Saturday, May 11, 2019

Education Secretary Betsy Devos Hires Private Accounting Firm to Audit the Student Loan program: Asking For Bad News

Secretary of Education Betsy Devos hired McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm, to audit the federal student loan program. Why did she do that?

After all, the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office or the Inspector General could have done the job. Why hire a private firm?

I'm thinking Secretary DeVos and the Trump administration realize the federal student-loan program is under water. They know the news is bad, but they want to know just how bad it is. After all, Secretary DeVos compared the program to a looming thunderstorm in a speech she made last November.

It took 42 years, DeVos pointed out, for the federal student-loan portfolio to reach half a trillion dollars (1965 until 2007). It took only 6 years--2007 to 2013--for the portfolio to reach $1 trillion. And in 2018--just five years later--the federal government held $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loans. In fact, uncollateralized student loans now make up 30 percent of all federal assets.

This wouldn't be a problem if student borrowers were paying off their loans. But they're not. As DeVos candidly admitted last November, "only 24 percent of FSA borrowers—one in four—are currently paying down both principal and interest." One in five borrowers are in delinquency or default, and 43 percent of all loans are "in distress" (whatever that means).

Although DeVos did not say so explicitly, she basically acknowledged that we've arrived where we are because the government is cooking the books. Student loans now constitute one third of the federal balance sheet. "Only through government accounting is this student loan portfolio counted as anything but an asset embedded with significant risk" DeVos said. "In the commercial world, no bank regulator would allow this portfolio to be valued at full, face value."

We can hope that McKinsey and Company will give us an accurate accounting. But we already know the news will be catastrophic.  More than 7.4 million people are in income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) that stretch out for 20 and even 25 years. IBRP participants make loan payments based on their income, not the amount they borrowed. Virtually no one in these plans will ever pay off their loans. 

Millions more have their loans in deferment or are prolonging their education to postpone the day they will be obligated to start making loan payments. Thus--as DeVos disclosed--only a quarter of student-loan borrowers are paying back both principal and interest on their loans.

Over the past 15 years or so, presidential administrations have juggled the numbers to postpone the day of reckoning. "After us, the deluge," has been the watchword.  Meanwhile, university presidents are saying nothing about this looming thunderstorm. They hope the deluge won't come until they are drawing their pensions.

The McKinsey report, when it comes, will be a shock to the public consciousness. And there is only one solution. We must admit that the federal student-loan program is totally out of control and allow its victims to discharge their loans in bankruptcy.

Before the deluge: Photo Credit Yale Center for British Art

References

Michelle Hackman, Josh Mitchell, & Lalita Clozel. Trump Administration Hires McKinsey to Evaluate Student-Loan Portfolio. Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2019.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

A Kansas bankruptcy judge grants Vicky Jo Metz a partial discharge of her student loans, and she wins her appeal

Vicky Jo Metz borrowed $16,613 back in the 1990s to attend a community college, but she never got a degree. Over the years, she filed for bankruptcy three times, but she continued making payments on her student loans under court-approved repayment plans. In fact, she paid almost 90 percent of what she originally borrowed.

Nevertheless, Metz's student-loan debt kept growing due to accruing interest. By 2018, her total debt had grown to $67,277--four times what she borrowed. 

In 2017, Metz commenced an adversary proceeding in a Kansas bankruptcy court, seeking to discharge her student loans. Her creditor, Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC), objected to a discharge. Put Metz in an income-based repayment plan (IBRP), ECMC demanded. 

But Bankruptcy Judge Robert Nugent disagreed. Metz, who was 59 years old, would never pay off her student loans under an IBRP, Judge Nugent reasoned. On the contrary, if Metz entered a 25-year IBRP and faithfully made her income-based monthly payments, her debt would continue to grow due to accruing interest. By the time Metz completed her repayment plan, she would owe $157,277—nine times what she borrowed! Although her student-loan debt would be forgiven after 25 years of making payments, Metz would face significant tax liability because the IRS considers forgiven debt as taxable income.

