Friday, November 9, 2018

Roosevelt Institute researcher says student-loan program is "a failed social experiment." But you already knew that.

Julie Margetta Morgan and Marshall Steinbaum wrote a blockbuster of a report for the Roosevelt Institute on the student-loan crisis. Unfortunately, the bland title and multiple graphs obscured the authors' key finding, which is this: Contrary to what student-loan advocates proclaim, a great many people who took out student loans for postsecondary education have not seen a rise in wages.

As author Julie Margetta Morgan summarized, "We've essentially engaged in a failed social experiment where the government thought that it would be fine to give people student debt because it would pay off in the long run and we're seeing that's not the case."

On the contrary, this is what Morgan and Steinbaum found:
  • "More education has not led to higher earnings over time." Although the higher education community trumpets the myth that rising student debt and more education leads to higher income, that is not true. Instead, "the distribution of earnings in the labor market has remained relatively unchanged over time. And to the extent that individuals see an income boost based on college attainment, it is only relative to falling wages for high school graduates."
  •  "Student debt is a burden for a growing share of young adults." Traditional ways of measuring student debt "fail to consider the changing distribution of  debtors over time or the changes in the ways that borrowers repay their loans." When these factors are accounted for, "the data show that many more Americans have debt, and the burden of that debt is more significant now than for previous generations."
  •  "Credentialization better explain these dynamics than the 'skills gap.'" Although the nation's population is becoming better educated, "each educational group is becoming less well paid." In the authors' view, this phenomenon "is a result of declining worker power, which allows employers to demand a higher level of educational attainment for any given job, not a broken link between workforce skills and labor market demands."
  • "These trends have had particularly negative impacts on Black and brown Americans." Minorities already have to obtain more education than their peers in order to get the same or similar jobs. In general, people of color have less wealth than nonminorities, which means students of color take on disproportionate amounts of debt, which exacerbates disparities in student-loan debt between minority and nonminority students.
 Morgan and Steinbaum fortify their arguments with statistical analysis, but this is the essence of what they found. A higher percentage of Americans have student-loan debt than previous generations, and they have more debt than in the past.  And this trend has developed at the same time that wages have remained stagnant.

As worker power in the job market declines, employers have been able to demand more credentials from job  applicants. In essence, employers have been"upskilling" the labor market.

 I see evidence of this everywhere. Lawyers, for example, need just one professional degree to practice their trade: a J.D.  Yet as the job market for attorneys tightens, I see more and more lawyers get additional education: an MBA, for example,or a master's degree in law.  But these additional credentials often do not lead to higher salaries--and generally are not necessary for the jobs they are seeking.

I give myself as an example of a person who took out student loans to get a credential that did not enhance my job skills. I had a law degree before I became a professor, and my legal skills and experience are all I needed to be a competent education-law professor, a job I have done for 25 years.

But to get my first professor's job, I had to have a doctorate, and so I took out loans to get an Ed.D. degree from Harvard. It was a complete waste of time and money.

Morgan and Steinbaum question the enormous public investment in postsecondary education our government is making through the student-loan program. Midway through their policy report, they make this trenchant observation:
If the only function of that public investment is to increase the credentialization of the labor market and enrich academic institutions that are best able to provide those credentials to students looking to differentiate themselves (at great expense) in a rat race, it's hard to conclude that the public investment s paying off . . . .
Indeed, the investment is not paying off.  For millions of Americans, the student-loan program is doing nothing more than sentencing them to become members of a permanent debtor class.

Cleveland State University says you will be richer if you get an advanced degree. Is that true?

References

Jillian Berman. America’s $1.5 trillion student-loan industry is a ‘failed social experiment.’Marketwatch.com,October 18, 2018.

Julie Margetta Morgan and Marshall Steinbaum. The Student Debt Crisis, Labor Market Credentialization, and Racial InequalityRoosevelt Institute, October 2018.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Iowa Wesleyan and Valparaiso Law School make brave decisions: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done"

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done." Who said that? I think it was some dead guy from the 19th century. Charles Dickens maybe?

Iowa Wesleyan University and Valparaiso Law School both made brave decisions this week, and I salute them for it. Valparaiso Law announced it is closing after negotiations to transfer the school to Middle Tennessee State University broke down. And the President of Iowa Wesleyan University, Steven E. Titus, posted a statement on the university web site candidly telling the campus community that the university faces a serious financial crisis and that the governing board is pondering the university's future.

These decisions must have been very hard for both institutions. President Titus acknowledged that publicizing Iowa Wesleyan's financial situation might hurt enrollment, which could hasten its demise. "But we decided it was the right thing to let people know what was going on," Titus said. "There is risk no matter what we do."

As for Valparaiso, the loss of its law school diminishes the reputation of the university as a whole, as a law school is generally seen as a prestige-enhancing program.

In my view, both institutions are facing the stark financial reality that many private colleges are facing, and they are facing it with courage. Let's first look at Valparaiso. 

There are far too many law schools in this country, and enrollments have been declining. As reported in Inside Higher Ed, law-school enrollments have sunk from a high of 52,000 to 37,000. 

The quality of students being admitted to law schools is also declining. As tracked by Law School Transparency, a nonprofit group that reports on law -school admissions, some law schools have admitted students with LSAT scores so low that half the entering class faces a very high risk of failing the bar.

Valparaiso is closing its law school,  which is certainly in the public interest. It is far better for Valparaiso to close than for it to lower its admissions standards just to enroll more students.

As for Iowa Wesleyan, the school has been discounting tuition to attract students; according to one report, it has discounted tuition by more than half.  At some point that practice raises ethical issues.  How can a college justify charging its least attractive students full price when the average price is less than half that amount?

And how does a college explain the discounts to the students who receive them? Some colleges have been showering first-year students with scholarships--athletic scholarships in particular.  But is it honest to give an incoming student a volleyball scholarship when the school doesn't even field a decent volleyball team?

