Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Schatz v. U.S. Department of Education: A 64-year-old student-loan debtor is denied bankruptcy relief because she has equity in her home

Audrey Eve Schatz, a 64-year-old single woman, attempted to discharge $110,000 in student-loans through bankruptcy, but Judge Elizabeth Katz, a Massachusetts bankruptcy judge, refused to give Ms. Schatz a discharge. Why?  Because Schatz had enough equity in her home to pay off all her student loans.

This is Ms. Schatz's sad story as laid out in Judge Katz's opinion.

Schatz graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1977 with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Over the years, she held a variety of low-skill jobs: repairing used clothing, selling items at flea markets, working part-time for a school district, etc.  As Judge Katz acknowledged, none of these jobs were lucrative; and more than 25 years after completing her bachelor's degree, Schatz decided to go to law school.

Schatz studied law at Western New England College School of Law, a bottom-tier law school; and she took out student loans to finance her studies. She graduated with a J.D. degree in 2009, but she failed to find a high-paying job. According to the court, Schatz's net income after graduating from law school never exceeded $15,000.

The U.S. Department opposed Schatz's petition for relief on three grounds:

First, DOE argued that Schatz had not "maximized her skills to increase her earning potential." And in fact, Schatz worked as a volunteer at the Berkshire Center for Justice, a legal aid center she had founded while in law school. But Schatz explained she was working as a volunteer to gain experience as a lawyer while she looked for a paying job; and it seems unlikely she would have worked for free if she had been offered a good attorney's job.

Second, DOE argued that Schatz had not substantiated her claim that health issues hindered her job prospects. DOE said she should have called a medical doctor to testify about her health.

Finally, DOE pointed out that Schatz had equity in her home--enough equity, in fact, to completely pay off her six-figure student-loan debt.

And this was the argument that Judge Katz  found most persuasive. In the judge's opinion, Schatz had at least $125,000 of equity in her home, more than enough to cover her student-loan debt.  According to Judge Katz, Schatz could sell her home, pay off her student loans, and still be able to maintain "a minimal standard of living." In Judge Katz's view, the burden was on Schatz to produce evidence that the home she lived in was necessary to maintain "a minimal standard of living," and that no alternative housing was available at a price similar to her current mortgage payment.

Given the facts of Audrey Schatz's financial circumstances, which Judge Katz verified in her opinion, I found the judge's decision to be shockingly callous.  Schatz is 64 years old--near the end of her working life. As Judge Katz noted in her opinion, Schatz had never made more than a modest wage even after she graduated from law school.

Moreover, Schatz testified at trial that she expected to get a Social Security check of less than $900 a month and that her retirement account contained only $1,800. And Judge Katz wants Ms. Schatz to sell her house!

The Schatz case illustrates just how much depends on the personal qualities of the bankruptcy judge who hears student-loan bankruptcy cases. Remember Judge Frank Bailey, another Massachusetts bankruptcy judge who decided a student-loan case earlier this year?

Judge Bailey expressed frustration with the traditional tests bankruptcy judges are using in student-loan cases: the Brunner test and the "totality-of-circumstances" test. "I pause to observe that both tests for 'undue hardship' are flawed," he wrote. In Judge Bailey's view, "[t]hese hard-hearted tests have no place in our bankruptcy system."

Judge Bailey then went on to articulate a more reasonable standard for determining when a debtor's student loans should be discharged in bankruptcy.  "If a debtor has suffered a personal, medical, or financial loss and cannot hope to pay now or in the reasonably reliable future," the judge reasoned, "that should be enough."

Unfortunately for Audrey Schatz, her bankruptcy case was assigned to Judge Elizabeth Katz and not Judge Frank Bailey. Had Judge Bailey been her judge, Ms. Schatz might have discharged her six-figure student-loan debt and kept her house. Surely this would have been some comfort to her when she enters old age and begins living on a Social Security check of $856.




References

Schatz v. U.S. Department of Education, 584 B.R. 1 (Bankr. D. Mass. 2018).

Smith v. U.S. Department of Education (In Re Smith), 582 B.R. 556 (Bankr. D. Mass 2018).


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Mock v. National Collegiate Student Loan Trust: A peek into the shady world of the private student-loan market

In 2007, Casondra Mock, a Texas resident, borrowed about $20,000 from Union Federal Savings Bank, a Rhode Island institution, to finance her studies at the University of Houston at Clear Lake.  The interest rate was high--almost 14 percent.

Under the terms of the loan, Mock would begin paying  $339 a month beginning in December 2009 and would continue making monthly payments for 20 years.  Had she completed all the payments, she would have paid $81,000--4 times what she borrowed.

The Rhode Island bank packaged Mock's loan into a pool of loans, and sold the pool to National Collegiate Funding, which then sold the pool to a "purchaser trust."  Private student loans that are pooled and sold in this way are sometimes called SLABS--Student Loan Asset Backed Securities.

SLABS are very similar to the home mortgages that were pooled and sold to investors ten years ago. Those pooled mortgages were called ABS--Asset Backed Securities. If you watched the movie The Big Short, you know these ABS were sold to investors as AAA rated securities but in fact contained a lot of nonperforming home loans and were actually junk.  When the homes securing these mortgages began going into foreclosure, the ABS became almost worthless, and the real estate market collapsed.

Mock defaulted on her loan and National Collegiate Student Loan Trust (NCSL) sued her along with Kary Mock, who cosigned the loan. NCSL claimed the Mocks owed $37,086,54, together with accrued interest of $5,645.37 for a total debt of $42,731,91.

The Mocks fought the suit in court, acting as their own lawyers. They argued that the interest rate was usurious, the loan was predatory, and NCSL had not provided proper documentation to support its claim.

The trial court ruled for NCSL, entering a judgment of $37,086.54; and the Mocks appealed.

Justice Harvey Brown, writing for the Texas Court of Appeals (First Circuit) rejected the Mocks' usury argument and their argument that the loan was predatory on its face. But Judge Brown reduced the amount of the judgment to $24,408.72 on evidentiary grounds, ruling that NCSL had not produced documentary evidence to support a larger amount.

Why is this Texas court opinion significant? Three reasons:

1) The case shines a light on the shady private student-loan industry. As we see from the Mock case, banks and financial institutions are marketing private student loans all across the United States, charging high interest rates--far higher than students pay on their federal loans. These loans are then bundled into pools (sometimes called (SLABS) and sold to investors.

2) Private student loans are as difficult to discharge in bankruptcy as federal student loans, which makes them especially attractive to investors.  A lot of fat cats are happy to buy SLABS packed with student loans bearing high interest rates, secure in the knowledge that these loans are almost impossible to discharge in the bankruptcy courts.

3) People taking out private student loans are making bad decisions. We don't know Casondra Mock's circumstances, but surely she made a bad decision when she took out a 20-year loan at 14 percent interest to finance her studies at the University of Houston at Clear Lake. She could have taken out a federal student loan with an interest rate half the rate charged by that Rhode Island bank.

Perhaps Casondra had already maxed out her federal student loans and needed more money to pursue her studies. But even if that were the case, surely there was a better way to address her financial needs than taking out a 20-year loan at 14 percent interest.

Acting at the behest of the big banks, Congress put private student loans under the "undue hardship" standard in the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform Act. Some reform!  Congress should repeal the "undue hardship" provision for both federal and private student loans as numerous policy experts have urged. And I'm sure Congress will correct its mistake someday--someday when pigs fly and the lions lie down with the lambs.

Someday, Congress will repeal the "undue hardship" clause in the Bankruptcy Code.


References

Mock v. National Collegiate Student Loan Trust, No. 01-17-00216-CV (Tex. Ct. App. July 10, 2018).

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Student loan rates are going up--compounding misery for suffering college borrowers

James Carville, who was once President Bill Clinton's political strategist, famously remarked: "It's the economy, stupid!"

But Carville's one-liner needs updating. For student-loan debtors, "It's the interest, stupid!"