 Judge Nugent granted Metz a partial discharge of her student loans. He canceled all the accrued interest on her student debt but required her to pay the original $16,613.

ECMC appealed Judge Nugent's decision to a federal district court, and Judge John Broomes upheld Judge Nugent's ruling. Like Judge Nugent, Judge Broomes applied the three-part Brunner test to determine whether it would be an undue hardship for Metz to repay her student loans.

In Judge Broomes' view, Metz could not repay her student loans and maintain a minimal standard of living. Thus, she met part one of the Brunner test. Moreover, she met part two of Brunner because her financial situation was not likely to change. Finally, in Judge Broomes’ view, Metz met part three of the Brunner test because she had handled her student loans in good faith.

In its appellant’s brief, ECMC renewed its argument that Metz should be placed in an IBRP and downplayed the tax consequences of such a plan. Metz would probably suffer no tax consequences from an IBRP, ECMC argued, because she would likely be flat broke when her IBRP concluded.  Under current law, ECMC pointed out, individuals pay no federal tax on forgiven debt if they are insolvent at the time the debt is forgiven.

In a footnote, Judge Broome pointed out the absurdity of ECMC’s position “The import of that argument,” Judge Broome wrote, “is that under ECMC’s plan, [Metz] will be kept insolvent, if not entirely impoverished, until she is eighty years old and the debt is forgiven—what a pleasant system.”

Judge Broomes’ Metz decision is the second appellate court decision out of Kansas to uphold a bankruptcy court’s partial discharge of student-loan debt. The first decision, Murray v. ECMC, granted a partial discharge to Alan and Catherine Murray, a married couple in their late forties, whose student-loan debt had quadrupled over 20 years due to accruing interest.

Together, Metz and Murray stand for the proposition that long-term, income-based repayment plans are not appropriate for insolvent student-loan debtors when it is clear that debtors in these plans will never pay off their loans. Had ECMC had its way with Vicky Jo Metz, she would have made monthly student-loan payments for a quarter of a century—until she was in her eighties.  At that point, she would face a huge tax bill for $150,000 in forgiven debt or she would be insolvent. As Judge Broome remarked: What a pleasant system.



References

Educational Credit Management Corporation v. Metz, Case No. 18-1281-JWB (D. Kan. May 2, 2019).

In re Murray, 563 B.R. 52 (Bankr. D. Kan 2016); aff’d sub nom. Educational Credit Management Corporation v. Murray, No 16-2838, 2017 WL 4222980 (D. Kan. Sept. 22, 2017).

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Senator Elizabeth's Student-Loan Forgiveness Plan Isn't Radical: The Feds are Already Forgiving Billions of Dollars in Student Debt

Adam Levitin, writing for Credit Slip, made a profound observation about Senator Elizabeth Warren's proposal to forgive massive amounts of student-loan debt.  Her harsh critics, Levitin, writes, moan and grown about the morality of contracts, the unfairness of allowing some student borrowers to escape their legal obligations, and the enormous cost of forgiving billions of dollars of accumulated student-loan debt.

In Levitin's view, these critics are only demonstrating that they don't know anything about how the federal student-loan program works. If they did, Levitin explains, they would know that "we crossed the debt forgiveness Rubicon long, long ago." In fact, enormous debt forgiveness is already "baked into the federal student loan program."

Levitin is absolutely right. Far less than half of student borrowers who have entered into repayment are paying down the principal of their loans. Millions of student-loan debtors have their loans in deferment, which means they aren't paying anything on their debt. Another 7.5 million borrowers are in income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) with their repayment schedules set so low that their monthly payments don't even cover accruing interest on their loan balances.

And then we have the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), which allows qualified public-service workers to make income-based payments for 10 years, after which their loan balances are forgiven. How many people are in the PSLF  program (or think they are in it)? We don't really know, but well over a million student borrowers have applied to become PSLF eligible.

Even Betsy DeVos, Trump's Secretary of Education, publicly admitted that the student loan program is a mess. As DeVos revealed last November, only one borrower out of four are paying down both principal and interest on their student-loan debt.  Almost one out of five borrowers are delinquent on their loans or in default. And 43 percent of student loans, by DeVos's calculation, are currently "in distress."