No, Valparaiso and Iowa Western should be commended for their courage and their honesty. It was a far, far better thing they did than perhaps anything they've ever done.

References

Scott Jaschik. Iowa  Wesleyan could become the latest small college to close. Insider Higher Ed, November , 2018.

Emma Whitford. Valparaiso Law School will close following unsuccessful attempt to transfer to Middle Tennessee University. Inside Higher Ed, October 31, 2018.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Alabama trashes the LSU Tigers and tailgaters trash the LSU campus: How about bloody marys for brunch?

Number 1 ranked University of Alabama trashed Number 3 ranked LSU on LSU's home field last night.  About 200,000 people were on hand for the debacle: 102,000 in the stadium and another 100,000 tailgaters. The score was 29 to 0. LSU's star field-goal kicker made one attempt for 3 points, but he missed.

In the hours leading up to the game, tailgaters were packed shoulder to shoulder around the stadium, making the campus look something like a Civil War army camp. Portapotties and trash cans were overwhelmed, and picnickers squatted on the sidewalks because there was no room for them on the lawns.

On the morning after game day, the crowds were gone, save for a few dozen recreational vehicles (each costing about a quarter of million). Shades were drawn in the RVs, but the generators were running, so the owners must have been inside, sleeping off their hangovers.

And shortly after dawn, the cleanup crews were out early picking up thousands of discarded beer cans, plastic cups, and styrofoam fast-food containers. LSU used to hire prison trustees to do this work, but the optics were bad. This morning, young people are picking up the trash, perhaps LSU student volunteers.

Big disappointment. If only LSU could have knocked off Alabama and its satanic football coach, Nick Saban. If LSU coach Ed Ogeron had pulled it off, the fans would certainly have erected a statue in his honor, a statue even larger and gaudier than the one Alabama installed for Saban. But it was not to be.

No matter. Lots of Baton Rouge restaurants offer Bloody Mary brunches on Sunday, and it least one restaurant includes all-you-can drink mimosas for folks nursing hangovers.  And then the Saints play the Rams on Sunday afternoon--an opportunity to drink Bud Lites and eat chicken fingers--chicken fingers that Coach Ogeron personally endorses.

Fall is the season of bacchanal in South Louisiana. Let's get drunk for every LSU game, every Saints game, and every playoff game.  Let's get drunk at the fraternity hazing exercises. After all, hardly anyone dies from alcohol poisoning.

And then spring comes--another season of bacchanal. Mardis Gras parades start at least two weeks before Fat Tuesday, and the St. Patrick's Day parade is another occasion for a huge town drunk. The garbage trucks follow closely behind the St. Patrick's Day floats, sweeping up the discarded beads and beer bottles.

A friend told me he attended a Mardis Gras parade in New Orleans a few years ago. A drunk driver, driving a beer truck as it happened, plowed into a crowd of spectators, killing a woman who was pinned under the vehicle. My friend said he saw revelers crawl under the truck and loot the woman's Mardis Gras beads. The corpse was still warm.

Fox Business Report assures us daily that the economy is booming with record-low unemployment and a robust growth in wages. In Baton Rouge, people drive around in late-model luxury cars and pack the restaurants every night.

Cheaply built apartment complexes are being thrown up willy nilly for LSU students in the flood plain next to the Mississippi River levees. They feature swimming pools, and enormous television screens in the common areas. Meanwhile LSU passed a rule requiring most first-year students to live on campus, and it built its own faux-luxury residence halls to accommodate them.

But in North Baton Rouge, weekend killings are routine. A six-year-old was shot dead a couple of days ago, and thirteen-year-old was arrested.  Baton Rouge schools are a mess, and almost no one of means will put their children in a public school.

The rich go to private schools, and the less well-to-do buy inexpensive homes in adjoining parishes where the schools are better. They drive to work every morning on Interstate 10, which is a parking lot from 7:30 AM until about 10 AM on workdays.

But the commute is not so bad. You can check your cell phone when the traffic grinds to a halt or listen to Stuart Varney on Fox Business Report tell you how much money we're all making in the stock market.


Nick Saban's statue at University of Alabama
Photo credit: David Mercer, USA Today




Friday, November 2, 2018

Did Education Corporation of America hire law graduates from for-profit law schools to defend itself in more than 100 legal proceedings? I doubt it.

As I discussed in earlier essays, Education Corporation of America, a chain of for-profit colleges, filed a federal lawsuit in Alabama in an effort to get a court order that would halt all the litigation against it.

How much litigation? ECA submitted a tally of legal proceedings against it showing 107 separate complaints and arbitration proceedings. That's a lot of litigation. And litigating that many legal disputes requires a lot of lawyers--probably hundreds.

Do you think any of ECA's lawyers graduated from a for-profit college like the ones ECA owns: Virginia College or Brightwood College? Do any of ECA's many lawyers hold degrees from for-profit law schools: Florida Coastal, Arizona Summit, or Charlotte School of Law?

And how about Avy Stein, ECA's Board Chair? Do you think Stein has anybody working for him that graduated from a for-profit college or a for-profit law school?  Stein, by the way, got his J.D. from Harvard.

I seriously doubt it. In fact, if Avy Stein can identify a single ECA-hired lawyer who graduated from a for-profit college or a for-profit law school, I'll buy him a hamburger at the Baton Rouge restaurant of his choice. (I recommend the Stockyards Cafe down by the old bridge.)

No, the for-profit college industry is getting rich peddling shoddy college degrees and professional certificates; and now they are being sued. Crummy education is good enough for the people the industry has been shilling for decades, but when for-profit colleges gets sued, I'm sure they hire the best lawyers money can buy--lawyers who graduated from respectable colleges and law schools.

