Friday, May 30, 2014

Transparency--The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel: New York University's Abu Dhabi Construction Scandal

Patriotism, Samuel Johnson remarked, is the last refuge of a scoundrel. But times have changed. Today,self-proclaimed "transparency" is the last refuge of the scoundrel--or at least of scoundrel universities.

Earlier this month, the New York Times broke the story of labor abuses during the construction of New York University's Abu Dhabi campus.  According to the Times, construction workers were required to pay hiring bonuses to get jobs, forced to work long overtime hours in order to obtain the wages they were promised, and crammed into substandard housing--sometimes 15 workers to a room.  Immigrant workers' passports were confiscated, and striking workers were arrested and beaten.

Transparency--the queen of virtues
New York University apologized immediately after the scandal broke, probably pulling a template apology from its public relations department files.  But it never took responsibility for what occurred.  In fact, NYU President John Sexton tried to distance the university from the scandal by claiming that the construction company, not NYU, was responsible for working conditions during the Abu Dhabi construction.

A few days later, NYU held its first graduation ceremony on its Abu Dhabi campus, and Bill Clinton showed up to give the commencement address.  Did he reproach NYU for the labor scandal? No he did not.

This is what Clinton said:
When this story came out, instead of going into immediate denial, the university did something which reflects the values you have been taught here . . . The university, and the government, promised to look into the charges, to do it quickly, to do it honestly and, most importantly, among all the world's skeptics, to do it transparently and if the charges were well founded, to take appropriate, remedial action promptly.
Ah, transparency!  The new queen of virtues.

But then, only a couple of days later, the New York Times reported that the construction company that built NYU's Abu Dhabi campus and apparently abused its construction workers, is run by Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarark, a member of NYU's boad of trustees!

So NYU President John Sexton was not being transparent when he suggested that NYU was not directly involved in the Abu Dhabi construction project.  In fact, the construction company's chief executive was sitting on NYU's board.

This is not the first time NYU has been caught being less than transparent. Remember when Senator Charles Grassley tried to get NYU documents pertaining to the low-interest loans it was giving favored administrators? NYU employees finally let Senator Grassley's staffers look at some pertinent documents but they would not permit any documents to be copied or allow Grassley's people to keep any documents for further review.

Some transparency!  Let's face it--New York University, which pays President John Sexton an obscene salary and has a board of trustees packed with Wall Street insiders, is about as transparent as a Louisiana crawfish pond.

Which is fine.  Let NYU run itself any way it chooses.  If it wants to pay its president $1.5 million a year, dispense exit bonuses to guys like Jacob Lew, and give low-interest loans to help insiders buy second homes--I say go right ahead.  But let's kick this renegade institution out of the Federal Student Loan program.


Clinton Lauds N.Y.U. Graduates, and Inquiry, in Speech. New York Times, May 25, 2014.

Ariel Kaminer.  N.Y.U. Impeding Compensation Inquiry, Senator Says. New York Times, July 10,2013.  Accessible at:

Andrew Ross Sorkin. N.Y.U. Crisis in Abu Dhabi Stretches to Wall Street. New York Times, May 26, 2014.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Obama's College Rating System: Why Do Something Simple and Effective When You Can Do Something Complicated and Futile?

President Obama Wants to Institute a College-Rating System to Help Bring Down the Cost of Higher Education. Is This a Good Idea?

President Obama wants to create a college-rating system to help prospective students make better choices about where to attend college.  Obama's proposed rating system will consider a number of factors--cost of tuition, graduates' average debt load,  post-graduate earnings, etc.--which will all be weighed with the goal of identifying which colleges provide the best value for students' tuition dollars.

University of Houston's Renu Khator: This woman needs a performance bonus!
According to a New York Times story, Obama's proposed rating system would not rank institutions numerically. Rather, colleges and universities would be given grades like "excellent," "good," "fair," or "poor."

Not surprisingly, many higher education leaders are opposed to President Obama's initiative. Most of them want nothing to do with a college-rating system designed by the U.S. Department of Education.  The New York Times quoted the reaction of several university presidents to Obama's college-rating proposal, who described it  variously as  "clueless," simplistic, and "wrongheaded."