And student-loan interest rates are going up. For undergraduate student loans, the rate has risen to 5.05 percent, a 13 percent increase over current rates.

For graduate students, the rate rose to 6.60 percent, up from the last year's rate of 6.0 percent.

And rates for Parent PLUS loans are going up as well. As of July 1, the interest rate on Parent PLUS loans is 7.6 percent.

A Forbes article suggests the increase is no big deal. An undergraduate who takes out $10,000 in federal loans this year will only pay $349 more over ten years than under last year's interest rate. That's less than three bucks a month.

But let's think again. Interest rates on student loans are pretty damn high; why should they go higher? Students taking out federal loans to finance their college education pay a higher interest rate than they would for a car loan or even a house loan. And remember, the current interest rate on a 10-year government bond is only 2.85 percent. So how does the federal government get away with loaning money to students' parents at an interest rate of 7.6 percent?

Here's the real problem with interest rates on student loans: the interest compounds on outstanding loans until the loans are paid off. For some student debtors, interest on their student loans compounds while they are in school, which means they will owe more money than they borrowed by the time they graduate.

Even more concerning, millions of borrowers don't find good jobs after they graduate and are unable to immediately start making their monthly loan payments. This forces them to apply for economic hardship deferments, which are notoriously easy to get. But borrowers whose loans stay in deferment for two, three, four years or more will see their loan balances go up markedly.

And the story is the same for people who enroll in 20- or 25-year income-contingent repayment plans (ICRPs). Almost all these folks are making monthly payments so low they are not paying down accrued interest. Consequentially, their loans are negatively amortizing, which means ICRP participants are seeing their loan balances get larger with each passing month, even though they are making regular monthly payments.

Remember Mark Meru, the dentist who borrowed $600,000 to go to dentistry school and now owes a million dollars? He's in an income-based repayment plan that set his monthly payment at less than $1,600.   But interest is accruing at the rate of almost $4,000 a month. By the time he finishes his 25-year repayment plan, Dr. Meru will owe $2 million!

Albert Einstein observed that compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. People who understand that earn it; and people who don't understand, pay it.

Apparently, millions of college-educated Americans don't understand compound interest. Otherwise, they never would have allowed themselves to get into debt so deep due to student loans that they will never pay off.

"It's the interest, knuckleheads!"


References

Zack Friedman. Student Loan Rates Will Rise 13% This Summer. Forbes.com, May 22, 2018.

Josh Mitchell. Mike Meru Has $1 Million in Student Loans. How did That Happen? Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2018.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Michelle Singletary gives good financial advice to young people about student loans, and here are my two cents (think La Brea tar pits)

Michelle Singletary, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, gives good advice  to young people about managing debt--including student loans. She published a very good article awhile back that contained two good pieces of advice. I will summarize her suggestions and add my own two cents.

First, Singletary challenges the conventional wisdom that young people should begin saving for retirement as early as possible--while still in their 20s.  "Millennials' money is often too tight," she counseled, "and for the many who have student loans, they may be best served spending the first years aggressively paying off this debt."

I agree completely. It makes no sense for young people to put money in IRAs or other retirement accounts if they aren't managing their student loans. After all, if they accumulate student-loan debt that becomes so large they can't make their monthly payments, they'll wind up in 25-year income-based repayment plans, which may prevent them from ever retiring.  It is absolutely critical for millennials to get their student loans paid off as quickly as possible.  For young people, there will be plenty of time later to save for retirement after they pay off their student loans.

Singletary also signaled her disagreement with commentators who lament the high percentage of young adults who live with their parents. It is true that more people in their 20s are living with Mom and Pop; 28 percent, according to Singletary, up from just 19 percent in 2016.

But that may not be a bad thing. If a young person can economize by living with parents, why not do so? That leaves more money to save for a down payment on a house or for paying student loans off early.

Now here are my two cents.

When taking out college loans, students should keep in mind the possibility that they won't find a good job after graduating. If their student loan debt is modest, they can probably make their monthly payments even if they are in a low paying job. But if they borrowed a lot of money and can't make the initial monthly payments, they will be forced to apply for an economic hardship deferment, which are very easy to get.

Those deferments excuse borrowers from making monthly loan payments, but compound interest accrues on the principal. Borrowers who put student loans in deferment for three years will find their loan balances will have grown substantially.

Then--if they can't make regular payments on the larger balance, student borrowers will be pushed into 20- or 25-year income-based repayment plans. In my view, that is a disastrous outcome for young people who took out student loans to improve the quality of their lives, not fall into a lifetime of indebtedness.

And here is some more of my two cents. Never take out private student loans from Wells Fargo, Sallie Mae or any of the other blood suckers who offer private student loans. Those loans are just as hard to discharge in bankruptcy as federal student loans.  And when I say never take out private student loans, I mean never.

Finally, to reiterate advice I have given tirelessly for many years, don't ask your parents to take out a Parent PLUS loan to finance your college studies; and don't ask them to co-sign any of your student loans. If you love Mama and Daddy, don't suck them into a veritable La Brea tar pit of perpetual student-loan indebtedness, especially if you are already in the tar pit yourself.

La Brea Tar Pits


References

Michelle Singletary. Millennials get plenty of financial advice-but most of it is wrong. Herald-Tribune, May 22, 2018.






Thursday, July 12, 2018

Parents join their children in Student-Loan Siberia, taking out bigger and bigger Parent PLUS loans to finance their children's bad college choices

Remember the movie Fiddler on the Roof? Perhaps the most poignant scene is the one in which Tevye waits with his daughter Hodel for the train that will take Hodel to Siberia. As you recall, Hodel married Perchik, a Russian revolutionary, without her father's permission. Perchik then got himself arrested and exiled to the Siberian wilderness.

Did Hodel say: "Good luck, honey!" "Don't forget to write!"  Or, "I told you not to become a revolutionary, but you didn't listen!"

No, she didn't. Instead, Hodel hopped a train and joined Perchik in Siberia.

Something similar is happening with Parent PLUS loans. Students are taking out more and more federal loans to finance their college studies, and many are taking out the maximum amount they are allowed to borrow for their undergraduate education--$31,000. In fact, 40 percent of undergraduate borrowers have loans totally $31,000 before they begin their senior year.

What to do? Many are turning to their parents to fill the gap. In 2015-2016, Parent PLUS loans averaged $33,291, up 14 percent in just four years. In fact, two thirds of parents who took out Parent PLUS loans in 2015-2016 did so to finance their children's undergraduate education.

As Mark Kantrowitz explained in a New York Times interview, "Parents are a pressure-relief valve for when students hit the Stafford loan limits."

I suppose that's one way of putting it. But really, the rise in Parent PLUS loans means some parents are bearing bigger student-debt loads than their children. And remember--Parent PLUS loans are as difficult to discharge in bankruptcy as student loans. No student loan can be discharged unless the debtor can show "undue hardship," a very tough standard to meet.

Some parents who take out Parent PLUS loans will find them very difficult to repay. In fact, the lending standards for issuing these loans are very low.  Parent debtors who lose their jobs, develop serious illnesses, or have various kinds of family emergencies may find it almost impossible to make payments on their Parent PLUS loans.  And bankruptcy will probably not be an option.

And let's face facts. If students cannot finance their college choices without pushing their parents into debt, they chose the wrong college.

So Mom and Dad, think of Hodel before you take out Parent PLUS loans to finance your children's college education. If your children cannot pay back their own student loans, they may be forced into long-term income-based repayment plans that last 20 or even 25 years. In which case, your children will be entering Student-Loan Siberia--saddled by debt for most of their working lives.

And, Mom and Dad, if you take out Parent PLUS loans, you may wind up like Hodel--headed for Student-Loan Siberia as well. If that happens it will be because your darling child made a bad choice about where to go to college and you foolishly agreed to help foot the bill.

Goodbye, Dad. Perchik made a dumb decision and I'm going to join him in Siberia.

References

Tara Siegel Bernard and Karl Russell. The New Toll of Student Debt in 3 Charts. New York Times, July 11, 2018.


