Showing posts with label garnishing Social Security checks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label garnishing Social Security checks. Show all posts

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and John Kennedy (R-LA): Can these two lead a bipartisan effort for student-loan reform?

Congress is more divided along partisan lines than any time since Representative Preston Brooks caned Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate back in 1856.  No major legislation gets passed with bipartisan support, and Republicans and Democrats seem content to be obstructionists rather than try to do something useful.

Is there no public issue on which Republicans and Democrats can agree? I think there is.

More than 40 million Americans have outstanding student loans, and at least 20 million  can't pay them back.  Last year, 1.1 million college borrowers defaulted on their loans--that's an average rate of 3,000 people a day. People who borrowed to attend for-profit colleges have suffered the most. Nearly half of these hapless souls default within five years of beginning repayment. Among African Americans, the pain is even worse. Three fourths of African Americans who took out student loans to attend for-profit schools eventually default.

Big problems require big solutions. As I have said before, the student loan crisis will not abate until for-profit colleges are kicked out of the federal student-loan program and distressed student debtors are allowed to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy.  But these two fixes are politically impossible right now.

But Congress could approve smaller measures of relief  if our elected representatives would just work together. For example:
  • Congress could pass a law barring the federal government from garnishing Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Claire McCaskill introduced a bill along these lines but it has gotten nowhere.
  • All student loans should be refinanced at current, low interest rates, something Hillary Clinton endorsed during the 2016 presidential campaign. 
  • Our tax code needs to be amended to make clear that people who complete income-based repayment programs are not taxed when the remaining balance on their loans is forgiven. Representatives Mark Pocan and Frederica Wilson (both Democrats) introduced a bill to accomplish this reform but it has not become law. 
Who in Congress--Republican or Democrat--could disagree with these reforms? Even our most Neanderthal representatives could not look their constituents in the eye if they voted against any of these proposals.

If this is so, how can Congress kick-start bipartisan student-loan relief?  Here is a feasible scenario: Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, could contact Senators Warren and McCaskill and offer to co-sponsor their bill to stop the government from garnishing Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters.

Why do I nominate Senator Kennedy for this bipartisan overture? Because Kennedy has shown a commendable reluctance to follow the Republican party line on important policy issues. For example, he was one of only two Senate Republicans to vote against a law that allows financial institutions to force their customers to sign mandatory arbitration agreements.

If Senator Kennedy were to come on board for the Warren-McCaskill bill, other Republican Senators might also signal their support.  Once this bill received some publicity, I predict the Warren-McCaskill-Kennedy bill would be adopted into law without a single dissenting vote in either the House or the Senate.

After this small victory, Republicans and Democrats could join together to provide further relief to suffering college borrowers: lowering interest rates on current student loans, imposing restraints on the government's rapacious debt collectors, revising the tax laws so that participants in income-driven repayment plans aren't taxed on forgiven loan balances.

All these reforms are feasible; indeed they might all pass through Congress with little or no opposition. Some broad-minded legislator just needs to reach across the aisle to get the ball rolling.  Senator Kennedy,  please make that call to Senator Warren and assure her you will support the Warren-McCaskill bill.


Representative Preston Brooks canes Senator Charles Sumner, May 22, 1856
References

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. The disturbing trend of people losing Social Security benefits to student debt. Washington Post, December 20, 2016.

James Gill. John Kennedy is quickly becoming 'Senator No' when facing Donald Trump.
Baton Rouge Advocate, December 3, 2017.

Anne Gearan and Abby Phillip. Clinton to propose 3-month hiatus for repayment of  student loansWashington Post, July 5, 2016.

Melanie Lockert. Surprise! Here's When You'll Owe Taxes on Student Loan Forgiveness (and When You Won't). studentloanhero.com (blog), February 27, 2017.

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

Sunday, November 19, 2017

House of Representatives taxes graduate students' tuition waivers: Kicking 'em while they are down

A tax bill passed the House of Representatives a few days ago, and Republican congresspeople went out of their way to show contempt for America's postsecondary students. The House bill treats tuition waivers as income, which means that American graduate students who receive these waivers will get big tax bills in the years to come if the bill becomes law in its present form.