Personally, I have no sympathy for the college presidents on this issue.  Colleges and universities have been jacking up tuition for years at twice the annual rate of inflation, and Americans have wracked up more than $1.2 trillion in outstanding college-loan debt. I commend President Obama for trying to reverse this trend.

But will a complicated, federally designed college-rating system do anything to stop the upward spiral of rising college costs? I doubt it. 

In a way, Obama's college-rating initiative is like the Clery Act, which Congress passed in 1990 to give parents and prospective students more information about crime activity in and around the nation's colleges and universities.  The Clery Act requires higher education institutions to collect and publicly report on various categories of crime in their campus communities.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that the Clery Act has had much impact on college students' awareness of campus crime.  One study reported that only 10 percent of students considered campus crime statistics when making decisions about where to attend college.

Two authors who surveyed research and commentary on the Clery Act concluded: "It is clear that students remain unaware of the [Clery] Act"  and do not use the information contained in their institutions' annual campus crime reports (Gregory & Janosik, 2002, p. 46). It seems likely that more students choose their universities based on varsity-football rankings than on the crime statistics that higher education institutions are required by federal law to compile and publicize.

Why Not Attack College Costs and Rising Student Indebtedness Head On?

To his credit, President Obama recognizes that soaring tuition costs and rising student indebtedness have reached crisis proportions. As Cecilia Munoz, one of Obama's top advisers put it, "This is a system which perpetuates itself, and is moving in a direction which is unsustainable to the American people." 

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that  President Obama's federal college-rating system will have any significant impact on rising college costs and rising student indebtedness. On the contrary, Obama's initiative will probably increase administrative costs at colleges and universities because they will be required to hire more bureaucrats to deal with the college-rating regulations.

Shut down the for-profit college industry. Instead of dealing with rising college costs and student indebtedness indirectly, why not tackle the problem head on? For example, we know that for-profit colleges have the highest tuition rates, the highest student-loan default rates and the highest dropout rates of any sector of the higher education industry.  Moreover, although they enroll only about 11 percent of all post-secondary students, they soak up a quarter of all the federal student-aid money.

Why not simply kick the for-profit colleges out of the federal student loan program altogether? The money saved--more than $30 billion annually--could be directed to public community colleges, which can offer post-secondary education at a far more reasonable price.

Shut down the private student-loan industry. We also know that rising tuition is made possible in part by a thriving private student-loan business.  Professional schools in particular could not set tuition rates at their current high levels if it were not for the fact that students have access to a private student-loan market to pay their tuition bills.

Why not shut down the private student-loan industry?  And how could that be done? Simply by repealing the 2005 revision to the U.S. Bankruptcy Code that makes private student loans almost impossible to discharge in bankruptcy.  If the banks knew that insolvent student-loan debtors could discharge their loans in bankruptcy as easily as they could discharge other unsecured loans, the private-loan industry would shut down almost overnight.

Force colleges and universities to cap tuition and executive compensation as a condition of participating in the federal student loan program.  Finally, all colleges and universities should be required to cap tuition, fees, and executive compensation at current levels as a condition of participating in the federal student loan program.

The value of capping college tuition and fees should be obvious. Telling colleges they must freeze tuition and fees at current levels in order to receive federal student-aid money would force higher education to immediately rein in costs.

And capping executive compensation is also important Let's face it, many college and university presidents make obscene amounts of money and their total compensation packages are often not publicly disclosed.  No institution participating in the federal student loan program should be allowed to do what New York University has done--give low-interest loans to favored employees to buy second homes or pay its president a "length of service" bonus of $2.5 million.

No institution that receives federal student aid money should do what the University of Houston did, which was to pay its Chancellor, Renu Khator, a salary of $700,000 a year plus an additional $200,000 a year in deferred compensation along with a $100,000 a year retention bonus and a contingent bonus of $50,000 a year dependent on performance. 