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Alexandra Acosta-Coniff v. ECMC: A single mother wins bankruptcy relief from student loans but sees victory snatched away on appeal

In 2013, Alexandra Acosta-Conniff, an Alabama school teacher and single mother of two children, filed an adversary proceeding in an Alabama bankruptcy court, hoping to discharge student loans that had grown to $112,000.  She did not have an attorney, so she represented herself in court.

At her trial,  Judge William Sawyer applied the three-part Brunner test to determine whether Acosta-Conniff met the "undue hardship" standard for having her student loans discharged in bankruptcy.

First, Judge Sawyer ruled, Conniff could not pay back her student loans and maintain a minimal standard of living for herself and her two children. Thus she met the first part of the Brunner test.

Second, Conniff's economic circumstances were not likely to change in the foreseeable future. Conniff was a rural school teacher, Judge Sawyer pointed out, who could not expect a significant rise in income. Although she had obtained a doctorate in education, that doctorate had not paid off financially.

Third, Judge Sawyer ruled, Conniff had handled her student loans in good faith. She had made monthly payments over several years and she had obtained deferments from making payments--deferments she was eligible to receive. In Judge Sawyer's view, Conniff met the good-faith requirement of the Brunner test.

In short, Judge Sawyer determined, Conniff qualified for bankruptcy relief under the Bankruptcy Code's "undue hardship" standard as interpreted by Brunner.  Accordingly, the judge discharged all of Conniff's student-loan debt.

ECMC appealed, and Judge Keith Watkins reversed. Fortunately, retired bankruptcy judge Eugene Wedoff volunteered to represent Conniff without charge, and Wedoff and his associates took her case to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

In 2017, four years after Conniff filed her adversary proceeding, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the trial court,  directing Judge Watkins to review Judge Sawyer's ruling under the "clear error" standard. In other words, unless Judge Sawyer had committed clear error in deciding for Conniff, Judge Watkins was bound to uphold Sawyer's decision. The Eleventh Circuit remanded the case back to Judge Watkins to straighten things out.

In January 2018, Judge Watkins issued his second opinion in Conniff's case, and he concluded that Judge Sawyer had indeed committed clear error when he ruled in Conniff's favor. Judge Watkins' opinion is a bit convoluted, but basically he said Judge Sawyer made a mistake in failing to determine whether Conniff was eligible for an income-contingent repayment plan (ICRP).

In Judge Watkins' opinion, if Conniff can make even small loan payments under an ICRP and still maintain a minimal standard of living, she is not eligible for bankruptcy relief.

So what does this mean?

It means Alexandra Acosta-Conniff must return to bankruptcy court a second time--more than three years after her first trial. Apparently, Judge Sawyer will not schedule a second trial; instead, he has asked Conniff and ECMC to submit proposed findings of facts. At some point, Judge Sawyer will issue his second opinion on Conniff's case.

Conniff owed $112,000 in 2015, when she was 44 years old. Her debt has grown over the last three years due to accrued interest, and Conniff is older. She is now 47 years old.

What does the future hold for Alexandra Acosta-Conniff? More litigation.

If Conniff wins her second trial, ECMC, ruthless and well financed, will undoubtedly appeal again; and the case will ultimately go back to the Eleventh Circuit a second time. Conniff now has an able lawyer, so if she loses before Judge Sawyer, she will likely appeal. So--win or lose--Conniff is in for at least two more years of stressful litigation. When this is all over, Conniff will likely be 50 years old.

Here's my take on Conniff's sad odyssey through the federal courts. First, Judge Watkins' most recent decision is deeply flawed. In Watkins' view, a student-loan debtor who can make even small loan payments under an ICRP while maintaining a minimal standard of living cannot discharge her student loans in bankruptcy: period.

But if that were true, then no student-loan debtor is eligible for bankruptcy relief. In several cases, ECMC or the U.S. Department of Education has argued that a student-loan debtor  living at or below the poverty line should be denied bankruptcy relief  and required to enter into an ICRP even though the debtor would be required to pay zero. In fact, ECMC and DOE have been arguing for years that basically every destitute student-loan debtor should be put in an ICRP and denied bankruptcy relief.

Do want some examples? Roth v. ECMC (9th Cir. BAP 2013), Myhre v. U.S. Department of Education (Bankr. W.D. Wis. 2013), Abney v. U.S. Department of Education (Bankr. W.D. Mo. 2015), Smith v. U.S. Department of Education (Bankr. D. Mass. 2018).

The Roth case illustrates the insanity of this point of view. In that case, ECMC fought bankruptcy relief for Janet Roth, an elderly retiree with chronic health problems who was living on less than $800 a month in Social Security benefits. Put her in an ICRP, ECMC insisted, even though she would be required to pay nothing due to her impoverished circumstances.

The Ninth Circuit's Bankruptcy Appellate Panel pointed out the absurdity of ECMC's position. It would be pointless to put Roth in an ICRP, the court ruled. "[T]he law does not require a party to engage in futile acts."

Forcing Alexandra Acosta-Conniff into an ICRP, which Judge Watkins obviously desires, is a futile act. She will never pay off her student loans, even if she makes small monthly income-based payments for the next 25 years.

Acosta-Conniff is a big, big case. If Judge Watkins' hardhearted view prevails, then bankruptcy relief for student-loan debtors is foreclosed in the Eleventh Circuit. If the compassionate and common-sense spirit of Judge Sawyer's original 2013 opinion is ultimately upheld, then distressed student-loan debtors like Alexandra Costa-Conniff will get the fresh start that the bankruptcy courts were intended to provide.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals will ultimately have to look at Alexandra Acosta-Conniff's case a second time.  But her next trip to the Eleventh Circuit is likely at least two years away.

The Honorable Judge Keith Watkins


References

Acosta-Conniff v. ECMC, 536 B.R. 326 (Bankr. M.D. Ala. 2015).

ECMC v. Acosta-Conniff, 550 B.R. 557 (M.D. Ala. 2016).

ECMC v. Acosta-Conniff, 686 Fed. Appx. 647 (11th Cir. 2017).

ECMC v. Acosta-Conniff, 583 B.R. 275 (M.D. Ala. 2018).


Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Maxine Waters wants Americans to hassle Trump cabinet members in restaurants. Perhaps our politicians want to distract Americans from our real problems--like the student-loan crisis

Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of the Red Hen, a trendy eatery in western Virginia, asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family to leave her restaurant. Why? Because Sanders works for the Trump administration.

"I explained that the restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion and cooperation," Wilkinson told the Washington Post.

Good to know! If I ever make a reservation at the Red Hen, I'll keep my surly, callous, and truculent character to myself. I would hate to miss out on a $100 vegetarian dinner just because I failed a background check.

California congresswoman Maxine Waters publicly applauded the Red Hen's seating policy and urged her supporters to hound President Trump's cabinet members wherever they appear.  “If you see anybody from [the Trump] Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere."

President Trump called Waters "an extraordinarily low IQ person," but I disagree. Congressman Waters and most of the nation's other politicians--Democrats and Republicans--are trying to distract Americans from thinking about the nation's real problems--massive government debt, including the nation's budget deficit, the states' unfunded pension liabilities, and the nation's train wreck of a student loan program.

California alone has $1.3 trillion in government debt, and the state's unfunded pension obligations are staggering. The national deficit is $21 trillion, and the student-loan program has generated $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loans.

Distracting the public from massive public debt will continue working until it doesn't. And when Americans finally confront this crisis, they will find it a whole lot more distressing than Sarah Huckabee Sander's appearance at a snooty restaurant in western Virginia.

The Red Hen: "We reserve the right to refuse service to people we disagree with."

References

Patrick Gleason. California faces a $1 trillion unfunded pension liability and lawmakers focus on foam and plastic straws. Orange County Register, April 6, 2018.

McKenna Moore. Rep. Maxine Waters Tells Supporters to Harass Trump Cabinet Members. Fortune magazine, June 25, 2018.