 A great many graduate students get tuition waivers as compensation for the work they do for the universities where they pursue their studies.Some graduate students work as classroom teachers and researchers; and in return for their services the universities waive tuition. Many Americans would not be able to pursue graduate degrees if it were not for these tax-free waivers. After all, tuition at prestigious private universities is about $50,000 a year.

Under current tax law, tuition waivers are not taxable; and if the law changes, thousands of graduate students will suffer. As Erin Rousseau explained in a New York Times op ed essay, taxing tuition waivers "would make meeting living expenses nearly impossible, barring all but the wealthiest students from pursuing a Ph.D." Undoubtedly, this new tax burden would force graduate students to take out even more student loans, and many may do the math and decide that it doesn't make economic sense to get a graduate degree.

And this is not the only kick in the ribs that House Republicans delivered to American students. The House bill also eliminates the student-loan interest deduction, which allows middle-income student borrowers to get a modest tax break while they are paying off their student loans.

Millions of Americans are already suffering from staggering levels of student-loan debt; and the House bill only adds to their burdens. Instead of making life harder for students, Congress should pass legislation that will relieve some of their distress.  For example:

  • Congress should pass a law barring the government from garnishing the Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters.
  • The tax code needs to be amended so that student borrowers on income-driven repayment plans don't get tax bills for forgiven debt when their long-term repayment plans are complete.
  • Student-loan debt collectors should be brought under control and some limit should be placed on the amount of fees and penalties that can be assessed against debtors who default on their loans.
But Congress isn't doing anything to ease the suffering of student borrowers. Instead, the House of Representatives passed a bill to raise their taxes!

Congress should be careful.  Forty-four million Americans are weighed down by student-loans. That's a big voting block if students ever get together.



References

Rousseau, Erin. The House Just Voted to Bankrupt Graduate Students. New York Times, November 16, 2017.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Betsy DeVos should resign as Education Secretary and Trump should replace her with a junkyard dog

Betsy DeVos should resign as Secretary of Education in the Trump administration. I say this for two reasons:

First, Ms. DeVos is too nice a person to be President Trump's Secretary of Education.


No matter what you think of her politics or her education philosophy Betsy DeVos is not a toxic person. She did not deserve to be shut out of a public school, as District of Columbia protesters tried to do shortly after she took office.

And she did not deserve to have students boo her and turn their backs on her when she spoke at a college graduation exercise this spring. If I were her, I would tell the whole wide world to stick the Secretary of Education's position where the sun doesn't shine and go home to Michigan and spend time with my grandchildren.

Second. Betsy DeVos knows next to nothing about higher education policy.

The federal student loan program is in meltdown, destroying the lives of millions of people and undermining the integrity of higher education. Numerous small private liberal arts colleges are on the verge of closing; law schools are admitting students of a lower and lower quality, and huge swaths of the for-profit college industry are defrauding their students--or, at the very least, they are gouging their customers. The federal student loan program bears a big share of the blame for this dismal state of affairs.

Betsy DeVos knows next to nothing about the student loan crisis. She has shown no capacity to deal with this enormous problem, and she has already made a number of missteps. For example, she hired some empty suits from the for-profit sector to advise her--the wrong move, in my opinion.

Trump needs to hire a junkyard dog to run the Department of Education

President Trump needs to gracefully accept DeVos' resignation, praise her extravagantly in a tweet message, and then appoint a junkyard dog to replace her.

By junkyard dog, I don't mean a vicious person or an unethical person; I mean a tough person.  The next Education Secretary needs to be tough enough to confront the for-profit college industry, tough enough to handle higher education's legions of lobbyists, and tough enough to get rid of the student loan guaranty agencies that have amassed billions of dollars in cash hounding distressed student loan debtors.

The next Secretary of Education needs to be tough enough to tell the public the truth about the student loan crisis, which is this: Millions of people have taken out student loans they will never pay back.

What a junkyard dog do if  appointed Education Secretary?


