papers/2015/looney-yannelis-student-loan-defaults

U.S. Department of Education, Education Department Announces New Data Showing FAFSA Completion by District, State. Press release, June 16, 2016. Accessible at http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/education-department-announces-new-data-showing-fafsa-completion-district-state

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Student-Loan Bubble: Will the rising level of student-loan indebtedness lead to a national economic catastrophe?


This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.


T.S. Eliot                       
The Hollow Men            

In recent years, I have heard speculation that the federal student-loan program is similar to the real estate bubble that developed in the early years of this century and which ultimately led to the national financial meltdown of 2008.  Does the student loan program have the potential for running our economy into the ditch?

I once discounted this notion. After all, the home-mortgage crisis involved a lot more money than the federal student-loan program.  It is true that Americans now owe about $1.3 trillion in student loans, which is not chicken feed. But compared to the national debt--about $19 trillion--the student-loan program doesn't seem like a big deal. After all, the government's quantitative easing program involved the creation of $1 trillion a year when it was in full swing.

But I'm beginning to think differently about the student-loan crisis based on these considerations:

Enormous growth in student-loan debt. First of all, total student-loan indebtedness has grown enormously over the past 10 years. According to a recent report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, total outstanding indebtedness grew from  around $400 billion in 2007 to more than $1.2 trillion in 2015. In other words, total indebtedness tripled in less than 10 years.

Indeed, as has been widely reported, student loans now comprise the second largest category of consumer debt, surpassed only by home mortgages.  Student -loan indebtedness is now larger than both automobile loans and credit card debt.

More student-loan debtors.  Second, the total amount of student-loan borrowers keeps growing--43 million people now have outstanding student loans. That's almost 18 percent of the nation's adult population.

High loan default rates. Third, student-loan default rates are distressingly high. Although the U.S. Department of Education reported recently that three-year default rates are dropping, the drop is deceptive. Three-year default rates are dropping because the Department of Education and the college industry are encouraging students to obtain economic-hardship deferments or other form of forbearance that excuse former students from making monthly loan payments. But the fact remains that a high percentage of borrowers in the repayment phase of their loans aren't making payments,

In fact, as the Brookings Institute reported, 5-year default rates are 28 percent.  In the for-profit sector, the five-year default rates is an eye-popping 47 percent! Given the catastrophic consequences of default, it is astonishing that almost half the people who attend for-profit colleges eventually default on their loans.

Discounted tuition rates. Finally, private colleges are discounting their tuition rates more and more, an indication that American families simply refuse to pay the sticker price for a college education.  According to an article in Inside Higher Ed, private colleges are now discounting tuition for freshman students by an average of 48 percent!

Obviously, the federal government can't go on forever lending ever larger quantities of money and expecting students to passively take out larger and larger loans for the privilege of going to college.

So yes, there is a student-loan bubble; and the bubble is going to burst. When? I don't know, but I think we will see growing turmoil in the for-profit-college industry and the private-college sector. Within five years, we will see a significant number of non-elite private colleges bite the dust. And we will see increasing pressure on the for-profit colleges.

But when the bubble bursts, I don't think we will witness a spectacular meltdown in the economy that we saw in 2008. To borrow a phrase from T. S. Eliot, the federal student loan program is not going to explode with a bang, but with a whimper.  And the people who will be whimpering most are the millions of people--probably 20 million--who simply cannot pay back their student loans and who cannot discharge them in bankruptcy.

In my opinion, everyone in the higher education industry should be praying for more compassionate bankruptcy judges who are willing to discharge billions of dollars in student-loan debt and give millions of distressed borrowers a fresh start. If distressed student-loan borrowers don't obtain some form of tangible relief, we are going to see a shrinking middle class and a class of lifetime student-loan debtors who have been pushed to the sidelines of the national economy by student loan debt from which they cannot shake free.  In other words, as I have said before, we are hurdling hell-bent toward a sharecropper economy.