Avik Selk and Sarah Murray.  The owner of the Red Hen explains why she asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave. Washington Post, June 25, 2018.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Should courts look for bad faith when distressed student-loan debtors ask for bankruptcy relief? Further reflections on Smith v. Department of Education

Distressed debtors cannot discharge student loans unless they can show their loans constitute an "undue hardship" to themselves and their dependents. Congress did not define undue hardship in the Bankruptcy Code, so it was left to the courts to define the term.

Most courts have adopted the Brunner test for determining when a student loan is an undue hardship that can be discharged in bankruptcy. That test has three parts:

1) Can the debtor pay back the loan while maintaining a minimal standard of living?
2) Will the debtor's financial circumstances change during the lifetime of the loan?
3) Did the debtor handle his or her loans in good faith?

In Smith v. Department of Education, decided a few months ago, Judge Frank Bailey, a Massachusetts bankruptcy judge, explicitly criticized the Brunner test's  "good faith" component:
[A]ny test that allows for the court to determine a student debtor's good or bad faith while living at a subsistence level, virtually strait-jacketed by circumstances, displaces the focus from where the statute would have it: the hardship. It also imposes on courts the virtually impossible task of evaluating good or bath faith in debtors whose range of options is exceedingly limited and includes no realistic hope of repaying their loans to any appreciable extent. . .(p. 566)
 Judge Bailey argued for a simpler and fairer standard for determining when a student loan can be discharged in bankruptcy: "If a debtor has suffered a personal, medical, or financial loss and cannot hope to pay now or in the reasonably reliable future," the judge reasoned, "that should be enough" (p. 565) (italics supplied).

Eliminating the good faith component of the Brunner test would have a huge impact on student-loan bankruptcy jurisprudence because the Department of Education and its thug debt collectors almost always argue that a debtor filed for bankruptcy in bad faith. And this is ironic because it is the Department of Education, not student-loan debtors, that repeatedly demonstrates bad faith in the bankruptcy courts.

Let's take the Smith case as an example:

1) First of all, the U.S. Department of Education has publicly proclaimed it will not oppose bankruptcy relief for student debtors who are disabled. Mr. Smith is disabled; and Smith and his mother subsist entirely on Smith's monthly disability check, food stamps, and his mother's tiny Social Security income. Thus, DOE was opposing Mr. Smith's plea for bankruptcy relief in direct contradiction to DOE's own policy. In my opinion, that shows DOE's bad faith.

2) In a 2015 letter, a Department of Education official said DOE would not oppose bankruptcy relief when it made no economic sense to do so. Smith's adversary proceeding stretched out over five days, taking up Judge Bailey's time; and both Smith and DOE had lawyers. (In fact, DOE had two lawyers.) Smith only borrowed $29,000; and the litigation expenses almost certainly exceeded that amount. In my view, DOE's decision to chase Smith into bankruptcy court is additional evidence of bad faith.

3) Finally, DOE insisted Smith should be put in a long-term income-based repayment plan, even though it admitted Smith's income was so low that his monthly loan payments would be zero. So what was the point of fighting Smith in bankruptcy court? Again, this is more evidence of DOE's bad faith.

In fact, the Department of Education and the student loan guaranty agencies (ECMC in particular) almost always argue that a distressed student-loan debtor filed for bankruptcy in bad faith. And this is true even when the debtor is hovering on the brink of homelessness.

After all, in the Myhre case, DOE opposed student-loan debt relief for a quadriplegic whose expenses exceeded his income.  In the Abney case, DOE fought Kevin Abney, who was so poor he did not own a car and traveled to work on a bicycle. And in the Stevenson case, ECMC objected when Janice Stevenson, a woman with a record of homelessness and who lived in subsidized housing, tried to discharge almost $100,00 in student loans.

So Judge Bailey is right. The federal courts should stop asking whether down-and-out student-loan debtors handled their student loans in good faith. The only important questions are these: Can the debtor pay back his or her student loans? Will the debtor ever be able to pay back those loans?

And if the courts continue to insist on looking for bad faith, they should look for it by the Department of Education, ECMC, and the entire gang of government-subsidized debt collectors.



References

Jillian Berman. Why Obama is forgiving the student loans of almost 400,000 peopleMarketwatch.com, April 13, 2016.


Myhre v. U.S. Department of Education, 503 B.R. 698 (Bakr. W.D. Wis. 2013).

Michael Stratford. Feds May Forgive Loans of Up to 387,000 BorrowersInside Higher Ed, April 13, 2016. 

Smith v. U.S. Department of Education (In Re Smith), 582 B.R. 556 (Bankr. D. Mass 2018).

Stevenson v. ECMC, Case No. 08-14084-JNF, Adv. P. No. 08-1245 (Bankr. D. Mass. August 2, 2011).

Some physical or mental impairments can qualify you for a total r permanent disability discharge on your federal student loans and/or TEACH grant service obligation. U.S. Department of Education web site (undated).

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Dear taxpayers: I hope you approve of New York University's lavish compensation policy because you are paying for it

American Enterprise Institute's report on graduate schools with low rates of graduate-student repayment included a list of 20 universities where graduate students had above average non-repayment rates ranked by the amount of student loans graduate students took out. New York University is at the top of the list.

According to AEI's analysis, the 2009 cohort of NYU graduate- and professional-school students had amassed $1.135 billion in student loans. That's right: billion with a B. Five years later, more than a third of those students (34 percent) had not paid down their student loans by one dime.

New York University, you may recall, has been criticized for its lavish compensation packages for senior executives.  NYU won't disclose how much it is paying Andrew Hamilton, its current president. But John Sexton, Hamilton's showy predecessor, made $1.5 million in 2012-2013.  He retired with $800,000 in annual retirement income and a "length-of-service" bonus of $2.5 million.

Surely Hamilton is making as least as much as Sexton did. And NYU graciously updated Hamilton's penthouse apartment in Greenwich Village. How much did that cost? NYU won't say.

How does NYU manage to pay its executives so much? Does it have a large endowment? Not particularly.  NYU's total endowment funds amount to only $4.1 billion, about one ninth the size of Harvard's ($35.6 billion).

NYU gets a lot of its revenue from federal student loans. As just noted, graduate students in the 2009 cohort borrowed over $1 billion. That would be OK with taxpayers if NYU's graduate students paid back what they owe. But a lot of them are not.

AEI's list of universities with below average repayment rates for graduate students reveals that the top 15 schools with high levels of student-loan debt and below average rates of repayment are all private universities. Here's the list, along with the percentage of graduate students in the 2009 cohort who had not reduced the principal of their loans by even a dollar after 5 years.

New York University (34%)
University of Phoenix (36%)
Nova Southeastern University (33%)
Walden University (33%)
Capella University (34%)
Argosy University (37%)
Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science (51%)
Keller Graduate School of Management (DeVry) (34%)
Midwestern University (22%)
Webster University (34%)
Grand Canyon University (28%)
National University--La Jolla (26%)
Strayer University (49%)
Thomas M. Cooley Law School (29%)
Touro College-Main Campus Midtown (22%)

What is the annual compensation for the senior executives at these institutions? Who knows? As private institutions, these universities are not required to disclose their compensation packages. But you can bet it is in the high six figures at all 15 universities.

So, Mr. and Ms. Taxpayer, I hope you approve of the federal government's student-loan program, which is shoveling money to private universities, because you are paying for a lot of lavish spending. Graduate students in particular are borrowing extraordinary amounts of money, and a high percentage of them have not paid any of it back five years into the repayment phase of their loans.


NYU president Andrew Hamilton:
Thanks, America! I love my swell penthouse apartment!

References

Jason Delisle. Graduate Schools with the Lowest Rates of Student Loan Repayment. American Enterprise Institute, June 2018.

Abby Ohlheiser. John Sexton will officially leave NYU in 2016. Atlantic, August 14, 2013.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Researchers say Income-Driven Repayment Plans create moral hazard: Yuh think?