 For the Alabama lawsuit, ECA brought in DLA Piper, a global law firm with attorneys located in 40 countries. Those lawyers should be able to handle all those fraud claims brought by ECA's former students--particularly the ones who couldn't afford to hire an attorney.




Thursday, November 1, 2018

Education Corporation of America brazenly uses an Alabama court to delay lawsuits against it. Is this a great country or what?

Education Corporation of America (ECA), a for-profit college chain, brazenly filed a federal lawsuit in Alabama last month, asking Judge Abdul Kallon to put it into receivership and enjoin all litigation against it. ECA hopes to delay its creditors and other litigants while continuing to receive federal student-loan money.

What a cocky, shameless and impudent strategy!

Judge Kallon initially obliged ECA, ordering a halt to all litigation against ECA until October 29. Then, on October 29, the judge  extended the injunction until November 5. Parties opposing ECA's Alabama litigation must find lawyers to represent them in Alabama, which will be costly.

For example, Gleneagles Office, LLC, a Maryland corporation, filed a lawsuit in Maryland last month, seeking to collect almost $100,000 in back rent and late fees from Virginia College, which ECA owns. Judge Kallon's injunction, issued seven days after Gleneagles filed its lawsuit for back rent, halted that litigation.

Gleneagles hired an Alabama law firm to oppose ECA's attempt to enjoin lawsuits against it. Gleneagles pointed out that ECA guaranteed the Virginia College lease and agreed that any dispute about the lease would be litigated in Maryland. Gleneagles also argued that Judge Kallon does not have jurisdiction over it.

A Texas company also joined the Alabama lawsuit to oppose ECA's request for an injunction. The Texas company is landlord to a Brightwood College campus in Arlington, Texas. Brightwood is another college owned by ECA.

Perhaps ECA's various landlords and creditors have the financial resources to fight ECA in Alabama, but ECA's former students do not. ECA's list of litigation against it (or its subsidiary affiliates) include several suits by former students. ECA managed to force many of these suits into arbitration, probably because ECA required students to sign arbitration agreements as a condition of enrollment.

So what's going on?

ECA is in financial trouble. Enrollments have dropped, and it is in danger of losing its accreditation. Meanwhile it has been sued by landlords, former students, and former employees on a variety of grounds.  ECA managed--temporarily at least--to halt all the litigation against it based on the signature of one Alabama federal judge, who may not have jurisdiction over any of this litigation. Some creditors have joined the Alabama lawsuit to stop this charade, but most of ECA's former students and employees don't have the financial wherewithal to do that.

Essentially, ECA's Alabama lawsuit has given ECA  all the benefits of bankruptcy without the downside of losing federal student loan money.  And when it becomes advantageous to do so, ECA can stroll into bankruptcy court any time it likes.

Isn't it ironic that ECA can use the courts to its advantage while its students are barred from suing it based on arbitration agreements ECA or its subsidiaries required them to sign as a condition of enrollment?

And isn't ironic that ECA can file for bankruptcy whenever it chooses (which it will probably do eventually), while ECA's students face enormous obstacles to discharging their student loans in bankruptcy?

Is this a great country or what?



References

Joinder of  Pioneer Industrial LLC and Pioneer Parking Lot, LLC to National Retail Properties LP's Memorandum in Opposition to Emergency Motion for The Appointment of a Receiver and Entry of a Temporary Restraining Order and Injunctive Relief, filed October 29 2018 in Education Corporation of America v. U.S. Department of Education, Case No. 2:18-CV-01698-AKK.

Non-party Gleneagles Office, LCC's Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Preliminary Injunction, filed October 29, 2018 in Education Corporation of America v. U.S. Department of Education, Case No. 2:18-CV-01698-AKK.

Order Extending Temporary Injunctive Relief, signed on Octobe 29, 2018 in Education Corporation of America, et al. v. United States Department of Education, 2:18-CV-01698-AKK.




Friday, October 26, 2018

Augustin v. U.S. Department of Education: Adventures in Fantasy Land

In  April 2016, Pierre Augustin filed an adversary complaint in a Maryland bankruptcy court, seeking to discharge $210,000 in student loan debt. He told the court he had been burdened by this debt for 24 years, and that his financial circumstances did not permit him to pay it back. Augustin's wife also had student-loan debt: $120,000. Together the couple had accumulated a third of a million dollars in student debt.

Augustin had three postsecondary degrees: a bachelor's degree in political science from Salem State University in Massachusetts, a master's degree in public administration from Suffolk University in Boston, and an MBA from University of Massachusetts Lowell. Seventeen years after receiving his MBA degree, he was working  as a security guard.

Augustin claimed he was unable to find a job in the field of his degrees, but together he and his wife earned a net income of more than $6,000 a month. The Department of Education (DOE) offered Augustin a 25-year income-based repayment plan that would allow him to pay $331 a month toward his student loans or a 15-year plan with payments of $1,138 a month.

Augustin did not accept DOE's offers. Under the 25-year plan, he argued, he would face a lifetime of indebtedness. Moreover, when the payment term ended, he would face massive tax liability for the amount of forgiven debt. The 15-year plan was also unacceptable, he maintained, because it would not allow him to save money for his retirement.

Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Catliota was not sympathetic. The judge applied the three-pronged Brunner test to determine whether Augustin's student debt constituted an undue hardship.  Under Judge Catliota's analysis, Augustin failed all three prongs.

First, Judge Catliota noted, Augustin could make monthly loan payments of $331 under the 25-year repayment plan while maintaining a minimal standard of living. Second, Augustin could not show additional circumstances that would make it impossible to make monthly payments in that amount.

Finally, Judge Catliota ruled, Augustin had not demonstrated good faith. Augustin had not made a single payment on his student loans for more than a quarter of a century. "By his own  admission,"the judge pointed out, "Mr. Agustin deferred his loans for approximately 26 years."