  • First, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's 2013 report, A Closer Look at the Trillion, needs to be updated. How many people have defaulted on their loans, and how many are delinquent? How many are not making payments because their loans are in deferment or forbearance? How many are in income-driven repayment plans (IDRs) and making monthly payments so low that their payments don't cover accruing interest?
  • Second, the new Secretary should endorse the Democrats' bill to protect student loan defaulters from having their Social Security checks garnished.  This is a small matter in terms of the overall student loan crisis, but symbolically, such a move would signal that the Trump administration is not completely heartless.
  • Third, the Education Secretary should cancel the performance bonus program for DOE's student-loan bureaucrats. James Runcie, Chief Operating Officer for the student loan program, received $430,000 in bonuses--an outrage. The new Secretary of Education should fire everyone who got a performance bonus.
  • Fourth, the DOE Secretary needs to streamline the process whereby students who file administrative claims based on the closed-school rule or the so-called borrower defense can have their claims resolved quickly.
  • Fifth, DOE's junkyard dog should dismantle all the student loan guaranty agencies, starting with Educational Credit Management Corporation. While the termination process is taking place, DOE should stop paying the agencies' attorney fees to hound suffering student borrowers in the bankruptcy courts.
  • Sixth, the Secretary of Education, as junkyard dog, should revise Lynn Mahaffie's 2015 letter outlining when DOE will not oppose bankruptcy discharge of student loans to clarify to the federal courts that DOE supports a bankruptcy discharge of student loans under the same terms that apply to other unsecured consumer debt.
Obviously, any Secretary of Education who attempts to carry out the agenda I outlined will need to be tough as a junkyard dog. Betsy DeVos is not a junkyard dog, and I mean that as a compliment to her.


The next Secretary of Education should be a junkyard dog.
References

Lauren Camera. Protesters Disrupt DeVos School Visit. U.S. News & World Report, February 10, 2017.


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

Erica L. Green. Bethune-Cookman Graduates Greet Betsy DeVos With Turned Backs. New York Times, May 10, 2017.




Saturday, February 18, 2017

Louisiana man gets 10 years in prison for stealing a toolbox from a church: A plea for bipartisan cooperation to promote justice

Michael Duplessis, age 34, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing a toolbox from Holy Rosary Catholic Church in St. Amant, Louisiana. Duplessis was sentenced after he agreed to a plea deal to avoid the possibility of  a life sentence.

A life sentence for stealing a toolbox! How could that be?

Michael Duplessis: Sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing a toolbox from Holy Rosary Church

Apparently, Duplessis is a repeat offender. He had previously been convicted of stealing a cellphone charger from a residence and later a boat battery. Under Louisiana's habitual offender law, Duplessis is a three-time loser and could have been sentenced to life in prison for lifting that toolbox. I imagine the plea bargain looked pretty good to him.

Obviously a law that can send a man to prison for the rest of his life for stealing a cellphone charger, a battery and a toolbox is unjust and inhumane. In fact, Pope Francis has said that life sentences are essentially death sentences.

Surely, reasonable people can work together to repeal such a barbaric statute.

So why aren't Republicans and Democrats working together to do that? In fact there are dozens of unjust laws that could be repealed. As I wrote awhile back, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Claire McCaskill introduced a bill to stop the federal government from garnishing the Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters. Who in Congress could oppose such a bill?

Unfortunately, our elected representatives at the state and national level are so caught up in political warfare that nothing gets done. And the mainstream press has become so obsessed with criticizing President Trump that it has abandoned its traditional role of advocating for justice.

Just today, in my local newspaper, Richard Cohen, a syndicated columnist, published an essay that was nothing more than warmed over criticism of President Trump. In case the public had forgotten, Cohen reminded us that Trump unfairly criticized Senator John McCain and the Hispanic judge who presided over the Trump University litigation. Isn't there something more timely and important that Cohen can write about?

Enough already. Republicans and Democrats should look for problems they can solve together, and the press should resume its traditional roll of publicizing injustices like the one perpetuated on poor Mr. Duplessis. This is how democracy works after all, or how it used to work, before everyone in public life began behaving like children.

References

Richard Cohen. Can't anybody play this game? The Advocate (Baton Rouge), February 17, 2017, p. 5B.

David J. Mitchell. Man gets 10 years in burglary of church. The Advocate (Baton Rouge), February 17, 2016.