More and more student borrowers are being forced into income-driven repayment plans (IDRPs) because they can't pay back their college loans under a standard 10-year repayment schedule. According to an article in Educational Researcher, the proportion of student borrowers in IDRPs increased from 5 percent in 2012 to 20 percent in 2016.

Three researchers affiliated with a North Carolina research institute analyzed data on IDRPs, and their findings are not surprising. They found people entering IDRPs borrowed more than people who did not enter these plans. IDRP participants also had lower-income backgrounds than people who did not sign up for IDRPs.

They also found that IDRPs create a "moral hazard" because monthly loan payments under these plans are not coupled to the amount of money students borrow. "As IDR plans become more generous," the authors wrote, "students have less incentive to limit their borrowing and less incentive to seek high-paying jobs because upon leaving school their monthly loan payments depend only on discretionary income, not loan amounts." And, as students become more willing to borrow, colleges and universities "face lower incentives to curb tuition increases."

Put another way, if borrowers know their loan payments will stay the same regardless of whether they borrow $50,000 or $100,000, then why not borrow $100,000? And from a university's perspective, if students are willing to borrow enormous amounts of money to pursue their studies, then why not jack up tuition rates?

The researchers also pointed out that a lot of IDRP participants are making payments so low that their loan balances are growing due to accrued interest. In other words, their loans are negatively amortizing. Thus at the end of a 20- or 25-year IDRP, many borrowers will owe more than they borrowed.  People who complete IDRPs will see their remaining loan balances forgiven, but the forgiven amount is considered taxable income by the IRS.

Income-driven repayment plans were touted by the Obama administration as a good way for student borrowers to manage growing levels of debt. But the article in Educational Researcher adds to a growing body of evidence pointing to this stark reality: millions of people in IDRPs have student-debt loads they will never pay off.

So why did the U.S. Department of Education expand its income-driven repayment options? After all, even a child could foresee the moral hazard built into these programs.  These plans are being peddled for one reason and one reason only: They help obscure the fact that millions of Americans--probably 20 million--are not paying off their student loans.



References

Lacy, T. Austin, Conzelmann, Johnathan G.,  & Smith, Nicole D. (2018). Federal Income-Driven Repayment Plans and Short-Term Student Loan Outcomes. Educational Researcher, 47, 255-258.


Thursday, June 21, 2018

Smith v. U.S. Department of Education: A severely stressed student-loan debtor gets bankruptcy relief and the judge questions harsh interpretation of "undue hardship"

Kirt Francisco Smith, a 39-year-old unemployed man with severe health problems, won a bankruptcy discharge of his student-loan debt--almost $50,000.

 Every student-loan debtor's victory in bankruptcy court is something to celebrate; we don't see enough of them. Smith's victory, however, is especially cheering because the judge explicitly challenged the harsh standards the federal courts are using when determining whether student-loan debt is an "undue hardship" eligible for bankruptcy discharge.

Here's Mr. Smith's story as as chronicled by Bankruptcy Judge Frank Bailey. Smith took out $29,000 in student loans to enroll in a computer drafting program at ITT Tech. He completed the program in 2008  but was unable to find a job in the computer drafting field. By the time he filed for bankruptcy his debt had grown to $50,000 due to accumulated interest and fees.

Smith suffers from major health problems. He is afflicted with intractable epilepsy, which prevents him from having a driver's license. In addition, Smith has been diagnosed with affective disorders, including anxiety and depression leading to suicidal ideation. In 2006, he was hospitalized at McLean Psychiatric Hospital; and he has not been employed since that hospitalization. He began receiving Social Security Disability payments in 2007.

During the trial, which stretched out over five days, Smith argued that he could not pay back his student loans and maintain a minimal standard of living for himself and his dependent mother.  And indeed, Smith and his mother lived on the brink of utter poverty.

Smith received $1369 a month in Social Security income and his mother received $792.26 in Social Security. The two also receive food stamps, which the judge included as income. Altogether then, Smith and his mother lived on $2265.26 a month, which is about $80 less than their expenses.

The U.S. Department of Education opposed a discharge of Smith's student loans, dragging out its usual objections. Smith never made a single payment on his loans, DOE argued, and therefor did not handle his loans in good faith. Smith did not renew his paperwork to stay in an income-based repayment plan--another sign of bad faith.  Finally, DOE objected to the modest sums Smith spent on travel and entertainment.

Fortunately for Smith, Judge Bailey rejected all DOE's arguments and discharged Smith's student loans. The judge utilized the "totality-of-circumstances" test for determining whether Smith's student loans constituted an undue hardship rather then the harsher Brunner test.

Remarkably, Judge Bailey criticized both the Brunner test and the totality-of-circumstances tests. "I pause to observe that both tests for 'undue hardship' are flawed," he wrote (p. 565). In the judge's view, "[t]hese hard-hearted tests have no place in our bankruptcy system."

Judge Bailey then went on to articulate a more reasonable standard for determining when a debtor's student loans can be discharged in bankruptcy.  "If a debtor has suffered a personal, medical, or financial loss and cannot hope to pay now or in the reasonably reliable future," the judge reasoned, "that should be enough" (p. 565).

In particular, Judge Bailey criticized other courts' focus on the debtor's good faith.
[A]ny test that allows for the court to determine a student debtor's good or bad faith while living at a subsistence level, virtually strait-jacketed by circumstances, displaces the focus from where the statute would have it: the hardship. It also imposes on courts the virtually impossible task of evaluating good or bath faith in debtors whose range of options is exceedingly limited and includes no realistic hope of repaying their loans to any appreciable extent.. (p. 566)
What an astonishing decision! To my knowledge, Judge Bailey is the first bankruptcy judge to explicitly attack both the Brunner test and the totality-of-circumstances test. (Judge Jim Pappas criticized the Brunner test in Roth v. ECMC.) Just think how many suffering student-loan debtors would qualify for bankruptcy relief if every judge reasoned like Judge Bailey.

Brenda Butler,  for example, who handled her student loans in good faith only to see her loan balance double over a 20 year period, would have obtained relief if Judge Bailey had been her judge. Ronald Joe Johnson, a bankrupt student-loan debtor who made $24,000 a year by working two jobs, would be free of his student loans if he had appeared in Judge Bailey's court instead of a bankrkuptcy court in Alabama. Janice Stevenson, a woman in her mid-fifties who had a record of homelessness and who lived in rent-subsidized housing and had an income of less than $1,000 a month, would have won a bankruptcy discharge of more than $100,000 in student debt if only Judge Bailey's standard had been applied rather than the harsh rule applied by Judge Joan Feeney.

Today, Judge Bailey's decision in the Smith case is just a straw in the wind, but the day will come when bankruptcy courts will apply his standard universally. After all, as some wise person observed, if a debt cannot be paid back, it won't be.  Right now, about 20 million people are unable to pay back their student loans.  Almost all of them are entitled to bankruptcy relief under the rule articulated by Judge Frankk Bailey.

References

Butler v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, No. 14-71585, Adv. No. 14-07069 (Bankr. C.D. Ill. Jan. 27, 2016).

Johnson v. U.S. Department of Education, 541 B.R. 750 (N.D. Ala. 2015).

Roth v. Educational Credit Management Corporation490 B.R. 908 (9th Cir. B.A.P. 2013). 

Smith v. U.S. Department of Education (In Re Smith), 582 B.R. 556 (Bankr. D. Mass 2018).

Stevenson v. ECMC, Case No. 08-14084-JNF, Adv. P. No. 08-1245 (Bankr. D. Mass. August 2, 2011)

Monday, June 18, 2018

American Enterprise Institute: A ton of graduate students who attended HBCUs are not paying down their student loans

Jason Delisle, writing for the American Enterprise Institute, reported that a great many Americans who took out loans to attend graduate school are not paying them back.  Most are not defaulting; they simply are putting their loans in a holding pattern that doesn't require them to pay down their loan balances.

What's going on? As Delisle explained, student borrowers have three options for managing their graduate-school loans to keep those loans from going in to default.