References

Jesse Bricker, Meta Brown, Simona Hannon, and Karen Pence. How Much Debt Is Out There? FEDS Notes, August 7, 2015. Accessible at http://www.federalreserve.gov/econresdata/notes/feds-notes/2015/how-much-student-debt-is-out-there-20150807.html

Kelly Woodhouse. (2015, November 25). Discount Much? Inside Higher Ed. Accessible at: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/11/25/what-it-might-mean-when-colleges-discount-rate-tops-60-percent?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=389f6fe14e-DNU20151125&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-389f6fe14e-198565653

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 rates. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution (2015). Accessible at: http://www.brookings.edu/about/projects/bpea/papers/2015/looney-yannelis-student-loan-defaults

Karyne Williams. Federal Reserve Bank of New York Takes On Student Debt Crisis in New Blog Series. Generation Progress, February 27, 2015. Accessible at http://genprogress.org/voices/2015/02/27/35083/federal-reserve-bank-of-new-york-takes-on-student-debt-crisis-in-new-blog-series/





Friday, January 15, 2016

"Oh what a tangled web we weave": The Department of Education's three-year student-loan default rates are deceptive

Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive!

Walter Scott            

Last September, the Department of Education announced three-year default rates for the most recent cohort of student-loan borrowers.  According to DOE, three-year default rates went down dramatically over a two-year period.   The overall student-loan default rate for the FY 2012 cohort of borrowers was 11.8 percent, significantly lower than the FY 2010 cohort default rate, which was 14.7 percent.

Indeed, the for-profit sector saw a spectacular drop in three-year student-loan default rates--from 21.8 percent for the FY 2010 cohort down to 15.8 percent--a 25 percent drop. Amazing!

But of course DOE's three-year default rates are meaningless, particularly for the for-profit schools. The for-profits have kept their three-year student-loan default rates down by aggressively encouraging their former students to obtain economic-hardship deferments, which keep borrowers off the default roles even though they are not making loan payments.

When we look at the 5-year default rate across all sectors, the default rate is twice as high as the three-year rate. Twenty-eight percent of student borrowers defaulted on their loans within five years of beginning repayment, compared to DOE's 11.8 percent three-year rate. In other words, more than one out of four postsecondary students default on their student loans within five years.

In fact, the student-loan default rate and nonpayment rate for the for-profit sector are truly alarming. Forty-seven percent of for-profit students default on their loans within five years.

Although the for-profit sector has the highest default rates, many public colleges also have shocking numbers.  Kevin Carey of the New York Times examined the percentage of students who had paid nothing on the principal of their loans after five years and discovered that the nonpayment rate at several public universities is 20 percent or more: University of Houston, University of Cincinnati, and the University of Louisville among them. At the University of Memphis, Carey reported, 35 percent of former students in a recent cohort had not paid back a dime on their loans five years after entering repayment.

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have very high student-loan nonrepayment rates. "Of the 25 private colleges with the worst nonrepayment rates, 22 are historically black," Carey wrote. Lane College, a HBCU located in Tennessee, had a five-year student nonrepayment rate of 78.2 percent.

No one who contemplates these numbers can reach any other conclusion other than this: the federal student-loan program is a catastrophe. And, although millions of people have improved their lives by borrowing money to obtain postsecondary education, millions more have been ruined.

Who has been hurt the most by the federal student loan program?

  • Students who attended for-profit institutions, where almost half of former students default on their student loans;
  • Students who attended HBCUS, which have very high student-loan default rates;
  • People who borrowed money to get law degrees or MBA degrees from second- and third-tier institutions;
  • People who obtained liberal arts degrees from high-priced private institutions and who acquired no skills that will enable them to get a decent job;
  • People who started postsecondary programs and didn't finish them.

The media has reported widely that Americans are carrying $1.3 trillion in outstanding student-loan debt. But this underestimates the reality. This number does not include accumulated interest, loans from private banks, and credit-card debt that students run up while they are in college. Accumulated indebtedness associated with postsecondary education  is at least $1.5 trillion.

That's $1.5 trillion dollars in debt carried by just16 percent of the American adult population--the 16 percent least able to bear the burden. And because the consequences of default are so draconian, this significant percentage of Americans is greatly suffering.

And what is the higher education community's solution to this calamity? Long-term income-based repayment plans that will keep borrowers indebted for the majority of their working lives!

If the federal government had devised a plan to intentionally destroy higher education, shrink the middle class and cripple our economy, it could not have invented a better plan than this.