Don't you think that's ridiculous?  Chancellor Khator makes a million dollars a year in total compensation (plus free housing), and then she gets an additional $50,000 incentive for superior performance? So what's Ms. Khator telling the University of Houston? I'll do a pretty good job for a million bucks a year, but for an additional $50 grand performance bonus, I'll do a super job!

These three actions--shutting down the for-profit college industry, shutting down the private student-loan business, and forcing colleges and universities to cap tuition and executive compensation--would help stop the spiral of rising college costs and growing student indebtedness. All three actions would be simple to implement and all would have an immediate effect on the cost of higher education.

On the other hand, President Obama's proposed federal college-rating system will do absolutely nothing to rein in the cost of higher education or reverse the trend of rising student-loan indebtedness. The time for tinkering with this problem is over.  Only drastic action will restore fiscal sanity to American higher education.


Dennis E. Gregory & Steven M. Janosik. The Clery Act: How Effective Is It? Perceptions From the Field--The Current State of the Research and Recommendations for Improvement. Stetson Law Review, 32, 7-58 (2002).

Renee C. Lee. UH gives Khator big bucks to stay. Houston Chronicle, December 21, 2012. Available at:

Michael D. Shear. Colleges Rattled as Obama Presses Rating System. New York Times, May 26, 2014, p. 1.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Don't Mess With the Man: Occupy Wall Street Activist Cecily McMillan Gets Three Months In Jail

I lived in Alaska for nine years, a state that takes its wildlife very seriously.  If you were accused of bank robbery or murder, you could expect justice.  But heaven help you if you shot a moose out of season!

Cecily McMillan
America's elitist colleges have a similar scheme of skewed values. Our elitist institutions encourage students to focus on trivial issues.  When Dartmouth students took over the college president's office to demand gender-neutral bathrooms, Dartmouth treated them with utmost respect. Likewise, our elitist colleges are happy to entertain bizarre student demands to put warning labels on great works of literature.  Warning! The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn contains racist language!

Why do colleges put up with such mindless student antics? Because they don't want students to start thinking about true injustices: the cost of tuition, the out-of-control student loan program, the economic injustice perpetrated by the corporate banks and our federal financial policies.

No--when students protest about important things, the authorities come down hard. Remember the Occupy Wall Street protesters at UC Davis awhile back?  UC Davis police pepper-sprayed students sitting passively on a sidewalk.  Don't mess with Wall Street!

And Cecily McMillan, a graduate student at the New School, was recently sentenced to three months in jail for allegedly assaulting a police officer during an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in New York City.  Ms. McMillan denied the charge, saying that she was only defending herself against a police officer who grabbed her breast. Personally, I think her only crime was to challenge the economic order in an Occupy Wall Street demonstration.  She should have barricaded herself in a college president's office demanding an end to "abilityism."  The college president would probably have served her coffee!

Cecily McMillan

Yes, college presidents and professors will talk with students for hours about the rights of transgender students to go to the bathroom, whether the college endowment fund should divest itself of coal-company stocks, or whether warning labels should be placed on The Great Gatsby. But don't ask them about bloated tuition costs, excessive executive-compensation packages, or the ties between academia and the finance industry.  If you ask difficult questions, you are liable to get pepper sprayed.


James C. McKinley Jr. Despite Calls for Release, Activist in Occupy Case Gets Three Months. New York Times, May 20, 2014.

Jennifer Medina. Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm. New York Times, May 18, 2014. p. 1.

NYU's Abu Dhabi Labor Scandal: President John Sexton Should Compensate Exploited Workers From His Own Funds

Yesterday's New York Times reported on New York University's labor scandal in connection with the construction of its new campus at Abu Dhabi.  According to the Times, construction workers, who were largely recruited from East Asia, were crammed into overcrowded living quarters, deprived of their passports, and required to work overtime in order to achieve the wages they had been promised.

Photo credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times       
If the Times report is correct, workers were not paid in accordance with NYU's "statement of labor values, "  which it issued as an explicit assurance that the Abu Dhabi campus would be constructed under fair labor standards. NYU responded to the Times story with a stock apology, but it made no promise to make things right. 