Income-Based Repay Plans. First, graduate-student borrowers can enter income-based repayment plans (IBRPs), which set monthly loan payments based on income, not the amount borrowed. IBRPs allow borrowers to lower their monthly loan payments, but often (perhaps almost always), the payments aren't large enough to cover accruing interest. When this happens, loan balances grow even when borrowers are making regularly monthly payments.

Forbearance. A student-loan debtor can ask for multiple types of forbearance on their loans. As Delisle explained, "the most common forbearance effectively has no eligibility criteria."  Borrowers simply request a forbearance. Usually, interest continues to accrue during the forbearance period, which can last for no more than 36 consecutive months.

Deferment. Student borrowers can also apply for an economic hardship deferment that allows them to skip making loan payments due to economic hardship such as unemployment or severely reduced income. Borrowers automatically get a deferment while they continue to be enrolled in school. Again, interest accrues on their student loans while they are in deferment.

Graduate students typically accumulate the most student-loan debt because graduate education is expensive and there is no monetary cap on the amount of student loans that can be taken out to fund graduate education. Nevertheless, graduate students typical have low default rates. According to Delisle, only 4 percent of the 2009 cohort of graduate students were in default five years into repayment.

But a low default rate does not mean graduate-student borrowers are paying down their loans. In fact, a high percentage of graduate-student debtors are seeing their loans negatively amortize five years into repayment--meaning their loan balances are going up even though their loans are in good standing.

Why? Because thousands of graduate-student borrowers are not financially able to pay down their loans under a standard 10-year repayment plan. In order to avoid default, these borrowers select one of the three options listed above: IBRPs, loan forbearance, or deferment.

Here's where Delisle's report becomes especially interesting. Delisle lists the 20 graduate and professional schools with the highest share of graduate-student borrowers who had not reduced the principal on their loans five years into repayment.Twelve of these 20 schools are historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs); and their nonpayment rates ranged from 44 to 65 percent.

Here's the list of the 12 HBCUs with high nonpayment rates for their graduate students, along with the percentage of borrowers who had not reduced their loan principal. Of these 12 institutions, 11 are public universities.


  1. Mississippi Valley State University       65%
  2. Southern University New Orleans         62%
  3. Grambling State University                   59%
  4. Virginia State University                       53%
  5. Prairie View A & M University             51%
  6. Delaware State University                     51%
  7. Alabama A & M University                  50%
  8. Alabama State University                      49%
  9. Southern University at Baton Rouge     48%
  10. Clark Atlanta University                        47%
  11. Jackson State University                        46%
  12. Lincoln University of Pennsylvania       44%

The AEI report is additional data showing that African Americans are particularly affected by the federal student loan program. At 12 HBCUs, from 44 to 65 percent of their graduate students entering repayment had not reduced the principal on their student loans by one dime five years later.

Perhaps the AEI report will prompt legislators to examine more closely whether HBCUs funded with public monies are providing their students with useful graduate education. Something is wrong when a high percentage of graduate students who attended a HBCU are not able to pay down their student-loan debt five years after ending their studies.



References

Jason Delisle. Graduate Schools with the Lowest Rates of Student Loan Repayment. American Enterprise Institute, June 2018.





Sunday, June 17, 2018

Barbara Erkson v. U.S. Department of Education: A 64-year-old woman, struggling to make ends meet, discharges $107,000 in student loans in bankruptcy

Barbara Erkson, an unmarried 64-year-old woman, filed an adversary proceeding in a Maine bankruptcy court  in an attempt to discharge $107,000 in student loans in bankruptcy. The U.S. Department of Education and Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC) vigorously objected, but Judge Peter Carey rejected their heartless arguments and granted Ms. Erkson a full discharge.

This is Ms. Erkson's story as told by Judge Carey. In 1998, when she was in her forties, Erkson enrolled at Vermont College of Norwich University to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies. She took out student loans to finance her studies and graduated in 2002 with considerable debt.

After graduating, Erkson worked at various community agencies in order to obtain the conditional licenses necessary to work as a licensed counselor. From 2002 through 2008, she worked at a private counseling service, but her job was terminated due to funding constraints. At some point she defaulted on her undergraduate loans.

Erkson then entered graduate school at Salve Regina University, and she obtained a master of arts degree in Holistic Counseling in 2011. Thereafter she held a series of counseling jobs and maintained a private practice, but she did not make enough money to sustain herself and pay back her student loans.

The U.S. Department of Education and ECMC objected furiously to releasing Erkson from her student debt. She had not shown good faith, they said, because she had not agreed to enter a long-term income-based repayment plan.  They also objected to some of Erkson's expenses. She should not have hired a dog walker, they contended. Nor should she be leasing an automobile. They even criticized her for going to graduate school since her master's degree did not improve her income level.

Fortunately for Barbara Erkson, Judge Carey is a compassionate man; and he waved aside all her creditors' cold-hearted objections.
Plaintiff impresses the Court as a hard-working woman who chose an area of study which, due to changes in federal laws and regulations, proved less profitable than she anticipated. If the Court applied such stringent standards to all student loan challenges, anyone who failed to correctly read the tea leaves of the future and incurred student debt in an area that technology, societal preferences, or legislation later made obsolete would be ineligible for a discharge. The [Bankruptcy] Code simply does not go so far. 
Judge Carey rejected the creditors' argument that Erkson handled her loans in bad faith. They pointed out that her loans were almost always in deferment, forbearance or in default and thus she had made relatively few loan payments. Nevertheless, Judge Carey wrote, "neither DOE nor ECMC challenged [Erkson's] testimony that she struggled to find full time work until 2002 or that, from 2002 until 2008, she did not generate sufficient income to maintain a minimal standard of living and repay her student loans." In Judge Carey's opinion, Erkson's failure to make any meaningful loan payments was "the result of her meager income and not evidence of bad faith."

Interestingly, Erkson argued that she suffered from a hearing impairment that hindered her efforts to find and keep a good job. Judge Carey accepted Erkson's testimony on that point, but he made clear his decision did not turn on Erkson's health situation. Her current financial condition and future economic prospects entitled Erkson to a bankruptcy discharge of her student loans, the judge ruled, without considering her hearing impairment.

What are we to make of the Erkson decision?

First, DOE and ECMC are bullies. Both agencies almost always oppose undue-hardship discharges for distressed student-loan debtors, regardless of individual circumstances.  They always argue that debtors handled their student loans in bad faith and that they should be denied a discharge if they fail to sign up for a 25-year repayment plan. They always quibble about a debtor's routine expenses and pore over a debtor's every expenditure in humiliating detail.

Second, the Erkson decision is a good one for millions of people who took out student loans to pursue careers that did not work out like they planned. How many people have enrolled in chicken-shit for-profit colleges, third-tier law schools, or overpriced professional programs only to learn their educational investments would never pay off?

In the eyes of the U.S. Department of Education and ECMC, DOE's corporate hit man, such people are losers; and their inability to pay back their student loans is prima facie evidence of bad faith.

But Judge Carey disagreed. People who make a sincere effort to find a good job and wind up unable to pay back their student loans while maintaining a minimal standard of living are entitled to bankruptcy relief: period. It's time DOE and ECMC get that message.

The Department of Education and ECMC are bullies.


References

Erkson v. U.S. Department of Education, 582 B.R. 542 (Bankr. D. Me. 2018).



Saturday, June 16, 2018

Are bankruptcy judges becoming more sympathetic toward student-loan debtors? Maybe but maybe not

Katy Stech Ferek published an article in Wall Street Journal a few days ago in which she reported that bankruptcy judges are becoming more sympathetic to debtors seeking to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy. Is Ferek correct?

I once would have thought so. Until recently, I believed the bankruptcy courts were becoming more compassionate toward bankrupt student debtors. But now I am not so sure.

Without question there have been some heartening developments in the federal bankruptcy courts over the past few years. At the appellate level, the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel discharged student loans owed by Janet Roth, an elderly student-loan debtor who was living on a monthly Social Security check of less than $800. Judge Jim Pappas, in a concurring opinion, argued sensibly that the courts should abandon the harsh Brunner test for determining when a debtor can discharge student loans under the Bankruptcy Code's "undue hardship" standard.