Kathy Schiffer, Pope Francis Opposes Capital Punishment; Calls Life Sentences for Violent Criminals "A Hidden Death Penalty." Seasons of Grace blog site, October 23, 2014.











Friday, February 10, 2017

President Trump and the Democrats: Washington DC has become a kindergarten

A few moments ago, I watched a video showing protesters blocking Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos from entering a public school--a school where she was scheduled to attend a meeting with educators. The video clip wasn't long but I saw one guy shouting at her and I saw someone trying to block Secretary DeVos's vehicle as she was being driven away.  You should watch this video.

In only a matter of weeks, Washington DC has turned into a giant kindergarten. I suppose President Trump bears part of the blame. He has a distressing tendency to lash out at his detractors with tweet messages that only give his most unreasonable critics publicity and credibility. I wish he would take the high road and simply ignore his hysterical attackers.

But I blame the Democrats for plunging political discourse to the level of a playschool.  The Democrats behaved like children during the nomination process for President Trump's cabinet choices. Why did they do that, knowing that the President had the votes to get them all confirmed?

It would be hard to choose the chief tantrum thrower, but I give my vote to Senator Elizabeth Warren. She showed a shocking level of immaturity when she insinuated on the floor of the Senate that Jeff Sessions, one of her colleagues, is a racist.

A lot of people are upset about Donald Trump being our President. I understand that. But disappointment is no reason for political leaders to jettison civility in public discourse. What will that accomplish?

Furthermore, I believe there is bipartisan support around solving several important public policy problems. As I have already written, surely everyone from Senator Mitch McConnell to Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi can agree that the government should not be garnishing the Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulter.s  And if I'm right about that, why can't Republicans and Democrats unite around the McCaskill-Warren bill to stop that practice?

Over my lifetime, I have dealt with a lot of people who behaved boorishly toward me, tried to bully me, or behaved deceitfully toward me; and those people upset me. But I learned that I was always better off to retain my dignity and to respond to unprofessional behavior in a reasonable and straightforward manner.

Trump's detractors  seem to think that behaving like kindergarten children is the appropriate way to show their dissatisfaction with the 2016 election results. But they are wrong. If the Democrats don't pull themselves together and begin to behave like grownups, this nation is headed for real trouble--and I don't mean just political trouble.




Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Betsy DeVos is the new Secretary of Education: How About Bipartisan Support for Senator Warren & Senator McCaskill's Bill to Stop Garnishing Social Security Checks of Elderly Student-Loan Defaulters?

Any excuse for a slumber party, right?

Yesterday, Democrats kept the Senate in session all night to register their opposition to Betsy DeVos as the  new Secretary of Education. But Vice President Pence broke the tie vote in the U.S. Senate this morning, and today Betsy DeVos is President Trump's new Secretary of Education.

Senate Democrats bitterly opposed DeVos's nomination, but that battle is over. Now is a good time for Democrats and Secretary DeVos to cooperate on a common objective--an objective that should attract broad bipartisan political support.

So here's what I suggest: relief for elderly student-loan debtors.

Senators Claire McCaskill and Elizabeth Warren supported a bill in 2015 that would stop the federal government from garnishing the Social Security checks of elderly and disabled people who defaulted on their student loans.  The bill got nowhere.