But an apology is not enough. NYU, which has one of the most highly-paid presidents in the country and which charges its students more than $60,000 a year for tuition, room and board, should tap its own resources to compensate workers who were exploited during the construction of NYU's Abu Dhabi campus.

Or better yet, President Sexton should dig into his own pockets to compensate the wronged construction workers.  He is due to get a $2.5 million "length of service" bonus next year, which he really does not need.  After all, President Sexton will receive $800,000 annually for the rest of his life when he retires from NYU.  And he is currently being paid more than $1 million a month to be NYU's CEO.

If President Sexton's $2.5 million bonus were divided among the 6,000 construction workers who were employed on the Abu Dhabi project, each worker would receive a little more than $400.  Four hundred dollars doesn't seem like much to  most Americans, but it represents about a month's wages to the Abu Dhabi construction workers. 

Having President Sexton help pay to make things right seems fair to me.  The construction of NYU's Abu Dhabi campus was an act of hubris and pride on President Sexton's part.  Giving up his extravagant bonus to help right the wrongs in Abu Dhabi would be a humble gesture, and  a touch of humility would do John Sexton good.


Ariel Kaminer. N.Y.U. Apologizes to Any Workers Mistreated on Its Abu Dhabi Campus. New York Times, May 20, 2014, p A16.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Abu Dhabi Scandal: New York University Should Be Kicked Out of the Federal Student Loan Program

Today's New York Times carried a front-page story about New York University's recently constructed campus in Abu Dhabi.  According to the Times, the campus was built by immigrant laborers who worked under harsh conditions for salaries of as little as $272 a month.

Photo credit: NYU Photo Bureau


New York University pledged that the Abu Dhabi campus would be built by construction workers who would work under humane conditions and receive fair wages; but apparently that did not happen.  As many as 15 workers lived in tiny rooms, and apparently they were not paid the wages that had been promised to them.  When workers went on strike, the police were called in; and some of the workers were beaten.

New York University is a private institution with extremely high tuition--about $64,000 a year for tuition, room and board.  NYU students graduate with some of the highest student-loan debt levels in the country.  In 2010, NYU students graduated with a total of $659 million in student loans. That's right--nearly two-thirds of a billion!

Nevertheless, John Sexton, NYU's president, is compensated at an obscene level; and the university operates as if it should be answerable to nobody. And when I say obscene--I mean obscene.  President Sexton makes almost $1.5 million per year and is guaranteed a "length of service" bonus of $2.5 million.  When he retires--supposedly in 2016--he will receive annual retirement income of $800,000 a year.  Oh yeah--and he also get an apartment near Washington Square.

Here are a few other recent stories of unseemly behavior by this behemoth institution.
  •  According to a recent news story, the university provides a luxury apartment for scholar Henry Louis Gates at below-market rent. Professor Gates is not even employed by NYU; he works at Harvard.
  • NYU paid Jacob Lew, now Secretary of the Treasury, an exit bonus of several hundred thousand dollars when Lew left NYU to go to work in private industry.
  • NYU gave President Sexton and other favored faculty members low interest loans to purchase second homes. For example, a former law school dean and his wife used a NYU loan to buy a 65-acre estate in Connecticut. 
NYU has the right to operate as it wishes and to disregard its many critics.  The governing board has paid no attention to a vote of no confidence in Sexton's leadership that the Arts & Science faculty issued in 2013.

But does NYU deserve to participate in the Federal student loan program, which is financed by American taxpayers, when it shows so little regard to financial propriety?

I don't think so.  If it wants to pay its president more than $1 million a year and start a high-profile campus in the Middle East, let it do so.  But NYU should not benefit from a federal student loan program that was intended to provide broader access to higher education--not subsidize a lavish and unseemly enterprise.


Jake Flanagin. The Expensive Romance of NYU. Atlantic, August 13, 2013. Available at:

Ariel Kaminer &  Alain Delaquieriere. N.Y.U. Gives Its Stars Loans for Summer Homes. New York Times, June 17,2013.