As Mr. Levitin succinctly put it:
The only real difference between Senator Warren's proposal and the existing forgiveness  feature in the student loan program is whether the forgiveness comes in a fell swoop or is dribbled out over time. Given the federal government's infinite time horizon, the difference is really just an accounting matter. 
In other words, to baldly state the point, millions of student-loan debtors aren't paying back their loans and never will. Probably half of the $1.56 trillion in outstanding student loans will never be paid back.

Levitin argues that all student borrowers should be enrolled in income-based repayment plans by default when they finish their studies.  But I disagree. Putting every college graduate into a 20- or 25-year repayment plan is basically making these degree recipients indentured servants for the government--bound to pay a percentage of their wages to the Department of Education for a majority of their working lives.  If we do that, we will have basically created a permanent underclass of 21st century sharecroppers.

Moreover, as Levitin correctly points out, there is an enormous psychological benefit to Senator Warren's plan, which grants immediate debt forgiveness rather than dribbling it over over two decades or more in income-based repayment plans. "Consumers feel weighed down by the stock of their debt, even if they won't actually have to repay a large chunk of it." Indeed, it is well established that student-loan debt is preventing Americans from buying homes, having children, or saving for their retirement.

And then there is a rarely discussed problem with  the current debt-forgiveness system: tax liability. People whose loans are forgiven after a quarter century of making income-based payments will get tax bills for the amount of their forgiven debt because the IRS considers forgiven loans as taxable income.  Of course that problem could be easily fixed if Congress would enact legislation making forgiven student-loan debt nontaxable.

But Congress hasn't done that. Why? Because our politicians want to pretend that the federal student loan program isn't broken. It's like that old explanation of the Russian economy during the days of the Soviet Union. "The government pretends to pay us," a proletarian explained, "and we pretend to work."

Student-loan debtors: The new sharecroppers



Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Senator Elizabeth Warren's Proposal to Cancel Student Debt: A Great Idea (Just Needs a Little Tweaking)

Earlier this week, Senator Elizabeth Warren astonished the higher education community (and me in particular) by announcing three bold proposals: 1) free undergraduate education at public universities; 2) massive student-loan forgiveness, and 3) a ban on federal funding for for-profit colleges.

Student-loan debtors all over America should stand up and applaud Senator Warren. She is the first national political figure to call for an end to federal aid for the for-profit colleges. This sleazy racket gets about 90 percent of its revenues from federal student-aid money. If Congress shut off that spigot as Warren proposes, most of them would close in less than 30 days.

The for-profit college industry, with its armies of lawyers and lobbyists, has Congress in its back pocket. They surely understand that Senator Warren's proposal is an existential threat. Watch how this sleazy racket starts shifting resources to sabotage Warren's presidential bid.

On the other hand, Warren's call for free college education is not original. Senator Bernie Sanders promised free college during his 2016 presidential run and Senator Kamala Harris has put free college on her campaign platform. Nevertheless, it's a good idea.

It's Warren's third proposal, however, that is the real stunner. She's calling for massive student-loan debt forgiveness for 95 percent of student borrowers.

Senator Warren's student-loan forgiveness plan is a little complicated and has some limitations. she wants to forgive up to $50,000 in student-loan debt but would reduce this benefit for high-income families.  But her basic idea is sound. Why?

First of all, millions of Americans will never pay back their student loans whether Warren's proposal is implemented or not, so we might as well forgive the debt. Almost 8 million people are in income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) that allow them to make monthly payments based on their income and not how much they owe.  For most of these people (almost all of them actually), their loan payments are so small that they don't cover accruing interest.  For people in IBRPs, their debt grows larger each month as interest accrues. They will never pay back the amount they borrowed.

Several million more student-loan borrowers have their loans in deferment while the interest accrues and capitalizes on their original debt. Most of those folks will never repay their loans.