The Senators also asked the Government Accountability Office to prepare a report on elderly Americans with student loan debt, and GAO delivered that report last December. The report was widely covered by the media and contained some fascinating information.
  • First, "[t]here has been a 10-fold increase in the amount of student debt held by people age 65 or older--from $2 billion in 2005 to $22 billion" in 2015  (quoting the Washington Post).
  • The federal government has increased efforts to garnish Social Security check of student-loan defaulters. According to Senator McCaskill's office, "The number of Americans whose Social Security checks are being garnished by the government to recoup defaulted student loans has increased by 540 percent in the last decade to over 114,000 older borrowers."
  • In 2015, 173,000 Americans had their Social Security income offset due to defaulted student loans. This is a dramatic increase from 2002, when the government only applied offsets to 36,000 Social Security recipients (page 11 of GAO report).
  • Some Social Security recipients whose income was offset lived below the federal poverty guideline and others dropped below the poverty level after their Social Security checks were reduced (p. 27 of GAO report). In fact, as Senator Elizabeth Warren emphasized in a recent press release, "Since 2004, the number of seniors whose Social security benefits have been garnished below the poverty line increased from 8,300 to 67,300."
  • More than 7 million people age 50 and older still owe on student loans, and 870,000 people age 65 and older have student loan debtAmong student-loan borrowers age 65 and older, 37 percent are in default (figure 2, page 10 of GAO report).
  • The amount of money the government collects from Social Security offsets is a pittance compared to overall student debt. The government  only collected $171 million from Social Security offsets in 2015, about $1,000 per garnishee.
  • Most of the money collected from Social Security offsets went toward paying fees and accumulated interest.  "Of the approximately $1.1 billion collected through Social Security offsets from fiscal year 2001 through 2015 from borrowers of all ages, about 71 percent was applied to fees and interest" (p. 19 of GAO report).
Surely, Senators McCaskill and Warren can muster bipartisan support for legislation that will stop the federal government from garnishing the Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters. Perhaps they might ask for a couple of Senate Republicans to join as co-sponsors. I suggest Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. Both voted against Ms. Devos' confirmation.

And I'll bet Senators McCaskill and Warren could get Betsy Devos and the Department of Education to endorse the bill. At least they could ask.

Who would oppose such a bill? I don't think anyone would.  What a wonderful message such a law would send to the American people: the message that our elected leaders--Congress and the Executive Branch--can work together to advance the common good.

On the other hand, if Congress and the U.S. Department of Education can't cooperate to get this wholly beneficial legislation adopted, then the political process is indeed broken.




References

Sandy Baum. Student Debt: Rhetoric and Realities of Higher Education Financingg. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2016.

Jordan Carney. Two GOP senators to vote no on Betsy DeVosThe Hill, February 7, 2017.

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. The disturbing trend of losing Social Security benefits to student debt. Wall Street Journal, December 20, 2016.

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

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

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

Monday, January 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

Here's a plausible scenario:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The student loan crisis and the first 100 days: Please, President Trump, provide bankruptcy relief for distressed student-loan debtors

Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, and we can throw her promise of a tuition-free college education in the ashcan. Meanwhile, the student loan crisis grows worse with each passing month.

Eleven million people have either defaulted on their loans or are delinquent in their payments. More than 5 million student-loan debtors are in long-term income based repayment plans that will never lead to loan payoffs.Several million student borrowers have loans in deferment or forbearance while interest continues to accrue on their loan balances.

Soon we will have a new president, and an exciting opportunity to look at the federal student loan program from a fresh perspective. What can President Trump do to bring relief to distressed college-loan debtors. Here are some ideas--respectfully submitted:

FIRST, TREAT THE WOUNDED.

President Trump can do several things quickly to alleviate the suffering.

Stop garnishing Social Security checks of loan defaulters. More than 150,000 elderly student-loan defaulters are seeing their Social Security checks garnished. President Trump could stop that practice on a dime. Admittedly, this would be a very small gesture; the number of garnishees is minuscule compared to the 43 million people who have outstanding student loans. But this symbolic act would signal that our government is not heartless.

Streamline the loan-forgiveness process for people who were defrauded by the for-profit colleges. DOE already has a procedure in place for forgiving student loans taken out by people who were defrauded by a for-profit college, but the administrative process is slow and cumbersome. For example, Corinthian Colleges and ITT both filed for bankruptcy, and many of their former students have valid fraud claims. So far, few of these victims have obtained relief from the Department of Education.

Why not simply forgive the student loans of everyone who took out a federal loan to attend these two institutions and others that closed while under investigation for fraudulent practices?

Force for-profit colleges to delete mandatory arbitration clauses from student enrollment documents. The Obama administration criticized mandatory arbitration clauses, but it didn't eliminate them. President Trump could sign an Executive Order banning all for-profit colleges from putting mandatory arbitration clauses in their student-enrollment documents.

Banning mandatory arbitration clauses would allow fraud victims to sue for-profit colleges and to bring class action suits. And by taking this step, President Trump would only be implementing a policy that President Obama endorsed but didn't get around to implementing.

