The Obama administration has done a lot of quantitative easing. At the height of its QE program, the government was pumping a trillion bucks a year into the economy. But there is another type of quantitative easing that is less well known. The government has been loaning billions of dollars to students under the federal student loan program, and it is only getting about half that money back.
Who benefits? The higher education industry has gotten this money, including the stock holders and equity funds that own private colleges and universities.
Conner v. U.S. Department of Education, a recent federal court decision, illustrates how QE works in the education sector. Patricia Conner, a Michigan school teacher, took out 26 separate student loans over a period of 14 years to pursue graduate education in three fields: education, business administration, and communications. By the time she filed for bankruptcy at age 61, she had accumulated over $214,000 in student-loan debt. According to the bankruptcy court, Conner did not make a single voluntary payment on any of her loans.
In the bankruptcy court, Conner argued that her debt should be discharged under the Bankruptcy Code's "undue hardship" standard, citing her advanced age as a factor that should weigh in her favor.
But a Michigan bankruptcy court refused to release Conner from her debt, and a federal district court upheld the bankruptcy court's opinion on appeal. The district court ruled that Conner's age could not be a consideration since she borrowed the money in midlife knowing she would have to pay it back. The court also indicated that Conner should enroll in an income-based repayment plan (IBRP) that the government had offered her, which would obligate her to pay only $267 a month on her massive debt. The court did not say how long she would be obligated to make payments under an IBRP, but these plans generally stretch out for at least 20 years.
Let's assume Conner signs up for an income-based repayment plan and begins paying $267 a month on her $214,000 debt. Let's also assume, that the interest rate on this debt is 6 percent. At 6 percent, interest on $214,000 amounts to more than $12,000 a year, but Conner will only be paying about $3,200 a year toward paying off her student loans.
This means Conner's debt will be negatively amortizing--getting larger every year instead of smaller. After making payments for one year under her IBRP, Conner will owe $223,000. After the second year, she will owe around $233,000. After three years, Conner's debt will have grown to about a quarter of a million dollars, even if she faithfully makes every monthly loan payment.
Obviously, by the time Conner's IBRP comes to a conclusion in 20 or 25 years, she will owe substantially more than she borrowed, and she will be over 80 years old. In short, the government will never get back the money it loaned to Ms. Conner.
Who benefited from this arrangement? Wayne State University, where Conner took all her graduate-level classes, got most of Conner's loan money, which it used to pay its instructors and administrators. But what did Wayne State provide Conner for all this cash? Apparently not much because Conner is still a school teacher, which is what she would have been even if she hadn't borrowed all that money to go to graduate school.
In my view, the Conner story is an illustration of QE in the higher education sector. The federal government is pumping billions of dollars a year into the corrupt and mismanaged higher education industry, and it is getting only about half of it back. Moreover, in far too many cases, the students who are borrowing all this money aren't getting much in value.
How long can this go on? I don't know, but it can't go on forever.
Note: I am indebted to my friend Richard Precht for pointing out the relevancy of Quantitative Easing to the student loan crisis.
Conner v. U.S. States Department of Education, Case No. 15-1-541, 2016 WL 1178264 (E.D. Mich. March 28, 2016).