Moreover, Mr. Augustin was not willing to accept DOE's offer of a  manageable repayment plan. In Judge Catliota's view, "This shows lack of good faith on [Augustin's] part."

Not surprisingly then, Judge Catliota refused to discharge Mr. Augustin's student debt. Applying the three-part Brunner test, Augustine was not entitled to relief.

Perhaps Judge Catliota reached a just outcome in the Augustin case. But let's look at the case in a larger context. Why does the Department of Education loan people money for multiple college degrees and then permit borrowers to make no payments on those loans for 25 years?

Why does the government push people into 25-year repayment plans that allow debtors to make monthly payments so low that they don't cover accruing interest? Even if Mr. Augustin agrees to make income-based payments of $331 a month for 25 years, he will never pay back the $210,000 he owes.

Finally, why apply the Brunner test to people like Mr. Augustin? Why not simply ask whether Mr. Augustin and his wife will ever pay back $330,000 in student-loan debt? The answer is clearly no.

In short, Augustin v. Department of Education is another adventure in Fantasy Land, which is what the federal student-loan program has become. Our government has rigged an insane student-loan program that is trapping millions of people to a lifetime of indebtedness from which there is no relief.

References

Augustin v. U.S. Department of Education, 588 B.R. 141 (Bankr. D. Md. 2018).

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Education Corporation of America files for receivership: Using lawyers' tricks to suck up more federal student-loan money

Education Corporation of America (ECA), a for-profit college chain, filed a lawsuit a few days ago in an Alabama federal court. The lawsuit seeks to put ECA into receivership, and it asks the court to halt all litigation against it. ECA also wants Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education to keep showering it with student-loan money while it straights out its financial affairs.

ECA is closing more than two dozen of its campuses; and it needs to keep getting federal student-loan money, it argues, so it can do a "teach out" at campuses it intends to close. If it allows current students to finish their academic programs (through a teach-out), those students won't be eligible to have their student loans forgiven under the "closed school" rule. That will save the Department of Education a lot of money, ECA says.

This line of bull reminds me of the story about a man who murdered his parents and then begged the court for leniency on the grounds he was an orphan.

ECA operates  under numerous brand names, including Virginia College, New England College of Business, Brightwood College, and Golf Academy of America; and it is in big financial trouble. It submitted a list of legal claims against it to the Alabama court, which is 15 pages long. Landlords are suing for back rent and other litigants have sued for breach of contract, fraud, failure to pay wages,  race discrimination, age discrimination, false advertising and some other stuff. 

Why doesn't ECA just file for bankruptcy? One reason: Under federal law, ECA would immediately lose access to all federal money if it filed for bankruptcy. It is hoping to keep federal money flowing as a long as possible.

I hope Judge Abdul Kallon sees through ECA's dodgy litigation ploy and refuses its plea for a receiver and an injunction against its creditors. (Judge Kallon granted ECA a temporary restraining order on October 19, but he will have to extend it to keep ECA's creditors at bay.)

  ECA needs to close, and it needs to close NOW. Every day it continues operating is another day uninformed students will be taking out student loans to pay for an ECA education that probably won't get them a good job. In fact, ECA's own accrediting agency scored ECA's campus-level job placement rate at only 16 percent.


References

David Halperin. For-Profit College Chain Claims Financial Distress, Sues DeVos. Republic Report, October 18, 2018.

Steve Rhode. Education Corporation of America Whines Over Failure. Get Out of Debt Guy (blog), October 22, 2018.

Alan White. For-profit college chain files (for receivership). Credit Slips, October 22, 2018.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Jefferson School of Law


References

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

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

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




Thursday, October 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

What's going on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are we to make of this gigantic snarl?

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

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

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

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

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



 References

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



Sunday, September 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 24, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going to college is like running the gauntlet




Friday, September 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 to 20 million casualties--tops!

Friday, September 14, 2018

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

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

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

But not always.

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

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

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

What the hell happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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





Thursday, August 30, 2018

LGBTQ Student Organizations and the Equal Access Act: Betsy DeVos Has No Power to Restrict the Protections of the EAA

By Richard Fossey & Todd A. DeMitchell 

Originally posted at Berkley Forum, the blog site for Georgetown University's Center For Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

In 1984, Congress passed the Equal Access Act, which prohibits secondary schools that receive federal funds from discriminating against non-curriculum-related student groups based on their political, philosophical, or religious viewpoint. Thus, if a high school permits any non-curriculum-related student group to use its school facilities, it must allow other student groups equal access, without regard to the group’s viewpoint.

In adopting the EAA, Congress intended to advance the right of Christian student groups to use school facilities during non-instructional hours; and it clearly accomplished that goal. In Board of Education v. Mergens, a 1990 opinion, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the EAA, rejecting a school district’s argument that the Act violated the Establishment Clause.

Litigation Involving Gay Student Groups Seeking to Exercise Their Rights Under the EAA

Not long after the law was passed, LGBTQ student groups, which sometimes called themselves Gay Straight Alliances (GSA), sought the same rights as religious groups under the EAA, and a few school districts refused to recognize them. The GSAs sued in federal court, and they almost always won.

For example, a California school district argued that a GSA would introduce discussions of sexuality that were age inappropriate and would disrupt the school environment. A federal court rejected that argument, noting that a student club that focuses on sexuality might actually prevent school disruptions that can take place when students are harassed based on sexual orientation.

Likewise, a Kentucky school district maintained that it was legally entitled to shut down a GSA because the school board’s recognition of the group had triggered a boycott by anti-gay students. But a federal court disagreed. To allow disruptive anti-gay students to nullify the GSA’s legal right to meet, the court ruled, would amount to a “heckler’s veto” of constitutionally protected speech.