Abolish unfair penalties and fees. Student borrowers who default on their loans are assessed enormous penalties by the debt collectors--18 percent and even more. President Trump's Department of Education could ban that practice or at least reduce the penalties to a more reasonable amount.

PLEASE PROVIDE REASONABLE BANKRUPTCY RELIEF FOR DISTRESSED STUDENT-LOAN DEBTORS.

The reforms I outlined are minor, although they could be implemented quickly through executive orders or the regulatory process. But the most important reform--reasonable access to the bankruptcy courts--will require a change in the Bankruptcy Code.

Please, President Trump, prevail on Congress to abolish 11 U.S.C. 523(a)(8) from the Bankruptcy Code--the provision that requires student-loan debtors to show undue hardship as a condition for discharging student loans in bankruptcy.

Millions of people borrowed too much money to get a college education, and they can't pay it back. Some were defrauded by for-profit colleges, some chose the wrong academic major, some did not complete their studies, and some paid far too much to get a liberal arts degree from an elite private college. More than a few fell off the economic ladder due to divorce or illness, including mental illness.

Regardless of the reason, most people took out student loans in good faith and millions of people can't pay them back. Surely a fair and humane justice system should allow these distressed debtors  reasonable access to the bankruptcy courts.

President Trump can address this problem in two ways:

  • First, the President could direct the Department of Education and the loan guaranty agencies (the debt collectors) not to oppose bankruptcy relief for honest but unfortunate debtors--and that's most of the people who took out student loans and can't repay them.
  • Second, the President could encourage Congress to repeal the "undue hardship" provision from the Bankruptcy Code.
Critics will say that bankruptcy relief gives deadbeat debtors a free ride, but in fact, most people who defaulted on their loans have suffered enough.from the penalties that have rained down on their heads.

More importantly, our nation's heartless attitude about student-loan default has discouraged millions of Americans and helped drive them out of the economy. President Trump has promised middle-class and working-class Americans an opportunity for a fresh start. Let's make sure that overburdened student-loan debtors get a fresh start too.

References

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

Stephen Burd. Signing Away Rights. Inside Higher Ed, December 17, 2013. Available at https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/12/17/essay-questions-mandatory-arbitration-clauses-students-profit-higher-education

Andrew Kreighbaum, Warren: Education Dept. Failing Corinthian StudentsInside Higher Ed, September 30, 2016. Accessible at https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2016/09/30/warren-education-dept-failing-corinthian-students

Senator Elizabeth Warren to Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., letter dated September 29, 2016. Accessible at https://www.warren.senate.gov/files/documents/2016-9-29_Letter_to_ED_re_Corinthian_data.pdf

Ashley A. Smith. U.S. Urged to Deny Aid to For-Profits That Force Arbitration. Inside Higher Ed, February 24, 2016. Available at: https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2016/02/24/us-urged-deny-aid-profits-force-arbitration?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=183bc9e3a3-DNU20160224&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-183bc9e3a3-198565653

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

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

Monday, April 25, 2016

The student-loan crisis and Presidential politics: Bernie needs to up his game on student loans to attract young votes

Bernie is very popular with young voters. He out polled Hillary by almost 4 to 1 among the twenty-somethings in the New York Democratic primary, and he's done even better with young voters in other primaries. Young people sense almost instinctively that Hillary is just a political hack, and that Bernie has ideas that might really make their lives better.

In fact, Bernie is the only presidential candidate to offer a realistic plan to address the student-loan crisis, which is crushing millions of Americans. Bernie's plan for a free college education at a public college is eminently sensible, and cheaper than what we are doing now, which is to loan $165 billion a year to college students and only get about half of it back.

In contrast, Hillary's student-loan reform plan is to pump an additional $30 billion a year into the nation's bloated and corrupt higher education industry.  That's Hillary's solution to every problem--let's shovel some money at it and make sure the insiders get most of the loot.

And let's not forget that Hillary tweeted young voters last summer, asking them; "How does your student loan debt make you feel? Tell us in 3 emojis or less." Let's see if I can find three profane emojis to send her.

And Cruz is no friend to student-loan debtors. He represented the lender in the famous Espinoza case, in which a bankrupt baggage handler argued that he should only be required to pay back the principal on his debt and should be relieved of the accrued interest.