The Seventh Circuit, in its Krieger decision, discharged student debt of a woman in her fifties on undue hardship grounds, in spite of the fact that she had not enrolled in an income-based repayment plan. The court agreed with the bankruptcy court that Krieger's situation was hopeless. This too was a heartening decision for distressed student debtors.

Fern v. Fedloan Servicing, decided in 2017 is another good decision. In that case, the Eighth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel affirmed bankruptcy relief for a single mother, specifically noting the psychological stress experienced by debtors who know they will never pay off their student loans.

And there have been several good decisions in the lower courts. The Abney case out of Missouri, the Lamento case out of Ohio, the Myhre decision, and a handful of other recent decisions were compassionate rulings in favor of down-on-their-luck student debtors.

But a few warm days do not a summer make. Thus far, no federal appellate court has explicitly overruled the draconian Brunner test for determining when a student loan constitutes an undue hardship.

And there have been some shockingly harsh rulings against student debtors. In Butler v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, decided in 2016, a bankruptcy judge refused to discharge Brenda Butler's student debt, which had doubled in the twenty years since she had graduated from college, in spite of the fact she was unemployed and the judge had explicitly stated that she had handled her student loans in good faith. The judge ruled Butler should stay in a 25-year repayment plan that would end in 2037, more than forty years after she graduated from college!

Moreover, there simply have not been enough recently published bankruptcy-court rulings to constitute a trend. As Ferek reported in her article, federal judges in student-loan bankruptcy cases ruled only 16 times in 2017, and student loans were canceled in only three of those cases.

Even favorable rulings do not look quite so encouraging when examined closely.  Ferek mentioned the Murray case out of Kansas, in which a bankruptcy judge granted a partial discharge of a married couple's student-loan debts. This was a favorable ruling, but Educational Credit Management Corporation, the federal government's most ruthless debt collector, appealed. Fortunately for the Murrays, they were represented by an able Kansas lawyer; and the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, joined by the National Consumer Law Center, filed an amicus brief on the Murrays' behalf. The Murrays prevailed on appeal, but most student-loan debtors do not have the legal resources the Murrays had.

Ferek wrote a useful article, and I hope distressed student-loan debtors read it and are encouraged. Nevertheless, the fact remains that very few insolvent college-loan borrowers get bankruptcy relief from their crushing student loans.  And those who have the courage to seek bankruptcy relief often have a long road to travel. Michael Hedlund, a law school graduate who won partial relief from his student debt in a Ninth Circuit ruling, litigated with his creditor for 10 years!


References

Abney v. U.S. Department of Education, 540 B.R. 681 (Bankr. W.D. Mo. 2015).

Butler v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 14-71585, Chapter 7, Adv. No. 14-07069 (Bankr. C.D. Ill. Jan. 27, 2016).

Katy Stech Ferek. Judges Wouldn't consider Forgiving Crippling Student Loans--Until Now. Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2018.

Fern v. Fedloan Servicing, 563 B.R. 1; 2017 (8th Cir. B.A.P. 2017). 

Hedlund v   Educational Resources Institute, Inc., 718 F.3d 848 (9th Cir. 2013).

Krieger v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 713 F.3d 882 (7th Cir. 2013).

Lamento v. U.S. Department of Education, 520 B.R. 667 (Bankr. N.D. Ohio 2014).

Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation563 B.R. 52 (Bankr. D. Kan. 2016), aff'd, Case No. 16-2838 (D. Kan. Sept. 22, 2017).

Myhre v. U.S. Department of Education, 503 B.R. 698; 2013 (Bankr. W.D. Wis. 2013). 

Roth v. Educational Credit Management Corporation490 B.R. 908 (9th Cir. B.A.P. 2013). 


The New York Times lambasts Republicans and Betsy DeVos for catering to for-profit colleges: The Gray Lady overlooks culpable Democrats

In an editorial last month, The New York Times lambasted Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration and congressional Republicans for protecting the greasy for-profit college industry. "Try as they might," the Times observed, "the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress cannot disguise that they continue to do the bidding of the for-profit industry, which has saddled working-class students--including veterans--with crushing debt while providing useless degrees, or no degrees at all."

Indeed, the Times grumbled, the Department of Education, under DeVos, "has undermined investigations of the [for-profit college] industry by marginalizing or reassigning lawyers and investigators . . ." Major investigations, the Times reported, have been abandoned, including investigations into the activities of DeVry Education Group, Bridgepoint Education and Career Education Corporation.

The Times is right of course. Betsy DeVos is the shameless lapdog of the for-profit college crowd, which continues to prey on unsophisticated Americans seeking to get a worthwhile education.  The Times predicts that DeVos' behavior may come back to bite the Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections, and perhaps there will be repercussions at the ballot box.

But to be fair, servile obsequiousness to the for-profit colleges is bipartisan. Both Democrats and Republicans have taken campaign contributions from these bandits and both parties have succumbed to the blandishments of the for-profit lobbyists.

In fact, The Nation reported nearly five years ago that two Democratic congressmen were leading an effort to protect for-profit colleges from meaningful regulation.  According to The Nation's reporter Lee Fang, Representative Rob Andrews from New Jersey and Florida congressman Alcee Hastings had taken thousands of dollars from for-profit college executives and for-profit backed political committees.

Andrews is no longer in Congress, but Alcee Hastings is still in office. This is the same Hastings, by the way, who, while sitting as a federal district judge, was charged with bribery, perjury and falsifying documents.  The U.S. Senate impeached him and removed him from his judicial post in 1989.

If the Democrats want to distinguish themselves from their Republican colleagues, they need to speak out forthrightly about the for-profit-college scandal. In my view, the for-profit racketeers cannot be tamed through tougher regulations. The only way to stop these predators from stalking unsuspecting and naive young Americans is to shut the industry down. But the Democrats don't have the courage to speak out against the for-profit mobsters. They seem to hope Americans will overlook their silence about the the for-profit college industry and pin all the blame on the Republicans.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Florida): Friend of the for-profit college industry


References

Editorial. Predatory Colleges, Freed to Fleece Students. New York Times, May 22, 2018.

Lee Fang. Two House Democrats Lead Effort to Protect For-Profit Colleges, Betraying Students and Vets. The Nation, December 13, 2013.

United States Senate.  The Impeachment Trial of Alcee L. Hastings (1989) U.S. District Judge, Florida.


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Arizona Summit Law School sues the American Bar Association, claiming ABA accreditors treated it unfairly: Showdown in "Death Valley"

Earlier this month, Arizona Summit Law School sued the American Bar Association after the ABA's accreditors put the school on probation. Don Lively, Arizona Summit's president, claims the ABA's accrediting standards are "vague, indeterminate, and subject to manipulation"; and Penny Wilrich, the law school's interim dean, accused the ABA of creating a "false narrative" about the school.

False narrative? Without a doubt, Arizona Summit is a lousy law school. Last February, only one out of five Arizona Summit graduates passed the Arizona bar exam (25 out of 126 test takers).  Among repeat exam takers, only one out of seven passed it (11 out of 81).

And Arizona Summit is an expensive school to attend. According to Law School Transparency, the total non-discounted cost of getting a JD degree from this crummy law school is $248,000. Wow! A quarter of a million dollars buys a graduate a one-in-five shot of passing the Arizona bar exam.

No wonder one student thinks the school is misnamed. "It's not a summit," the student observed. "It's Death Valley."

Arizona Summit is one of three law schools owned by a for-profit company named Infilaw, and all three schools have sued the ABA claiming they were treated unfairly. I gather the law schools' main argument is that other law schools are even crappier and the ABA isn't sanctioning them.

Unfortunately, the Infilaw schools may be right. Law School Transparency's reports on law-school quality consistently show a number of schools with very low admission standards and poor pass rates on bar exams--including some historically black law schools.  ABA may find it hard to explain why it is sanctioning the for-profit law schools and not the HBCU law schools.