Ten years ago, we analyzed all published court decisions involving GSAs seeking to exercise their rights under the EAA, and we identified only one decision in which a federal court allowed a school district to ban a GSA while recognizing other student clubs. In Caudillo v. Lubbock Independent School District, a Texas school district refused to recognize a gay student group and the group filed suit. A federal district court upheld the school district’s decision on the grounds that the gay student group had created a web site with links to other web sites that the judge ruled were obscene.

Since our article was published, there have been a few more lawsuits filed by GSAs seeking recognition from school districts under the EAA, and they have generally prevailed. For example, in a 2016 case, a Florida school district refused to recognize a GSA organized by middle-school students on the grounds the EAA applied only to secondary schools and the district’s middle school was not a secondary school. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument, ruling emphatically that a middle school is a secondary school subject to the EAA.

Can Betsy DeVos Diminish LGBTQ Students’ Rights under EAA?

Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s Secretary of Education, has diminished the U.S. Department of Education’s role in protecting the civil rights of LGBTQ students. As the Brookings Institution reported, DeVos has consistently declined to say whether DOE will protect LGBTQ students from discrimination. Earlier this year, the Department’s Office of Civil Rights announced it would stop accepting complaints about transgender students not having access to school bathrooms that match their gender identity. Is it possible DeVos might restrict LGBTQ students’ legal right to form GSAs in public high schools?

We do not believe DeVos can water down the EAA’s protections for GSAs, even if she tries to do so. The EAA is a federal statute that Congress is unlikely to repeal or amend, and federal courts are virtually unanimous in holding that the EAA guarantees the right of GSAs to organize in all public high schools where other non-curriculum related groups have formed.

Perhaps more importantly, the EAA has been in place for 34 years, and few school districts have refused to abide by its provisions. All across the United States, conservative Christian student groups and GSAs have met on high school campuses with little or no friction, and most school authorities are more than willing to allow GSAs to organize and meet.

In short, Betsy DeVos may reduce DOE’s role in protecting the civil rights of LGBTQ students, but she cannot extinguish their legal right to form GSAs in public high schools. Happily, the federal courts will stop her if she tries.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Wildfires ravage California and student debtors groan under mountains of debt. Meanwhile scholars debate transphobia

More than 5,000 wildfires burned in California this summer, incinerating more than 1 million acres of forests and several thousand homes.  For Californians, 2018 is truly the year of the holocaust fire.

Approximately 45 million Americans groan under the burden of $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loans. As one dentist has demonstrated, it is now possible for a person to accumulate $1 million in student-loan debt. For millions of people, student loans have incinerated their financial future--a holocaust of another kind.

Meanwhile American scholars debate this important issue: Is the acronym 'TERF' a transphobic slur?

If you don't know what TERF means, you're probably a misogynistic bastard, and  you're definitely uncool.  So I will tell you. TERF is the acronym for "trans-exclusionary radical feminist." As Colleen Flaherty explained in Inside Higher Ed, the term describes "a subgroup of feminists who believe that the interests of cisgender women (those who are born with vaginas) don't necessarily intersect with those of transgender women (primarily those born with penises)."

Here's the nut of the debate. Some feminists believe that the experience of having lived as a male for some time is important to feminist discourse, "but some trans scholars and allies say that notion is of itself transphobic, since it means that trans women are somehow different from women, or that they're not women at all."

As Inside Higher Ed informs me, Rachel McKinnon, an assistant professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston, argues that TERF is "a modern form of propaganda where so-called trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) are engaged in a political project to deny that trans women are women--and thereby to exclude trans women from women-only spaces, services, and protections."

This is all inside baseball to me. Nevertheless, as I read the Inside Higher Ed article about this debate, I became curious about the College of Charleston, where Professor McKinnon teaches. I learned that C of C is a public institution of about 11,000 students located in Charleston, South Carolina. The college accepts almost 4 out of 5 applicants for admission and it costs a South Carolina student about $29,000 a year to study there (tuition, room and board).

An out-of-state student, however, will pay considerably more to study at C of C: about $49,000 a year. So a Californian who enrolls at the College of  Charleston to study TERF bigotry with Professor McKinnon would have to borrow a considerable amount of money--at least $200,000--to get a 4-year degree.

Would that be a good investment? You can answer the question for yourself. As for me, I question whether scholarly debates about trans-exclusionary radical feminism is a good use of public money in these unquiet times when 5,000 wildfires blaze in California, 72,000 people died from opioid overdoses last year, and millions of  Americans struggle to pay their student loans.

Professor Rachel McKinnon speaks out against TERFs







Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Student Loan Ombudsman at CFPB Can’t Take the BS Anymore. Quits in Scathing Letter Telling Director Mulvaney He Sucks. Essay by Steve Rhode

By Steve Rhode

Seth Frotman, an Assistant Director and Student Loan Ombudsman at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, told CFPB Director Mick Mulvaney to shove it and quit in an honest resignation. His experience inside the slowly gutted consumer protection agency was enough to say he’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

Frotman’s resignation letter said, “It is with great regret that I tender my resignation as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Student Loan Ombudsman. It has been the honor of a lifetime to spend the past seven years working to protect American consumers; first under Holly Petraeus as the Bureau defended America’s military families from predatory lenders, for-profit colleges, and other unscrupulous businesses, and most recently leading the Bureau’s work on behalf of the 44 million Americans struggling with student loan debt. However, after 10 months under your leadership, it has become clear that consumers no longer have a strong, independent Consumer Bureau on their side.


Each year, tens of millions of student loan borrowers struggle to stay afloat. For many, the CFPB has served as a lifeline — cutting through red tape, demanding systematic reforms when borrowers are harmed, and serving as the primary financial regulator tasked with holding student loan companies accountable when they break the law.

The hard work and commitment of the immensely talented Bureau staff has had a tremendous impact on students and their families. Together, we returned more than $750 million to harmed student loan borrowers in communities across the country and halted predatory practices that targeted millions of people in pursuit of the American Dream.