Espinoza's argument was very reasonable; after all it is the accrued interest and penalties that are crushing most distressed student-loan borrowers--not the amount they actually borrowed. But Cruz's client prevailed before the Supreme Court--a 9 to 0 decision against poor Mr. Espinoza.

So if you are one of 20 million overwhelmed student-loan debtors, Bernie is the only game in town.  Unfortunately, you and I know that Bernie's free-college plan will never be enacted, because too many political interests benefit from the status quo.

But there are other student-loan reforms Bernie could propose that are less ambitious than his free-college plan but which would resonate with young voters.  Here are a few ideas for him:

1) Let's force the for-profit colleges to stop making their students sign arbitration agreements that cut off students' right to sue for fraud.  DOE Secretary John B. King favors regulations to stop colleges from putting arbitration clauses in their student contracts. Bernie could reasonably support King's efforts.

2) The government could require all loan servicers--including Educational Credit Management Corporation and Navient--to disclose the compensation packets for their senior executives and their debt collectors and to disclose on a public web site the amount they pay their lobbyists, the attorneys who hound student-loan debtors, and the recipients of all their campaign contributions.

3) The government could stop garnish Social Security checks of elderly college-loan borrowers who defaulted on their loans. This is a logical extension of the Obama administration's decision to forgive loans of disabled borrowers.

I think if Bernie would add a just couple of additional features to his plan to solve the student-loan crisis, he would see an even bigger surge of support among young voters--maybe enough of a surge to assure a victory in California.

And of course my ideas for appealing to young voters are open to any of the Presidential candidates: Hillary, Cruz, Kasich and Trump could take these ideas and run with them. But Bernie is the only presidential candidate who shows any interest in solving the student -loan crisis.

Ted Cruz: No friend of student-loan debtors

Image result for hillary clinton emoji
How does Hillary's emoji on student loans make you feel?

References

United Student Aid Funds, Inc. v. Espinosa, 130 S.Ct. 1367 (2010).


Saturday, April 4, 2015

President Obama's "Student Bill of Rights" would be laughable if the student-loan crisis weren't so tragic

President Obama recently released what he laughably called his "Student Bill of Rights." The Bill of Rights has just four parts:

I. Every student deserves access to a quality, affordable education at a college that is cutting costs and increasing learning.
II. Every student should be able to access the resources needed to pay for college.
III.Every borrower has the right to an affordable repayment plan.
IV. And every borrower has the right to quality customer service, reliable information, and fair treatment, even if they struggle to repay their loans.
You want this ludicrous, so-called "Bill of Rights" boiled down into a single sentence?President Obama is basically saying everyone has the right to borrow money at a reasonable interest rate to attend college and to be treated courteously by the debt collectors.

This ridiculous document does nothing to rein in college costs or to effectively regulate the for-profit college industry. It does nothing to ease the suffering and hardship of millions of people who have defaulted on their student loans.

What would a real Student Bill of Rights look like?  Something like this:

I. Insolvent people who took out student loans in good faith have the right to have their student loans discharged in bankruptcy.

II. Elderly people who are living entirely off their Social Security income should not have their Social Security checks garnished because they defaulted on a student loan.

III. People should not be required to sign covenants not to sue as a condition for enrolling at a for-profit college.

IV. All colleges and universities that benefit from the federal student-loan program should be subject to an open-records law that would require them to disclose their financial affairs and their decision-making process for admitting students.

V. Student-loan defaulters should not have excessive fees and penalties added to their student-loan debt.

VI. A statute of limitations should apply to all efforts to collect on unpaid student loans. The statute of limitations should be six years, just as it is in most jurisdictions for lawsuits for breach of contract or nonpayment on a debt.

VII. The government and its collection agents should stop trying to force bankrupt debtors into 25-year repayment plans as they did in the Roth case, the Myhre case, and the Lamento case.

VIII. Students who take out loans from private banks and private financial institutions should be able to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy under the same terms that apply for discharging other debts.

But the Obama administration, Congress,  and the higher-education industry don't really want to effectively curb the excesses of the student-loan industry.  They want to tinker around the edges of this huge problem, while the colleges and the debt collectors gorge themselves on student-loan money.

There's good money in student loans.