Without a doubt, legal education is in shambles. Inferior law schools are charging students obscene tuition rates and graduating too many students who cannot pass their bar exams.

But the solution is not for the ABA to ease up on regulating dodgy schools, which is what the Infilaw schools apparently want it to do. On the contrary, the ABA needs to crack down harder. In my estimation, at least 20 law schools should be closed.



References

Arizona Supreme Court. February 2018 Examination Results.

Anne Ryman. Arizona Summit Law School sues American Bar Association, claims abuse of power. The Republic, May 24, 2018.

Staci Zaretsky. Law School Completely Wrecks State's Bar Exam Pass Rate, As Usual. Above the Law, May 15, 2018.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Mike Meru racked up $1 million in student loans to go to dental school. Will he ever pay it back?

Perhaps you read Josh Mitchell's story in the Wall Street Journal about Mike Meru, who took out $600,000 in student loans to go to dental school at University of Southern California. Due to fees and accrued interest, Meru now owes $1 million.

How did that work out for Dr. Meru? Not too bad actually. He's now working as a dentist making $225,000 a year. He entered an income-based repayment plan (IBR), which set his monthly payments at only $1,590 a month. If he makes regular payments for 25 years, the unpaid balance on his loans will be forgiven.

But as WSJ's  Josh Mitchell pointed out, Dr. Meru's payments don't cover accruing interest, which means his student-loan debt continues to grow at the rate of almost $4,000 a month. By the time, Dr. Meru completes his 25-year payment obligations, he will owe $2 million. Although this huge sum will be forgiven, the IRS considers forgiven debt as taxable income. Dr. Meru can expect a tax bill for about $700,000.

The student-loan program's many apologists will say Dr. Meru's case is an anomaly because most people borrow far less to get their postsecondary education. In fact, only about 100 people owe $1 million dollars or more. But 2.5 million college borrowers owe at least $100,000; and even people who borrow far less are in deep trouble if they drop out of school before graduating or don't land a good job that allows them to service their loans.

Here are the lessons I draw from Dr. Meru's case:

First, income-based repayment programs are insane because student debtors make payments based on their income, not the amount they owe. Dr. Meru's payments are set at $1,590 a month regardless of whether he borrowed $100,000, $200,000 or $600,000.  Thus, IBRs operate as a perverse incentive for students to borrow as much as they can, because borrowing more money doesn't raise the amount of their monthly payments.

Second, IBRs allow professional schools to raise tuition year after year without restraint because students simply borrow more money to cover the increased cost. USC told Mr. Meru that dental school would cost him about $400,000, but USC increased its tuition at least twice while Meru was in school; and Meru wound up borrowing $600,000 to finish his degree--far more than he had planned for.

Does USC feel bad about putting its graduates into so much debt? Apparently not. Avishai Sadan, USC's dental school dean, said this: "These are choices. We're not coercing. . . You know exactly what you're getting into." By the way, Dr. Sadan got his dentistry degree in Israel: and I'll bet it cost him a lot less than $600,000.

And here's the third lesson I draw from Dr. Meru's story. The student loan program is destroying the integrity of professional education.  As I've explained in recent essays, the federal student loan program has allowed second- and third-tier law schools to jack up tuition rates, causing graduates to leave school with enormous debt and little prospect of landing good jobs.

A medical-school education now costs so much that graduates are forced to choose the most lucrative sectors of the medical field in order to pay off their student loans. That is why more and more general practitioners are foreign born and received their medical training overseas, where people don't have to borrow a bunch of money to get an education.

Dr. Avishai Sadan, Dean of USC's School of Dentistry
"You know exactly what you're getting into."
References

Josh Mitchell. Mike Meru Has $1 Million in Student Loans. How did That Happen? Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2018.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is a train wreck, and $350 million won't fix it.

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF), created by Congress in 2007, allows people in public service jobs to make income-based student-loan payments for ten years. If they make 120 payments, their loan balances will be forgiven and the amount of the forgiven debt isn't taxable to them.

Such a deal!

Thousands of student debtors relied on PSLF to manage huge debt burdens. In fact, as Paul Campos correctly noted in his book Don't Go to Law School (Unless), people who graduate from bottom-tier law schools with six-figure student debt have only one option for paying off their student loans: the PSLF program.

Last fall, the first wave of PSLF participants became eligible to have their loan balances forgiven, but Betsy DeVos' Department of Education put impediments in the way and told some student debtors they were not eligible. The American Bar Association sued DOE after it declined to honor an application by ABA employees for public-service loan forgiveness.

Prompted by Democratic legislators--notably Senator Elizabeth Warren--Congress set aside $350 million to pay off student loans owed by people who failed to qualify for PSLF through no fault of their own.

That's a good first step, but $350 million won't fix this problem. As Jason Delisle explained in a 2016 report for the Brookings Institution, the PSLF program has problems DOE didn't anticipate, and those problems will be expensive to fix.

First of all, public service employment as Congress defined it includes anyone who works for federal, state, or local government and anyone who works for a 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity. As Delisle pointed out  (p. 3), that definition encompasses about one quarter of the American workforce.

In fact, nearly all the doctoral students I've taught over the last 25 years work in public sector jobs; and most of them have student-loan debt, which they expect to shed through the PSLF program. For example, one of my recent doctoral graduates accumulated $140,000 in student-loan debt on her journey to obtaining an Ed.D. degree. PSLF is her only escape hatch for shedding this enormous debt.

Without any question, the PSLF program was poorly designed. The category of eligible participants was defined far too broadly.  Although program defenders say PSLF is intended to aid firefighters, police officers, and teachers, it also benefits public-service lawyers, lobbyists, and accountants.

Furthermore, Congress placed no cap on the amount of student debt that can be forgiven under PSLF. At roughly the same time Congress enacted the PSLF program, it approved the Grad PLUS program, which allows graduate students to borrow the entire cost of their graduate or professional education with no dollar limit.

Apparently DOE was surprised by the enormous debt loads carried by people seeking to shed their student loans through PSLF.  But it should have been obvious to everyone that law-school and business-school graduates with $200,000 in student-loan debt and no prospect of a well-paying private-sector job would look to PSLF to manage their debt.

In short, DOE underestimated the number of people eligible for PSLF and the amount of money they owe. Taxpayers are going to spend a lot more on PSLF than DOE anticipated.

So what to do?

In my view, the Department of Education should forgive student-loan debt for everyone who has accumulated 10 years of public service since the PSLF program was enacted in 2007--regardless of whether the PSLF applicant filled out the proper paperwork. And it should allow everyone currently working in  a public service job to participate in the PSLF program and receive loan forgiveness after they've made 120 payments.

And then Congress needs to amend the program to put a cap on the amount of student-loan debt that can be forgiven under PSLF, and it should limit future participation to people working in hard-to-fill public sector jobs--police officers, fire fighters, teachers, etc.

No doubt about it--PSLF is a colossal train wreck; and it will cost the federal government billions of dollars to fulfill the promises Congress made eleven years ago. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that PSLF and income-based repayment programs together will cost taxpayers $12 billion over the next ten years (as reported by Jason Delisle). The $350 million Congress appropriated last March is but a small down payment.

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is a Train Wreck.

References

Stacy Cowley. Student Loan Forgiveness Program Approval Letters May Be Invalid. New York Times, March 30, 2017. 

 Jason Delisle. The coming Public Service Loan Forgiveness bonanza. Brookings Institution Report, Vol 2(2), September 22, 2016.

Andrew Kreighbaum. New Fix for Public Service Loans. Insider Higher Ed, May 24, 2018.

Andrew Kreighbaum. Senate Democrats want Public Service Loan Forgiveness Fix in budget agreement. Inside Higher Ed, February 16, 2018.

Jordan Weissmann. Betsy DeVos Wants to Kill a Major Student Loan Forgiveness ProgramSlate, May 17, 2017.