The challenges of student debt affect borrowers young and old, urban and rural, in professions ranging from infantrymen to clergymen. Tackling these challenges should know no ideology or political persuasion. I had hoped to continue this critical work in partnership with you and your staff by using our authority under law to stand up for student loan borrowers trapped in a broken system. Unfortunately, under your leadership, the Bureau has abandoned the very consumers it is tasked by Congress with protecting. Instead, you have used the Bureau to serve the wishes of the most powerful financial companies in America.


As the Bureau official charged by Congress with overseeing the student loan market, I have seen how
the current actions being taken by Bureau leadership are hurting families. In recent months, the Bureau has made sweeping changes, including:

Undercutting enforcement of the law. It is clear that the current leadership of the Bureau has abandoned its duty to fairly and robustly enforce the law. The Bureau’s new political leadership has repeatedly undercut and undermined career CFPB staff working to secure relief for consumers. These actions will affect millions of student loan borrowers, including those harmed by the company that dominates this market. In addition, when the Education Department unilaterally shut the door to routine CFPB oversight of the largest student loan companies, the Bureau’s current leadership folded to political pressure. By undermining the Bureau’s own authority to oversee the student loan market, the Bureau has failed borrowers who depend on independent oversight to halt bad practices and bring accountability to the student loan industry.

Undermining the Bureau’s independence. The current leadership of the Bureau has made its priorities clear — it will protect the misguided goals of the Trump Administration to the detriment of student loan borrowers. For nearly seven years, I was proud to be part of an agency that served no party and no administration; the Consumer Bureau focused solely on doing what was right for American consumers. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. Recently, senior leadership at the Bureau blocked efforts to call attention to the ways in which the actions of this administration will hurt families ripped off by predatory for-profit schools. Similarly, senior leadership also blocked attempts to alert the Department of Education to the far-reaching harm borrowers will face due to the Department’s unprecedented and illegal attempts to preempt state consumer laws and shield student loan companies from accountability for widespread abuses. At every turn, your political appointees have silenced warnings by those of us tasked with standing up for service members and students.

Shielding bad actors from scrutiny. The current leadership of the Bureau has turned its back on young people and their financial futures. Where we once found efficient and innovative ways to collaborate across government to protect consumers, the Bureau is now content doing the bare minimum for them while simultaneously going above and beyond to protect the interests of the biggest financial companies in America. For example, late last year, when new evidence came to light showing that the nation’s largest banks were ripping off students on campuses across the country by saddling them with legally dubious account fees, Bureau leadership suppressed the publication of a report prepared by Bureau staff. When pressed by Congress about this, you chose to leave students vulnerable to predatory practices and deny any responsibility to bring this information to light.

American families need an independent Consumer Bureau to look out for them when lenders push products they know cannot be repaid, when banks and debt collectors conspire to abuse the courts and force families out of their homes, and when student loan companies are allowed to drive millions of Americans to financial ruin with impunity.

In my time at the Bureau I have traveled across the country, meeting with consumers in over three dozen states, and with military families from over 100 military units. I have met with dozens of state law enforcement officials and, more importantly, I have heard directly from tens of thousands of individual student loan borrowers.

A common thread ties these experiences together — the American Dream under siege, told through the heart wrenching stories of individuals caught in a system rigged to favor the most powerful financial interests. For seven years, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fought to ensure these families received a fair shake as they as they strived for the American Dream.

Sadly, the damage you have done to the Bureau betrays these families and sacrifices the financial futures of millions of Americans in communities across the country.

For these reasons, I resign effective September 1, 2018. Although I will no longer be Student Loan Ombudsman, I remain committed to fighting on behalf of borrowers who are trapped in a broken student loan system.

Sincerely,
Seth Frotman
Assistant Director 5 Student Loan Ombudsman
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – Source

Steve Rhode, the Get Out of Debt Guy



`*****

This essay by Steve Rhode originally appeared on August 27, 2018 at Getoutofdebtguy.org I highly recommend Mr. Rhode's blog site--a robust ongoing commentary on consumer debt issues.



Bob Hertz, Editor of New Laws for America, Has Some Good Suggestions for Solving the Student Loan Crisis

Bob Hertz, who manages a website titled New Laws for America (newlawsforamerica.blogspot/) sent me his list of legal reforms to solve the student loan crisis.

I don't agree with all of Mr. Hertz's proposal, but all are worthy of consideration. I am listing some of his suggestions:

1) Student borrowers should not be required to make payments on their student loans until they make at least $40,000.

2) No interest should accrue on student loans. In fact, interest on student loans should be abolished altogether.

3) All student debt owed by borrowers or cosigners over age 60 should be forgiven.

4) Students debtors should have access to the bankruptcy courts.

5) The following types of academic programs should be excluded from the student-loan program:


  • Third-tier law schools
  • MBA programs
  • Graduate programs in liberal arts
  • for-profit vocational schools
  • loans for living expenses

Near the conclusion of Mr. Hertz's list of recommendation, he makes this trenchant observation, which I quote:
Let's quit harassing and destroying our own citizens. The Federal Reserve was rich enough to buy up billions of 'toxic assets' after the bank meltdown of 2008. We can do the same with toxic student loans, which are destructive to more individuals than subprime mortgages. You an walk away from an unaffordable house. That destroys your credit but your financial life can be rebuilt.  These student loans are forever. 
I will take this opportunity to list my own list of student-loan reforms, which are similar to Mr. Hertz's reforms, but not identical.

1. Distressed student borrowers should be able to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy like any other nonsecured consumer debt.

2) The for-profit college industry should be shut down completely.

3) The Department of Education should be forbidden from garnishing Social Security checks from elderly student-loan defaulters.

4) The Parent PLUS program, which loans money to parents of college students, should be abolished; and private lenders should be prohibited by law from requiring student debtors to obtain co-signers for their loans. In addition, all student-loan cosigners should be immediately released from any legal obligation to pay back student loans that were taken out to benefit a third party (usually the child or grandchild of the cosigner).

