Thursday, October 18, 2018

Thomas Jefferson Law School won't admit new students next spring: Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for the legal profession

Thomas Jefferson School of Law (TJ) announced it will not admit new students to enroll this spring. Why?

Linda Keller, Thomas Jefferson's new dean, gave this explanation (which was probably drafted by a public relations person):
The Law School is committed to providing the best environment for our students. We've decided to forego the revenue that a spring entering class would provide because a proportionally smaller spring entering class might not provide the vibrant, collaborative atmosphere for our new students that is an essential part of the first-year law student experience.
My cynical interpretation of this cheery blather is that Thomas Jefferson didn't recruit enough students to make up a decent cohort for spring 2019. Indeed, TJ's student enrollment dropped from more than 400 in 2010 to less than 300 in 2017.

Thomas Jefferson School of Law should close--period. By almost any measure, the school is not producing lawyers who can find decent jobs in the legal profession. According to Law School Transparency, which reports important metrics for law schools, TJ's 2017 graduating class had an employment rate of only 21.3 percent. Graduates' under-employment rate was 42.3 percent.

Not a single 2017 graduate got a judicial clerkship, jobs that go to the most able law graduates. And none went to work for large law firms,  which generally pay the highest salaries.

And most shocking of all, TJ's 2014 entering class had a 2017 bar passage rate of only 26.5 percent! That's right, only a little more than one in four of TJ's 2017 graduates passed the bar.

Why do students enroll in a law school with such a dismal record? Is it cheaper than more prestigious schools? No, it is not. The non-discounted cost to get a law degree from Thomas Jefferson is $280,000! That's right, it costs more than a quarter of a million dollars to get a law degree from Thomas Jefferson, and only one out of four 2017 graduates passed the bar.

This country has too many law schools. There simply are not enough jobs for the newly minted attorneys coming out of the nation's lawyer factories. The American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, has done a poor job and allowed too many schools to operate. Based on their bar passage rates and poor job-placement rates, at least 20 schools should be shut down immediately.

Some of Thomas Jefferson's graduates sued the school awhile back for fraud, but TJ beat the wrap. But enrollment is dropping, bar pass rates are awful, and the time has come for TJ to close its doors.

Thomas Jefferson School of Law


References

Scott Jaschik. Thomas Jefferson Law Won't Admit Students for Spring. Inside Higher Ed, October 18, 2018.

Staci Zaretsky. Struggling Law School Will Not Accept New Students This Spring. Above the Law, October 17, 2018.

Staci Zaretsky. Verdict Reached in the Alaburda v. Thomas Jefferson Landmark Case Over Fraudulent Employment Statistics. Abovethelaw.com, March 24, 2016.




Thursday, October 11, 2018

FedLoan Servicing is accused of fraud. What did the Department of Education know about how FedLoan treated student debtors in the PSLF program?

As Alan White reported in Credit Slip yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education assigned the complex task of monitoring the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program to its worst-performing student-loan servicer--FedLoan Servicing (Fedloan).  In 2017, DOE ranked FedLoan last among 9 student-loan servicers "based on delinquency rates and customer satisfaction survey results."

PSLF, created by Congress in 2007, is a federal program designed to make it easier for student-loan borrowers in public service jobs to pay off their loans. And it is a very big program. Almost 1.2 million people have applied to have their student loans certified for PSLF participation; and 890,000 borrowers have been approved so far.

PSLF borrowers are entitled to have their student loans forgiven after 120 on-time loan payments. The first PSLF participants became eligible for debt relief in September of last year. As of last month, 28,000 borrowers had applied for debt relief, but DOE had approved less than 100.

What's going on?

According to a federal lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania earlier this year, FedLoan has fraudulently administered the PSLF program to enrich itself at the expense of student borrowers (paragraphs 80-91). Plaintiffs in the suit claim FedLoan penalized borrowers who made extra payments by posting all subsequent payments as being paid late. Since late payments don't qualify toward the 120 on-time payments, student debtors who made extra payments in good faith actually increased the number of months they would have to make loan payments. Since FedLoan gets a service fee for managing student loans, the longer a borrower makes payments, the more money FedLoan earns in fees.

In addition, FedLoan reputedly made bookkeeping errors while administering the PSLF program; and when borrowers tried to straighten out these mistakes, FedLoan put their loans into forbearance. Student debtors whose loans are in forbearance do not get credit for loan payments they make, and this practice also extended the time borrowers are obligated to make student-loan payments.

Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit allege FedLoan engaged in these activities to increase its revenues. And indeed, FedLoan is making a bundle of money in the debt collection business. According to the plaintiffs' complaint (paragraph 33), FedLoan earned net revenues of more than $220 million in 2014 and owns assets worth $700 million!