Ariel Kaminer & Sean O'Driscoll. Worker's at N.Y.U.'s Abu Dhabi Site Face Harsh Conditions. New York Times, May 19, 2014, p. 1.

Abby Ohlheiser. John Sexton will officially leave NYU in 2016. The Wire, August 14, 2013. Available at:

Bruce Wright, Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates Gets Unreal Housing Perks from NYU., May 17, 2014. Available at:

Friday, May 16, 2014

"Be sure To drink your Ovaltine": Inside Higher Ed partners with a Inceptia, a "debt prevention" company, to produce a tepid booklet of bromides on the student loan crisis

"Be sure to drink your Ovaltine"
Remember the Olvatine scene from the movie The Christmas Story? Ralphie Parker, an avid fan of the Little Orphan Annie radio program, writes to the program's sponsor and asks for a "Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring."

When the  "Little Orphan Annie" program comes on the air, Ralphie anxiously uses the ring to decode Little Orphan Annie's secret message to  radio listeners. Ralphie thinks the message might have something to do with one of Little Orphan Annie's adventures.

But he is wrong.  When he finishes decoding the message, the disillusioned Ralphie finds that it just an advertisement for the program's sponsor. "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine."

"A crummy commercial?" Ralphie wails. "Son of a bitch!"

I felt a bit like Ralphie when I looked at the online collection of Inside Higher Ed articles that Inside Higher Ed produced recently on the future of student loans.  I was expecting some hard hitting pieces on the student loan crisis. But what I found was a booklet of tepid pieces that was produced in partnership with Inceptia, a nonprofit company that cryptically describes itself as a "leader in default prevention and financial education solutions."

What does Inceptia do to prevent student loan defaults? I'm not sure, but I'll bet its activities include contacting students who are at risk of default and encouraging them to sign up for economic hardship deferments. Senator Tom Harkin's committee report on the for-profit loan industry pointed out that putting at-risk students into economic hardship deferments is good for the colleges because those students will not be counted as people who default on their loans within three years of beginning repayment--even though they are not making payments on their loans. And if those students officially default after DOE's three-year default measurement period expires--who cares? 

Inceptia is a unit of the National Student Loan Program (formerly the Nebraska Student Loan Program), which is located in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Randy Heesacker, Inceptia's CEO, is well paid.  I couldn't find out his current income, but I found the Nebraska Student Loan Program's 2011 federal tax return.  According to that tax filing, Heesacker received total compensation of $378,457 when he was CEO of the Nebraska Student Loan Program (including bonuses and deferred compensation).

Does that sound like an extravagant salary for a non-profit oranization's employee?  Don't worry.  The Nebraska Student Loan Program's tax return assured the IRS that "[o]utside legal counsel undertakes a comprehensive evaluation of the compensation and benefit packages for officers and other affected employees of the organization, comparing the same relevant industry and other market comparables."

Oh, that's a relief.

And if Heesacker made $378,457 in 2011 as CEO of the Nebraska Student Loan Program, what do you think he's making now as CEO of Inceptia?  

I think it is a safe bet that the articles Inside Higher Ed chose for its online booklet were acceptable to Inceptia.  And not surprisingly, most of the articles quoted various student-loan organizations that basically support the status quo.

One writer advocated larger Pell Grants. Someone argued for lower interest rates on student loans.  And one organization wants lending standards loosened for Parent PLUS loans. 

No one in the  Inside Higher ED's collection of articles advocated for revising the bankruptcy laws to make it easier for distressed student-loan debtors to discharge their loans in bankruptcy. No one recommended elimination of the Bankruptcy Code provision that makes private student loans very difficult to discharge in the bankruptcy courts.

No one recommended tighter restrictions on the for-profit college industry or regulations to stop abusive collection practices or the garnishment of of Social Security checks.

No--almost everyone who participates in the public conversation about the future of the student loan program is an insider--an organization that benefits directly or indirectly from the $100 billion that the federal government spends each year to subsidize the higher education industry, which has been raising the cost of attending college every year for the past 30 years.

I'm sorry Inside Higher Ed and Inceptia--your vision of the future of student loans is not sustainable.