I have called for reforms again and again, but I take this opportunity to state them again along with the reforms proposed by Bob Hertz.




Monday, August 27, 2018

Ben Miller, where the hell ya been? Center for American Progress finally wakes up to the magnitude of student-loan crisis

Ben Miller, senior director of the Center for American Progress, reminds me of a fuddy duddy who falls asleep at a wild party in a friend's apartment.  Just as the party starts to get interesting, he nods off on a pile of party goers' coats.

 Meanwhile, the party spins out of control: fights break out, spontaneous trysts are consummated in closets and spare bedrooms, furniture is broken, lamps are shattered. When the fuddy duddy awakes, the apartment is in shambles and the police are cuffing drunken revelers and hauling them off to jail.

"Did I miss something?", the fuddy duddy asks as he rubs the sleep from his eyes.

Miller wrote an op ed essay for the New York Times on August 8 titled "The Student Debt Problem is Worse Than We Imagined?" Ya think? Where the hell have you been, Mr. Miller?  You're like the guy who went out to buy popcorn just before the steamy scene in Last Tango in Paris.

So here is what Mr. Miller said in his op essay: student loan default rates are much higher than the Department of Education reports. I hate to break it to you, Ben; but people have known that for years. Everybody knows the for-profit colleges have been hiding their default rates by pushing their former students into deferment programs to disguise the fact the suckers weren't paying on their loans.

In fact, the problem is probably worse that Miller described it in the Times. Looney and Yannelis reported in 2015 that the five-year default rate for the 2009 cohort of student borrowers was 28 percent (Table 8).  And the five year default rate for the 2009 cohort of for-profit students was 47 percent--almost double what Miller reported for the 2012 cohort--only 25 percent.

Admittedly, Miller is looking at the 2012 cohort of debtors, while Looney and Yannelis analyzed the 2009 cohort. But surely no on believes the student-loan problem got better in recent years. Everyone knows the crisis is getting worse.

Miller's analysis briefly mentions the federal push to put student borrowers in deferment plans,  but that problem is more serious than Miller intimates. In fact 6 million student borrowers are in income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) and are making payments so small their loan balances are getting larger and larger with each passing month due to accruing interest.  For all practical purposes, the IBRP participants are also in default.

But Mr. Miller can be forgiven for waking up late to smell the coffee. Perhaps Miller, like the New York Times that published his essay, was so distracted by Stormy Daniels and the Russians that he was late to notice that American higher education is going down the toilet.  And surely, we can all agree that the person pressing down on the toilet-bowl handle  is Betsy DeVos.

What happened while Center for American Progress was snoozing?



References

Adam Looney & Constantine Yannelis, A crisis in student loans? How changes in the characteristics of borrowers and in the institutions they attended contributed to rising default rates. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution (2015). Accessible at: http://www.brookings.edu/about/projects/bpea/papers/2015/looney-yannelis-student-loan-defaults

Ben Miller. The Student Debt Problem is Worse Than We Imagined. New York Times, August 8, 2018.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

A quarter trillion dollars in student aid last year: And what do we have to show for it?

The Chronicle of Higher Education released its annual Almanac edition this month, stuffed full of information that professors care most about: how much money people are making in the higher-education racket.

College presidents are making out like bandits. In 2015, Fifty presidents of private colleges received at least a million dollars in total compensation. Nathan Hatch at Wake Forest was the highest paid university CEO. He made $4 million in 2015--more than twice as much as the president of Yale.

The Chronicle also documented what we already knew--the cost of going to college is in the stratosphere.  At 100 private universities, it costs a quarter of a million dollars to get an undergraduate degree (tuition, room and board). And those costs are probably underestimated. According to the Chronicle, room and board at Yale costs $15,500. But does anyone believe a person can live in New Haven, Connecticut on $15,500 a year?

On the other hand, the posted sticker price for college tuition is inflated. As the Chronicle reported, colleges are discounting freshman tuition by 50 percent. Thus, a private college that charges $36,000 a year for tuition is actually collecting only about $18,000 due to grants, scholarships and various discounts.

Who gets those tuition discounts and who pays the sticker price? Colleges give grants and aid to athletes, minority students, and applicants with good academic credentials. Only the least attractive applicants pay full price.

The Chronicle's Almanac also contains some useful information about colleges that are in financial trouble.  The U.S. Department of Education gives financial responsibility ratings to American colleges. Institutions that rate 1.0 and above are considered financially responsible; college ranking below that are considered not financially responsible.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the schools with low ratings are private colleges with religious affiliations.  Northeast Catholic College, for example, received a negative 0.4 rating, and Boston Baptist College drew a 0.8.

These scores are just another sign that the small, non-prestigious, private colleges are in big trouble, particularly schools tied to religious denominations. I wish all these little schools well, but parents are crazy if they allow their children to take out student loans to attend a small private college no one has heard of.  There is a good chance these schools will have shut down before their graduates pay off their loans.

Finally, the Chronicle reported almost a quarter of a trillion dollars  was distributed in governmental and institutional student aid during 2016-2017, including $153 billion in federal aid (loans, grants and Work-Study). That's a lot of money invested in American higher education in just one year. Does anyone think we're getting our money's worth?

Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest University, made $4 million in 2015




Sunday, August 5, 2018

Martin v. ECMC: Iowa bankruptcy judge discharges unemployed lawyer's student loans

In Martin v.  Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC), decided last February, Janeese Martin obtained a bankruptcy discharge of her student-loan debt totally $230,000. Judge Thad Collin’s decision in the case is probably most significant for the rationale he articulated when he rejected ECMC’s argument that Martin should be placed in a 20- or 25-year, income-based repayment plan (IBRP) rather than given a discharge.