Finally, there is a good argument that forgiving all this student debt--$1.56 trillion--would boost the economy. Unburdened by debt they will never repay, millions of Americans will be able to rejoin the middle class--buy houses and cars, have children, save for retirement.  Indeed, a study by researchers at Bard College's Levy Institute makes that very argument.

Conservatives recoiled in horror at Warren's proposal to forgive student debt, spewing a lot of blather about the sacred nature of contract obligations, the unfairness to people who paid off their student loans, etc.

But in my view, Warren's student-loan forgiveness proposal does not go far enough. Millions of student-loan debtors are entitled to student-loan forgiveness with no $50,000 cap. And millions of parents have co-signed student loans or taken out Parent PLUS loans, and they also are entitled to relief.

So I propose a few tweaks to Senator Warren's brave proposal:

First, all Parent Plus loans should be forgiven immediately for any family with household income under $200,000. And all parents and relatives who cosigned private student loans should be relieved of any legal obligation to repay that debt.

Secondly, instead of instituting a loan-forgiveness plan, I propose that distressed student-debtors be allowed to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy as proposed in Representative John Katko's recently filed bill. People who took out student loans to go to law school and then got rich as corporate lawyers should pay back their loans. But people who otherwise qualify for bankruptcy relief should be able to discharge their student loans like any other consumer debt.

But let's not quibble about the details. Senator Warren's call for free college and student-loan forgiveness are basically good ideas. And her call for shutting off federal aid to the for-profit colleges is stunningly brave.

In my view, it is time to stop heckling Senator Warren about Cherokee-Gate. She is a serious presidential candidate who has made bold and thoughtful policy proposals. Americans should listen to what she has to say about the student-loan crisis because--let's face reality--a lot of student-loan debt will never be paid back.

References

Elizabeth Warren. I'm calling for something truly transformational: Universal free public college and cancellation of student loan debt. Medium, April 22, 2019.

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

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Dicent v. Kaplan University: An unhappy student sues a for-profit university, but the Third Circuit forces her to arbitrate her claims

Maria Dicent enrolled in an online legal studies program at Kaplan University in 2014. She did not have a good experience. In 2017, she sued Kaplan in a federal court, accusing the for-profit university of making false claims and disseminating false advertisements.

According to Ms. Dicent, Kaplan lured her into enrolling in Kaplan's online program by using deceptive tactics. She said she had not been informed that she would need 180 hours to graduate, far more hours than a typical four-year degree program requires and that she had not been able to keep her eBooks, which she apparently paid to use. She also said Kaplan's financial aid office retaliated against her because she refused to allow her photo to be used to promote Kaplan.

Unfortunately for Ms. Dicent. she signed an arbitration agreement when she enrolled at Kaplan back in 2014. In that agreement, Dicent promised not to sue Kaplan and to arbitrate any claims she might have against the for-profit. She also agreed to waive her right to a jury trial.

Based on the arbitration agreement, a federal trial court threw out Dicent's suit and ordered her to arbitrate her clam. Dicent, who pursued her case without a lawyer, then appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which sided with the trial court.

Dicent argued on appeal that she was not aware of the arbitration agreement, but the Third Circuit did not buy her argument. A clearly labeled Arbitration Agreement was included in Dicent's enrollment packet, the court noted; and Dicent admitted having signed the packet with an e-signature.

Dicent v. Kaplan University is an unfortunate decision. The Obama administration recognized that for-profit colleges were using arbitration agreements to prevent students from suing them for fraud or other misconduct. Obama's Department of Education adopted a regulation forbidding the for-profits from forcing their students to sign arbitration agreements.

 Betsy DeVos, President Trump's Secretary of Education, scuttled the Obama ruled shortly after taking office, but a federal court ordered her to implement it. In light of that ruling, Secretary DeVos released new guidance to the for-profit colleges, instructing them to drop enforcement of mandatory arbitration agreements.

In recent years, a few courts have invalidated arbitration agreements on various grounds. Some courts have labeled them adhesion contracts--agreements which a stronger party forces a weaker party to sign on unfavorable terms. Other courts have looked at the inherent unfairness in some of these agreements. For example, a California court refused to enforce an arbitration agreement that required California students to arbitrate their disputes against a medical-training school in Indiana.