References

Kevin Carey. Student Debt Is Worse Than You Think. New York Times, October 7, 2015. Accessible at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/08/upshot/student-debt-is-worse-than-you-think.html?_r=1

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
loan defaults. Brookings Institution, September 15, 2015. Accessible at: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/projects/bpea/fall-2015_embargoed/conferencedraft_looneyyannelis_studentloandefaults.pdf



Tuesday, September 29, 2015

NY Times Urges "Speedy Help for Victims of College Fraud," but the Times Does Not Go Nearly Far Enough

Let's give the New York Times credit: it is on the right side of the argument regarding the federal student loan program. The Times editorializes repeatedly about the plight of people who cannot pay back their college loans. The newspaper has published several fine news articles about individuals who are overwhelmed by student-loan debt. And again and again, the Times editorial writers demand action by the federal government to bring relief to desperate student-loan borrowers.

Unfortunately, the Times does not grasp this simple fact: True relief for student-loan debtors will require radical action, far more radical than the Times is willing to contemplate.

Last Sunday, a Times editorial addressed the issue of fraud in the for-profit college sector. As the Times pointed out, "The federal government's decades-long failure to curb predatory behavior in the for-profit college industry has left untold numbers of Americans with crushing debt while providing useless degrees--or no degrees at all--in return."

The Times then went on to praise the Obama administration for creating new oversight rules for the  for-profit college industry. And the Times expressed approval of the Department of Education's decision to forgive the student-loan indebtedness of some individuals who attended Corinthian Colleges (about 3,000 people so far).

But, as the Times pointed out, DOE has yet to grant relief  to any of the 4,000 people who claim they were defrauded by Corinthian and have asked to have their student-loans forgiven.

The Times expressed the fear that DOE's "legendary bureaucracy will drag its feet and make it difficult for deserving plaintiffs to get relief." And the Times ended its rather tepid editorial by stating vaguely that "the department needs to do a much better job of reaching out to people who have potential [fraud] claims."

The Times editorial is on the right track; obviously DOE needs to speed up the process of reviewing fraud claims by students who attended for-profit colleges. But I don't think the Times recognizes the enormity of the student-loan problem in the for-profit college sector.

A recent study by the Brookings Institution reported that there are almost 1.2 million people who attended the University of Phoenix who have more than $35 billion in outstanding student loans.  According to the Brookings study, 45 percent of a recent cohort of former University of Phoenix students defaulted on their loans within five years.

More alarmingly, for the for-profit sector as a whole, nearly three quarters of students who attended for-profit schools  (74 percent) owed more than they originally borrowed two years after beginning repayment (for the 2009 cohort).  And nearly half the students who attended for-profit schools (47 percent) defaulted within five years of beginning repayment.

And Brookings default data did not take into account the fact that many former students have obtained economic-hardship deferments and are not making their student-loan payments. Those people are not counted as defaulters even though they are not paying down their loans.

For-profit colleges are encouraging their former students to  sign up for economic-hardship deferments as a strategy for keeping their institutional default rates down. Tragically, most of the people who obtain economic-hardship deferments receive only phantom relief because the interest continues to accrue on their unpaid debt. When those economic-hardship deferments come to an end, the people who held them will find that the principal of their loans went up during the deferment period.

IN SHORT, IT IS INDISPUTABLE THAT HALF OF THE PEOPLE WHO TOOK OUT STUDENT LOANS TO ATTEND FOR-PROFIT COLLEGES WILL DEFAULT AT SOME POINT IN THE LOAN REPAYMENT PERIOD. In other words, about half of the federal student-aid money flowing into for-profit colleges will never  be paid back.

If the Times grasped the magnitude of the student-loan crisis in the for-profit college sector it would surely recommend more aggressive action by the Feds.  What is needed is not a more streamlined fraud review process (as the Times recommended), but something close to blanket amnesty for at least half of the people who borrowed money to attend for-profit colleges.

Put another way, DOE needs to craft a secular version of Pope Francis's "Year of Mercy," whereby millions of people who attended for-profit colleges can have their loans forgiven with little or no red tape.

Obviously some case-by-case review needs to occur to make sure student loans aren't forgiven for students who got good value from attending for-profit colleges and can afford to pay back their loans. But--based on the default rates--a majority of the people who attended for-profit colleges should have their loans forgiven.

What is the best process for sorting through this mess? Bankruptcy. Student-loan defaulters who attended for-profit institutions should have their loans forgiven by bankruptcy courts without the necessity of adversary hearings. If a bankruptcy court concludes that a student-loan debtor is insolvent, that person's loans should be forgiven unless the government can show fraud or bad faith.

But the burden should be on the government to show that an insolvent student-loan debtor who attended a for-profit college is not entitled to bankruptcy relief--not on the debtor.