But here is a question the Pennsylvania plaintiffs did not ask: Why did DOE permit FedLoan to allegedly defraud student debtors?

After all, DOE must have known something was wrong based on the sheer volume of complaints that student borrowers were filing against FedLoan. All DOE would had to have done to bring FedLoan into line was write a letter telling it not to interpret the PSLF program in a way that harms PSLF participants.

I think DOE intentionally allowed FedLoan to operate the PSLF program so unfairly because DOE knows the PSLF program will cost the government billions if every PSLF applicant gets the debt relief the program promises. In other words, DOE knew exactly how FedLoan would behave if it got the PSLF servicing project, and that's why DOE chose FedLoan.

I hope a federal court ultimately finds FedLoan liable for defrauding PSLF participants. And if it does, then DOE should be named as a co-conspirator in a scandalous fraud.

References

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. Watchdog agency blasts government contractor for mishandling student loan forgiveness program. Washington Post, June 27, 2017.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Department of Education slow rolls the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program: Like a drunk weaving through traffic

For many years, the Department of Education has managed the federal student-loan program like a drunk creeping through heavy traffic. It has stumbled, reeled, dissembled, weaved and bobbed, but always avoided a head-on collision with reality.

But that time is over. Under Betsy DeVos's colossal mismanagement (and her predecessors), DOE has messed up the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), thereby telegraphing to 44 million student-loan borrowers that Betsy Devos is either fiendishly devious or spectacularly incompetent.

The PSLF program is not complicated.  Under federal law, student-loan borrowers who work for a qualified employer (governmental agency or non-profit) and make 120 student-loan payments under an approved repayment plan are eligible to have remaining student-loan debt cancelled. (It's a little more complicated than that, but not much.)

Almost 1.2 million borrowers have applied to have their employment certified for PSLF eligibility. More than a quarter million applications were denied. That alone is a startling fact.

But it gets worse. About 28,000 people who are in the PSLF program (or at least believe they are in it) applied to have their student loans forgiven based on their representation that they had made the 120 required student-loan payments. How many people have obtained debt relief so far? Less than 100!

What are we to make of this gigantic snarl?

First, DOE has made the PSLF program needlessly complicated. After all, the government only needs to answer two questions to determine who is eligible for debt relief. Did the applicant work for an approved employer for 10 years? Did the applicant make 120 one-time payments on his or her student loans?

Second, the PSLF program was poorly designed, and DeVos's DOE has reached the startling realization that the program is astonishingly expensive.  In my opinion, DOE is dragging its feet about processing PSLF claims to postpone the reckoning day, when it will have to publicly admit that PSLF is going to cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report almost two years ago that concluded DOE had underestimated the cost of various student-loan repayment options. I'm guessing DOE did not figure on the huge debt loads some PSLF applicants were accumulating from going to graduate school: MBA degrees, medical degrees, law degrees, etc.

According to GAO, the average amount of forgiven debt for the first 55 people who received student-loan forgiveness is almost $58,000. If  this average continues to hold, and all 890,000 people whose loans and employment were certified eventually get debt relief, the cost will be $50 billion! Meanwhile, DOE can expect PSLF requests for certification and debt relief to continue being filed into the indefinite future.

No wonder DOE is slow rolling the PSLF loan-forgiveness process.



 References

Stacy Cowley. 28,000 Public Servants Sought Student Loan Forgiveness. 96 Got It. New York Times, September 27, 2018.



Sunday, September 30, 2018

Sue Reagan v. Educational Credit Management Corporation: "A camel whose back is already broken"

Sue Reagan is 60-years old and lives in a mobile home on rented land. She has a part-time job but lives near or below the poverty line. She took out student loans to obtain a bachelor's degree in administration of justice and a master's degree in criminology, but that was long ago.

Unable to pay back her student loans under a standard ten-year repayment plan, Reagan signed up for an income-based repayment plan (IBRP). Her income is so low, however--$1,286 a month--that her monthly payments are zero dollars.

Reagan filed for bankruptcy and brought an adversary action to discharge her student loans. She argued that her student loans constituted an undue hardship and that she could not maintain a minimal standard of living and pay back those loans.

Educational Credit Management Corporation, her creditor, filed a motion for summary judgment and asked the bankruptcy court to dismiss Reagan's case without a trial.  ECMC argued that since Reagan's monthly payments were zero dollars, she could not reasonably argue that her student loans constituted an undue hardship or that her loans forced her below a minimal standard of living.

But Bankruptcy Judge Gregory Taddonio disagreed with ECMC and refused to dismiss Reagan's case. In Judge Taddonio's view, it did not matter which debt drove Reagan to the edge of poverty. "If she finds herself financially underwater, the question of which obligation pushed her below the surface matters little. To a camel whose back is already broken, any straw in his pack is unwelcome."