Someday--and I hope that day comes soon--we will have to introduce radical remedies for the student loan mess.  Those remedies--to be effective--will have to include bankruptcy relief for distressed student loan debtors, strict regulation of for-profit colleges, and a candid reporting on what the student-loan default rates really are.


Inside Higher Ed (with support from Inceptia). The Future of Student Loans: A Selection of Higher Ed Articles and Essays. May 2014.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: Student-Loan Forgiveness Programs are Making the Student Loan Crisis Worse

The federal government's student-loan forgiveness programs--like  Germany's decision to invade Russia in 1941--must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

After all, millions of college students are burdened by crushing student loans, the student-loan default rate creeps ever upward, and many college graduates have not gotten jobs that pay well enough to service their student-loan debt.

So why not create some programs that will lower student borrowers' monthly loan payments?

  And so the government created two programs that are essentially student-loan forgiveness programs. One program allows people who take public service jobs to make loan payments based on a percentage of their income for ten years. At the end of the ten-year period, the balance of their loans are forgiven.

Germany invaded Russia in the summer of 1941
It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The other program--income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) --allows borrowers to make monthly student-loan payments based on a percentage of their income for 20 or 25 years (there are several variations). Just as with the public-service loan forgiveness plans, student-loan debtors will see the balance of their loans forgiven at the end of the repayment period.

The attractiveness of these programs for student-loan borrowers is obvious. They see their monthly payments go down, which may keep many student-loan debtors from going into default.

Currently, about 1.3 million borrowers are enrolled in public-service loan forgiveness plans, and about the same number are enrolled in IBRPS. 

But here is the downside.  None of these programs contain provisions to discourage students from borrowing more money than necessary.  In fact--since the monthly payments are based on a percentage of borrowers' income and not the amount borrowed, the programs contain a perverse incentive to borrow as much as possible.  As a result, many of the people making income-based loan payments will never pay back even a portion of their loans.

Here are a couple of examples--one taken from a Wall Street Journal article and one taken from a New York Times story--that illustrate the problem.

Haley Schafer borrowed $312,000 to attend veterinary school in the Caribbean, even though the job market for veterinarians in the United States is terrible  Schafer got a job making about $60,000 a year, not nearly enough to comfortably pay back her student loans under the standard 10-year repayment plan.

So Schafer signed up for a 25-year income-based repayment plan that lowered her monthly loan payments to about $400 a month. Unfortunately,  her monthly payments aren't large enough to cover accruing interest on her loans.  The New York Times estimated that her loan balance will continue to grow, and when she finishes her 25-year repayment plan her loan balance will be more than twice the amount that she borrowed--$650,000!

And that's Haley Schafer's story. Now let's hear about Max Norris, a public-service attorney who borrowed $172,000 to go to University of California's Hastings College of Law.  Under the public-service student-loan forgiveness plan, he only pays $420 a month on his loan balance, not enough to cover accruing interest.

Norris's loan balance will be forgiven after 10  years. Assuming Norris stays in public service and gets annual raises of 4 percent, the government will forgive $225,000 in student-loan indebtedness--more than Norris borrowed!

In other words, the federal government is giving Morris a 100 percent subsidy to go to law school, even though the market is flooded with lawyers. In fact there are currently two law-school graduates for every new legal job.

Surely, anyone can see that it makes no sense for the federal government to permit people to borrow $100,000 or more to train people for professions that are already overcrowded and then allow them to make loan payments that are so small that the payments don't cover the accruing interest.

But that is what our federal government is doing.  

And, although these programs may help keep the student-loan default rate down, they are actually making the student loan-crisis worse.  Not only do we have 7 million people who stopped making loan payments and are in default, we have another 9 million who aren't making payments because they received an economic hardship deferment or are entitled to some other form of forbearance.  And then we have 2.5 million people who are making loan payments based not on the amount they borrowed but on their income, which means most will never pay off the principal of their loans.

In short--the number of people who will never pay off their student loans is in the millions--many, many millions.