Poor Ms. Dicent. Acting without an attorney, she was probably unaware of the legal arguments that can be made against arbitration agreements that for-profit colleges require students to sign as a condition of enrollment. She may not have known that the Obama administration recognized these agreements for what they are--a shyster tactic to protect for-profit colleges from being sued for fraud.

I feel quite certain that Ms. Dicent was telling the truth when she said she did not know about the mandatory arbitration agreement until Kaplan submitted it in district court. Almost all students sign long, turgid documents as a condition of enrollment, and most of them sign without reading. What would be the point? When students enroll at a for-profit college, they are enrolling on the college's terms, and they realize they have no power to negotiate.

What is so bad about arbitration agreements? First of all, the complaining party is usually required to pay half the arbitrator's fees, so arbitration may be more expensive for the student than a lawsuit. Second, arbitration agreements often bar students from banding together to file class actions suits, which is virtually the only way students can obtain justice against the well-funded for-profits with their battalions of lawyers.

Finally, it is well known that arbitration generally favors the corporate party. That is why banks, financial-services institutions, and for-profit colleges force their customers to sign them. The arbitrators know they will see a defrauded student only once, but they will see the corporate party again and again. If they get a reputation for siding with the underdog, the corporations won't choose them to arbitrate their disputes.

The for-profits know they will repeatedly be accused of defrauding their students. The best way to deal with this constant threat is to get the students to promise not to sue before allowing them to enroll. Then when students get defrauded--as many of them will--there will be damn little they can do about it.


References

Dicent v. Kaplan University, Civil Action No. 3:17-cv-01488 (M.D. Pa. June 15, 2018), aff,d No-18-2982 (3d Cir. Jan. 3, 2019).

Dicent v. Kaplan University, WL 158083, No-18-2982 (3d Cir. Jan. 3, 2019) (unpublished opinion).

Kreighbaum, Andrew (2019, March 18).  DeVos Tells Colleges to Drop Arbitration Agreements, Inside Higher Ed.


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

More than a thousand college campuses closed over the past five years: The for-profit scourge

Earlier this month, Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 1,200 college campuses have closed over the last five years, displacing nearly half a million students. As Chronicle reporters Michael Vasquez and Dan Bauman explained, most of these campuses were operated by for-profit colleges, which often have campuses in multiple locations.

For example,Vatterot College, Education Corporation of America, and Dream Center Education Holdings closed their doors during the last six months, and together these colleges operated 126 campuses.

As the Chronicle article pointed out, college closures can be traumatic events for students, who are forced to interrupt their studies and search for replacement colleges. Low-income and minority students are disproportionately affected. Seventy percent of the students who attended the closed institutions received Pell Grant aid, and 57 percent are black or Hispanic.

Betsy DeVos's Department of Education is doing everything it can to prop up the venal for-profit college industry, and yet this sleazy sector continues to be under stress. The for-profits are facing increased competition from public universities, which are rolling out their own online degree programs and encroaching on the for-profit colleges' target population. Arizona State University and Purdue University, both public institutions, now have big online footprints.

In addition, more and more Americans have figured out that a degree from a for-profit college almost always costs more than a comparable degree from a public institution and rarely leads to a good job. No wonder the student-loan default rate among for-profit-college students is so high. More than half of the students who borrow money to attend a for-profit college default within 12 years after beginning repayment--four times the default rate of students who attended community colleges.

It is regrettable that so many for-profit college students are having their lives disrupted by the closure of their institutions, but these shutdowns are a blessing in disguise.  Some students will transfer to low-cost community colleges, which will allow them to take out smaller student loans or avoid student loans altogether.  Those that transfer to public institutions are likely to  have more rewarding educational experiences than they were getting at these dodgy for-profit outfits.

In short, it may seem shocking that so many for-profit colleges are closing, but it is undoubtedly a good thing. In spite of everything that Trump's Department of Education has done to aid the for-profit college racket, this industry is in trouble. The for-profit colleges are a blight on American higher education. Let us look forward to the day when they are extinct.