Judge Taddonio looked at Reagan's financial information and noted that her expenses were $119 more than her income, which was less than $1,300 a month. Moreover, her expenses were reasonable--mostly going for basic necessities. Judge Taddonio said he could not identify any expenses that could be trimmed.

So Judge Taddonio allowed Sue Reagan's adversary proceeding to go forward. Will she ultimately prevail?

Who knows? ECMC's motion to dismiss was merely the first of many arguments ECMC will make to defeat Reagan's attempt to shed her student loans. And ECMC has unlimited resources. It can hound Reagan for years right up to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

But Reagan's initial victory is heartening, a sign perhaps that the federal bankruptcy judges have begun to acknowledge that the federal student loan program has destroyed the lives of millions of people, most of whom deserve bankruptcy relief.

Monday, September 24, 2018

College students spend more time working than attending classes but they're still forced to take out student loans

Many years ago, when I was a first-year law student at University of Texas, Professor Robert Hamilton, my law instructor, told our class of first-year students not to work while in law school. Working part-time, Professor Hamilton said, would distract us from our studies and degrade the quality of our law-school experience.

I remember thinking that was good advice for people from wealthy families, but it wouldn't work for me. I began working 20 hours a week at the Texas Attorney General's Office just as soon a finished my first year of classes; and I also got a work-study job at the law school.

In those hoary old days, students could actually work their way through college and even law school. My law-school tuition was only $1,000 a year, and by working part time, I graduated from law school with no debt.

Today, students are still working while in college, but their part-time jobs don't begin to cover the cost of tuition. Thus, even working students take out loans.

According to a recent HSBC report, 85 percent of current college students are working part-time jobs. In fact, they spend far more time working than attending classes or studying. On average, students work 4.5 hours a day, almost twice as much time as they spend in classes.

But those part-time jobs working as waiters, pizza cooks, rental-car agents, etc. hardly cover basic living expenses--food, shelter, cell phone, car insurances, etc. And so most students are borrowing to pay tuition. In 2017, college graduates finished their studies owing an average of almost $40,000. And that doesn't include credit card debt, averaging about $4,000.

A perception still exists that going to college and professional school is a time of awakening intellect when students develop personal and vocational identities sitting at the feet of wise and learned scholars. But that time is long gone--if it ever existed.

Today, students are stressed out by their college experience. Six out of ten report feeling anxious about financial concerns either frequently or all the time. And women report more financial anxiety than men.

Going to college now is like running a gauntlet between rows of vicious bureaucrats and money lenders trying to beat the student down. Some people survive the experience relatively unscathed and go one to get jobs that allow them to pay back modest of amounts of student debt.

But a growing number of young people finish their post-secondary studies worse off than before they first enrolled. They borrow far too much money and graduate with no skills and no idea what they want to do for a living. In some instances, students' parents get sucked into the maw of college debt, taking out Parent PLUS loans they can't pay back.

Indebted college graduates who don't find good jobs are often forced to obtain economic hardship deferments on their student loans, excusing them from making payments while the interest accrues. Others get pushed into 20- and 25-year repayment plans that are structured so that their debt keeps growing even if they faithfully make their monthly payments. And about one million people a year simply default on their loans--essentially committing financial suicide.

The higher education flacks say over and over that a college education is a ticket to a good job and a middle class lifestyle.  And for some people that's true. But its not true for everybody.

For millions of people, their college experience is nothing but a scam, and this is disproportionately true for women, minorities, and people from low-income families.

Going to college is like running the gauntlet




Friday, September 21, 2018

Department of Education's New Report on Student-Loan Casualties: A Dr. Strangelove Moment

You remember that great scene from the movie Dr. Strangelove.  U.S. President Muffley (played by Peter Sellers) worries about the consequences of nuclear war with Russia. "You're talking about mass murder," President Muffley muses.

But General Turgidson (played by George C. Scott) is not concerned. "I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops."

Betsy DeVos is our modern day General Turgidson. The student loan program is shattering the lives of about 20 million Americans.  But in DeVos' mind, that's a small price to pay for a program that enriches her buddies in the for-profit college industry.

And so without further ado, I will summarize the Department of Education's most recent report on the student-loan debacle.

Income-Driven Repayment Plans. As DOE reports, more and more distressed student borrowers are being herded into income-driven repayment plans (IDRPs). As of June, 7.1 million people are enrolled in IDRPs, a 20 percent increase from just a year ago.

Student borrowers in IDRPs are America's new serfs. They pay a percentage of their income for 20 or 25 years to repay the student loans they took on to attend some raggedy-ass college that didn't prepare them for a job.