Josh Mitchell. Student-Debt Forgiveness Plans Skyrocket, Raising Fears Over Costs, Higher Tuition. Wall Street Journal, April 22, 2014.

David Segal. High Debt and Falling Demand Trap New Vets. New York Times, February 23, 2013. Available at:


Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Private Student Loan Industry Doesn't Need Better Regulation: It Needs to Be Exterminated

Businesses that protect homeowners from termites and roaches call themselves pest control companies. But speaking as a homeowner, I don't want the roaches in my house to be controlled. I want them dead.

Image credit:
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is much like a pest control company that looks out for the interests of the pests.  It wants to regulate the the nation's rapacious financial services sector in a way that doesn't cause the banks too much discomfort. When it comes to the private student loan industry, this attitude is a mistake.

As the New York Times pointed out in a recent editorial, private student loans are very different from federal student loans.  Students who take out federal student loans get a fixed interest rate, and they can apply for an economic hardship deferment if they run into financial difficulties.  Private lenders often offer variable interest rates that allow monthly loan payments to adjust upward,  and they usually don't have any process in place to assist financially distressed borrowers.

The CFPB collects hundreds of complaints each year from people who took out private student loans. In a recent analysis,  the  Bureau reported that some private student-loan borrowers were forced into default without warning even though they were current on their loan payments In particular, the CFPB documented that some student-loan borrowers who were making regular payments on their loans were forced to pay back the entire amount of their loans if a person who co-signed their loan died.  Some student borrowers received notice from their lender that their loans were being called due at the same time they were mourning the loss of the parent or grandparent who had cosigned the student's college loan. Now that's crumby behavior.

And guess which private lender received the most complaints? Sallie Mae.  The CFPB received 995 complaints about Sallie Mae between October 2013 and March 2014.  That's a 50 percent jump over the previous measuring period.

And coming in second place for most number of complaints was JP Morgan Chase.

Issuing private loans is a particularly lucrative business for the banking industry. Why? First of all, in 2005, the banks got Congress to amend the bankruptcy laws to make private student loans almost impossible to discharge in bankruptcy.

Second, about 90 percent of these loans are co-signed--often by a parent or a grandparent. Co-signers stand jointly liable with the student borrower when it comes to paying off a private student loan. And co-signers--like the student borrowers themselves--cannot discharge a private student loan in bankruptcy except under very rare circumstances.

In its recent report, the CFPB practically begged the banks to be more compassionate to their student-loan debtors.  Rohit Chopra, CFPB's Student Loan Ombudsman, pointed out that a student-loan borrower who had a bad experience with a bank would be less likely to use that bank for other banking matters. And, Chopra added, treating student-loan borrowers  badly might hurt the banks' reputation.  Yes--the CFPB's Student Loan Ombudsman actually expressed concern about the banks' reputation!

The New York Times, commenting on the CFPB's report, thinks more federal regulation is the way to deal with the rapacious private student-loan industry. "Federal regulators clearly have a lot to do to address what amounts to a student loan crisis," the Times editorialized. Regulators "can begin by preventing contracts that unfairly burden borrowers," the Times suggested and loan terms "should be clearly stated."  And--the Times concluded, student-loan borrowers should be notified when their loans are at risk and borrowers in good standing should not be "shoved into default."

Personally, I don't give a damn about Sallie Mae's reputation or the reputation of the banks that have been mistreating private student-loan debtors. And I don't think another layer of regulation will make the banks behave more compassionately or more responsibly.

The way to deal with problems in the private student-loan industry is to shut this sleazy business down. And that can be easily done. All Congress needs to do is to repeal the 2005 law that made it exceedingly difficult for private student-loan debtors and their guarantors to discharge student loans in the bankruptcy courts.

If Sallie Mae, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo and the other major players in the private student loan industry knew that distressed student-loan debtors could discharge their student loans in bankruptcy in the same way they could discharge other non-secured debts, they would get out of the student loan business in a hurry.  And that is exactly what we should want them to do.


Rohit Chopra. Mid-year update on student loan complaints. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, April 2014.

Editorial. Troubling Student Loans. New York Times, April 29, 2014, p. A20.