Friday, April 12, 2019

Democrats are "woke" about Public Service Loan Forgiveness: Senators Kaine and Gillibrand file legislation to overhaul PSLF

The Trump Administration hates the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF). Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007, PSLF allows student-loan debtors who work in public-service jobs to have their student loans forgiven if they make 120 student-loan payments in a qualified repayment plan.

The first PSLF participants to have accumulated 120 student-loan payments became eligible for debt relief in 2017--10 years after the program was introduced. As has been widely reported, the Department of Education approved less than 1 percent of the applications for PSLF forgiveness that it had processed as of  September 2018.  In fact, DOE said 70 percent of the applicants were not eligible for PSLF participation.

So far, over one million student-loan borrowers have applied to DOE to have their employment certified as PSLF eligible, and millions more are counting on PSLF for debt relief but haven't applied yet. It's a mess.

And it is especially a mess for people who borrowed $100,000 or more to get a law degree or other graduate degree. According to the American Bar Association, the average debt load for people who attended a private law school is $122,000. For many of the people who accumulated six-figure student-loan debt to finance their graduate studies, PSLF is the only viable option for debt relief.

Betsy DeVos, Trump's Secretary of Education, apparently does not care that her agency has frightened or angered millions of people who are counting on PSLF to manage their student loans. According to a news report, a senior DOE official said that DOE does not support PSLF and would not implement it if it were not legally obligated to do so.

But the Democrats are "woke" about this problem. This week, Senators Tim Kaine and Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a bill to overhaul the PSLF program. Thirteen Democratic senators signed on as co-sponsors, including all the U.S. Senators running for President (Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker).

The Kaine-Gillibrand proposal defines eligible public-service organizations broadly to include all federal, state, and local government agencies and all charitable organizations that qualify  for tax-exempt status under 501(c)(3) of the tax code. As Jason Delisle pointed out in a 2016 analysis of PSLF, that definition applies to one quarter of the American workforce.

In fact, the bill's definition of public service differs markedly from the one developed by DeVos's DOE. DOE defines a public service organization as one that is primarily involved in public service,thus excluding organizations like the American Bar Association, which is primarily devoted to serving the legal profession, although it engages in some public service work.

The Kaine-Gillibrand bill also specifies that all student-loan debtors qualify for PSLF, regardless of the federal loan program or repayment plan they are in. This provision also expands eligibility for PSLF participation far beyond what the DeVos DOE permits.

I support passage of the Kaine-Gillibrand bill, and I hope it is enacted by Congress. But we should not deceive ourselves about the cost of PSLF. Thousands of people seeking debt relief under PSLF owe $100,000 or more. Most of these people are making income-based monthly payments on their loans that are not large enough to cover accruing interest. Their debt load is increasing month by month as accrued interest gets capitalized and added to their loan balances. If these people's student-loan debts are forgiven after 10 years, the government will essentially be forgiving the entire amount that was borrowed plus a lot more due to the accrued interest that will also be forgiven.

Remember Josh Mitchell's story in Wall Street Journal about Mike Meru, who borrowed $400,000 to go to dental school? Dr. Meru is making payments of about $2,000 a month in an income-based repayment plan, but his debt has grown to $1 million due to accrued interest. If Meru gets a qualified public-service job and holds it for ten years, DOE will forgive the entire $1 million plus additional interest!

This is a huge problem, and the Kaine-Gillibrand bill won't solve it. Under the GRAD Plus program, graduate students can borrow the total cost of their graduate education--tuition, books, and living expenses--no matter what the cost. It is not surprising then that graduate-school tuition prices went up dramatically after the GRAD Plus program was enacted.

If the bill becomes law, the Kaine-Gillibrand proposal will give relief to millions of student-loan borrowers. But the bill is just a stop-gap measure. As I have said, the only solution to the student-loan crisis is bankruptcy relief for honest debtors who can't pay back their student loans.  More than 45 million Americans have outstanding student loans. I think most of them would vote for a presidential candidate who endorses bankruptcy relief for distressed student-loan debtors.