Obviously, I have painted an ugly picture: massive student-loan forgiveness and default on billions and billions of dollars in student-loan debt. But most of the defaulters who attended for-profit colleges will never pay their loans back,  whether or not their loans are forgiven.

It is time to wipe the slate clean. The for-profit college industry should be shut down and the people who were injured by it deserve a fresh start.  We can take action now or we can take action later. But eventually, the federal government will have to face facts: the for-profit colleges are a rogue industry and have ruined the economic prospects of millions of people.

References

Kelly Field, "U.S. Has Forgiven Loans of More Than 3,000 Ex-Corinthian Students, Chronicle of Higher Education, September 3, 2015. Accessible at: http://chronicle.com/article/US-Has-Forgiven-Loans-of/232855/?cid=pm&utm_source=pm&utm_medium=en

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 rates. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution (2015). Accessible at: http://www.brookings.edu/about/projects/bpea/papers/2015/looney-yannelis-student-loan-defaults

Tamar Lewin, "Government to Forgive Student Loans at Corinthian Colleges," New York Times, June 8, 2015. Accessible at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/09/education/us-to-forgive-federal-loans-of-corinthian-college-students.html?_r=0

Speedy Help for Victims of College Fraud. New York Times, September 27, 2015, Times Review Section, p. 10.



Monday, September 21, 2015

The deluge is upon us: University of Phoenix students owe the taxpayers $35 billion; and 45 percent default within five years

Earlier this month, the Brookings Institution published a report on student-loan default rates; and some of its findings are truly shocking.  The report ranked institutions based on their students' total accumulated outstanding loans. University of Phoenix, a for-profit college company, ranked number 1; almost 1.2 million University of Phoenix students have racked up more than $35 billion in outstanding student-loan obligations.

And ponder this: 45 percent of the students in the University of Phoenix's 2009 cohort defaulted on their student loans within five years  
(Looney & Yannelis, 2015, table 5).

Image result for "university of phoenix" images

Brookings' researchers also reported that about three quarters of students (74 percent) who attended for-profit schools owed more than they originally borrowed two years after beginning repayment (for the 2009 cohort).  And nearly half of students who attended for-profit schools (47 percent) defaulted within five years of beginning repayment.

These are astonishing figures. And when we consider that a lot of former students who attended for-profit schools are enrolled in economic-hardship deferment programs and are not making loan payments, this sobering fact seems indisputable: more than half of the people who borrow money to attend for-profit colleges eventually default on their loans.

The Brookings Institution argues that the nation's high student-loan default rate can mostly be attributed to students who are "non-traditional borrowers," which it defines as students who attended for-profit colleges or two-year schools. Among all students who began repayment on their loans in 2011 and defaulted by 2013, 70 percent were nontraditional borrowers.

Loaning money for students to attend for-profit schools is irresponsible.

Based on these numbers, even a child can conclude that the federal government should not be loaning money to students who enroll in for-profit programs because taxpayers are going to get less than half of it back.  And--what is far worse--a lot of minority students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds will have student-loan debt hanging around their necks for the rest of their lives.  For these students, attending a for-profit school did not improve their lives; attending a for-profit school made their lives worse. 

Arne Duncan's Department of Education knows that the for-profit college sector is out of control, and it is made some efforts to provide student-loan debtors a little relief. For example, DOE granted loan forgiveness to about 3,000 students who attended one of Corinthian Colleges' campuses after Corinthian went bankrupt earlier this year. But there are more than 300,000 former Corinthian students.

Reasonable bankruptcy relief is the only humane remedy for non-profit students who default on their loans.

I do not think Congress or the Department of Education will ever shut off the federal-loan spigot to the for-profit colleges. This industry has protected itself with lobbyists, attorneys, and strategic campaign contributions.  Year after year, misguided students will continue to enroll at for-profit schools, and at least half will eventually default.

But  in the name of common decency, can't we at least give student-loan defaulters, who are suffering by the millions, some effective relief?  Do we have to make it so difficult for student-loan defaulters to file for bankruptcy and get a fresh start? Do we really want to force them into 25-year repayment plans, basically turning them into economic serfs for the balance of their working lives?

References

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 rates. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution (2015). Accessible at: http://www.brookings.edu/about/projects/bpea/papers/2015/looney-yannelis-student-loan-defaults