Citing previous decisions, Judge Collins said an IBRP is inappropriate for a 50-year-old debtor who would be 70 or 75 years old when her IBRP would come to an end. An IBRP would injure Martin’s credit rating and cause her mental and emotional hardship, the judge wrote. In addition, an IBRP could lead to a massive tax bill when Martin's plan terminated in 20 or 25 years, when she would be "in the midst" of retirement.

Janeese Martin, a 1991 law-school graduate, is unable to find a good law job

Janeese Martin graduated from University of South Dakota School of Law in 1991 and passed the South Dakota bar exam the following year. In spite of the fact that she held a law degree and a master's degree in public administration, Martin never found a good job in the field of law. 

Martin financed her undergraduate studies and two advanced degrees with student loans totally $48,817. In 1993, she consolidated her loans at an interest rate of 9 percent; and she made regular payments on those loans from 1994-1996. 

Over the years, there were times when Martin could make no payments on her student loans, but she obtained various kinds of deferments that allowed her to skip monthly payments while interest accrued on her loan balance. By 2016, when Martin and her husband filed for bankruptcy, her student-loan debt had grown to $230,000--more than four times what she borrowed.

As Judge Collins noted in his 2018 opinion, Janeese Martin was 50 years old and unemployed. Her husband Stephen was 66 years old and employed as a maintenance man and dishwasher at a local cafe. The couple supported two adult children who were studying at the University of South Dakota and had student loans of their own. The family's annual income for 2016 was $39,243, which came from three sources: Stephen's cafe job, his pension and his Social Security income.

Judge Collins reviewed Janeese's petition to discharge her student loans under the "totality of circumstances" test, which is the standard used by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals for determining when student loans constitute an "undue hardship" and can be discharged through bankruptcy. 

Martin's Past, Present, and Reasonably Reliable Future Financial Resources

Judge Collins surveyed Martin's employment history since she completed law school. In addition to three years working for a legal aid clinic, Martin had worked eight years with the Taxpayer's Research Council, a nonprofit agency located in Iowa.  Her maximum salary in that job had paid only $31,000, and Martin was forced to give up her job in 2008 when her family moved to South Dakota.

ECMC, which intervened in Martin's suit as a creditor, argued that Martin had only made "half-hearted" efforts to find employment, but Judge Collins disagreed. Martin "testified very credibly that she wants to work and has applied for hundreds of jobs," Judge Collins wrote. Nevertheless, in the nine years since her last job, Martin had only received a few interviews and no job offers. 

Judge Collins acknowledged that Martin had two advanced degrees, but neither had been acquired recently. In spite of her diligent efforts to find employment, the judge wrote, she was unlikely to find a job in the legal field that would give her sufficient income to make significant payments on her student loan.

Martin's Reasonable and Necessary Living Expenses

Judge Collins itemized the Martin family's monthly expenses, which totaled about $3,500 a month. These expenses were reasonable, the judge concluded, and slightly exceeded the family's monthly income. Virtually all expenses "go toward food, shelter, clothing, medical treatment, and other expenses reasonably necessary to maintain a minimal standard of living," Judge Collins ruled, and "weigh in favor of discharge" (p. 893).

Other Relevant Facts and Circumstances

ECMC argued, as it nearly always does in student-loan bankruptcy cases, that Martin should be placed in a 20- or 25-year income-based repayment plan rather than given a bankruptcy discharge. The Martin family's income was so low, ECMC pointed out, that Martin's monthly payments would be zero. 

Judge Collins' rejected ECMC's arguments, citing two recent federal court opinions: the 2015 Abney decision, and Judge Collins' own 2016 decision in Fern v. FedLoan Servicing. “When considering income-based repayment plans under § 523(a)(8),” Judge Collins wrote, “the Court must be mindful of both the likelihood of a debtor making significant payment under the income-based repayment plan, and also of the additional hardships which may be imposed by these programs” (p. 894, internal punctuation omitted).

These hardships, Judge Collins noted, include the effect on the debtor’s ability to obtain credit in the future, the mental and emotional impact of allowing the size of the debt to grow under an IBRP, and “the likely tax consequences to the debtor when the debt is ultimately canceled” (p. 894, internal citation and punctuation omitted).

In Judge Collins’ view, an IBRP was simply inappropriate for Janeese Martin, who was 50 years old:
If she were to sign up for an IBRP, she would be 70 or 75 when her debt was ultimately canceled. The tax liability could wipe out all of [Martin’s] assets not as she is approaching retirement, but as she is in the midst of it. If [Martin] enters an IBRP, not only would she have the stress of her debt continuing to grow, but she would have to live with the knowledge that any assets she manages to save could very well be wiped out when she is in her 70s. (p. 894)
Conclusion

Martin v. ECMC is at least the fourth federal court opinion which has considered the emotional and mental stress that IBRPs inflict on student-loan debtors who are forced into long-term repayment plans that cause their total indebtedness to grow. Together, Judge Collins' Martin decision, Abney v. U.S. Department of Education, Fern v. FedLoan Servicing, and Halverson v. U.S. Department of Education irrefutably argue that the harm IBRPs inflict on distressed student debtors outweighs any benefit the federal government might receive by forcing Americans to pay on student loans for 20 or even 25 years--loans that almost certainly will never be paid off.



References

Abney v. U.S. Department of Education540 B.R. 681 (Bankr. W.D. Mo. 2015).

Fern v. FedLoan Servicing, 553 B.R. 362 (Bankr. N.D. Iowa 2016), aff'd, 563 B.R. 1 (8th Cir. B.A.P. 2017).

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

Halverson v. U.S. Department of Education, 401 B.R. 378 (Bankr. D. Minn. 2009).

Martin v. Great Lakes Higher Education Group and Educational Credit Management Corporation (In re Martin), 584 B.R. 886 (Bankr. N.D. Iowa 2018).