Of course, IDRP monthly payments are generally low. In fact, IDRP participants who live below the poverty line make monthly payments of zero. But virtually everyone in these plans--7.1 million suckers--will die without ever paying back their loans. In fact, for most of them, their loan balances are going up with each passing month due to unpaid accruing interest.

Borrower Defense to Repayment. According to DOE, 166,000 student borrowers filed so-called "borrower defense" claims. These claimants are seeking loan forgiveness on the grounds they were defrauded by the colleges they attended. Thousands of these claims were filed by people who attended just two for-profit institutions that went bankrupt: Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech.

As of June 30, two thirds of these claims are still pending, and only 80 percent of the processed claims were approved.  Meanwhile, borrowers who have pending claims are still obligated to make their monthly loan payments.

Delinquency Rates. Delinquency rates are down slightly, DOE assures us, but almost a quarter million borrowers defaulted on their student loans during the third quarter of this year.  That's 2755 people going into default every day.  A high percentage of these defaulters attended for-profit colleges. But apparently those casualties are acceptable to Betsy DeVos.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

Hundreds of thousands of student debtors have taken jobs in the public sector in belief that their student loans would be forgiven after 10 years under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF). It now seems they were deluded.

PSLF was enacted by Congress in October 2007, so the first people entitled to PSLF relief became eligible in October 2017. So far, 28,000 people have applied for PSLF relief, but only 300 claims have been approved and only 96 people have actually had their loans forgiven!

If Betsy DeVos and her gang of former for-profit-college hacks continue to refuse to implement PSLF in good faith, hundreds of thousands of college borrowers who relied on PSLF will suffer incalculable hardship.  For example, thousands of people have graduated from third- and fourth-tier law schools with six-figure debt, and they can't find law jobs in the private sector that pay enough to service their student-loan obligations. As Paul Campos pointed out in his book Don't Go to Law School (Unless), PSLF is these people's only viable option for paying off their law-school loans.

Conclusion: The Student Loan Program is in Fine Shape: "10 to 20 Million Casualties, Tops!"

DOE's own data shows us that the federal student loan program is a disaster: high default rates, income-driven repayment plans that don't allow people to pay off their loans,  borrower-defense rules that DOE administers incompetently, and a PSLF program that DOE refuses to implement in good faith. Meanwhile, the for-profit gang is getting rich.

Literally, there are at least 20 million casualties. Betsy DeVos must think 20 million casualties is acceptable, but I do not. Why don't our  politicians--Republicans and Democrats-- begin to behave like grownups and impeach Betsy DeVos, who is running DOE like a character in Dr. Strangelove.

10 to 20 million casualties--tops!

Friday, September 14, 2018

ECMC screws up: Couldn't prove Mr. Rowe owed on his daughter's student loan

Educational Credit Management Corporation [ECMC]  is the Department of Education's premier student-loan debt collector.

ECMC has appeared in literally hundreds of student-loan bankruptcy cases, and it knows all the legal tricks for defeating a student-loan borrower's efforts to discharge student loans in bankruptcy. And most of the time ECMC wins its cases.

But not always.

 Last June, Judge Catherine Furay, a Wisconsin bankruptcy judge, ruled in favor of Thomas Rowe, who sought to discharge a student loan he said he didn't owe. ECMC claimed Rowe signed a student loan on behalf of his daughter. Rowe said he didn't sign the loan and that any signature appearing on the loan document must be a forgery.

Rowe declared bankruptcy and filed an adversary proceeding to discharge the student loan ECMC claimed he owed. A trial date was set, but neither Rowe nor ECMC filed the disputed loan document with the court.

Judge Furay ordered the parties to file briefs on the burden of proof and concluded the burden was on ECMC to prove Rowe owed on the student loan. Since ECMC did not produce the loan document, Judge Furay discharged the debt.

What the hell happened?

How could ECMC,, the most sophisticated student-loan debt collector in the entire United States, not produce the primary document showing Rowe had taken out a student loan?

I can think of only two plausible explanations. First, ECMC may have had the loan document in its possession but didn't produce it because the document would show Rowe was right-- he hadn't signed the loan agreement.

Second, the loan document may have gotten lost as ownership of the underlying debt passed from one financial agency to another.

Here is the lesson I take away from the Rowe case. If you are a student-loan debtor being pursued by the U.S. Department of Education or one of  DOE's debt collectors, demand to see the documents showing you owe on the student loan.

 Most times, the creditor will have the loan document, but not always.  And, as Judge Furay ruled, the burden is on the creditor to show a loan is owed.

And so I extend my hearty congratulations to Thomas Rowe, who defeated ECMC, the most ruthless student-loan debt collector in the business. Thanks to Judge Furay's decision, Mr. Rowe can tell ECMC to go suck an egg.

References

Rowe v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, No. 17-0033-cf ( Bankr. W.D. Wis. June 28, 2018) (unpublished).