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.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Only about 1 out of 4 law school graduates passed the California Bar Exam last February

Much like the Lusitania, legal education steams full speed toward its ultimate destruction, while law school deans and professors sip California wine and contemplate their retirement portfolios.

Earlier this month, the California's State Bar announced passage rates on the California bar exam, administered last February. Only 27 percent passed the exam--the lowest pass rate in almost 70 years. Think about that-- almost 3 out of 4 law-school graduates failed the California bar exam, which means they cannot practice law in the Sunshine State.

Most of these unlicensed lawyers borrowed money to go to law school--a lot of money. Even public law schools are expensive. University of Texas School of Law, my alma mater, charges students $35,000 a year to attend. And the bottom-tier, for-profit law schools are almost as expensive as top-ranked public schools. According to Law School Transparency, the total cost of attending Florida Coastal School of Law--a bottom-of-the-barrel law school--is $256,939! The total cost to attend the University of Michigan's law school,one of the best schools in the country, is only slightly more expensive--$288,395.

What's going on? First of all, the demand for newly minted lawyers has declined drastically. Smart people have figured that out, and fewer bright young men and women are choosing law as a career.

Many law schools lowered admission standards to keep their classes full, which led to lower bar passage rates for law graduates. A few states (Nevada and Oregon) lowered the standards for passing their bar exams to get their passage rates up. But most states have tried to maintain high standards, which means thousands of poorly qualified but heavily indebted law-school graduates aren't passing the bar and can't work as lawyers.

Then--as law school enrollments went down--Congress enacted the Direct PLUS program, which removed the cap on the amount of federal loans students can take out to go to graduate school. In response, law schools jacked up their prices and students began borrowing more and more money to pursue careers that became increasingly illusive.

Image result for lusitania
A few colleges have done the honorable thing and stopped admitting students. Whittier College will close its law school after its current students graduate, and Valparaiso Law School announced last November that it will not admit new students.

Belatedly, in my view, the ABA began putting the squeeze on the most mediocre law schools in an effort to get them to raise their admission standards. But some of these schools have sued the ABA--Thomas M. Cooley and Florida Coastal, in particular.

I don't see a happy ending to this saga. All across the United States, second- and third-tier law schools have lowered admission standards, thereby watering down the quality of the legal profession. The ultimate result, in my opinion, will be the erosion of the nation's legal system as fewer and fewer of our nation's brightest and most honorable young people pursue legal careers as attorneys and judges.

We see it now. The corruption, deception, and manipulation that characterizes our national politics can be laid at the feet of our political class--and most of these creeps are lawyers.




Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Parent PLUS loans: African American families are being exploited by HBCUs

Rachel Fishman wrote a report for New America titled "The Wealth Gap PLUS Debt: How Federal Loans Exacerbate Inequality for Black Families."   But a better titled would have been this: "The Parent PLUS student-loan program screws African American families."

Parent PLUS is a federal student loan program that allows parents to take out student loans for their children's postsecondary education. Parents can borrow up to the student's total cost of attending the college of their choice--there is no dollar cap on the amount that parents can borrow.

Originally, the Parent PLUS program had very low eligibility criteria, and the Department of Education was making loans to parents who had a history of bad debts. DOE tightened the criteria in 2011, which raised an outcry from HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities).

HBCUs favor Parent PLUS loans because DOE does not report default rates on these loans and does not penalizes colleges for high Parent PLUS default rates.  As Fishman explained, "Parent PLUS loans are not included in CDR [cohort default rate] calculations, rendering them a no-strings-attached revenue source for colleges and universities" (P. 9). Indeed, for many colleges, "Parent PLUS loans are like grants; they get money from the federal government and the parent is on the hook to repay."

In response to strenuous protests from HBCUs, the Obama administration backed off on its efforts to make borrowing standards more rigorous, and the amount of money parents borrow under the program has increased.  According to Fishman, the percent of Parent PLUS borrowers with debt over $50,000 increased from 3 percent in 2000 to 13 percent in 2014 (p. 19).

Basically, the Department of Education is toadying to the HBCUs by loaning money recklessly to African American families that probably can't pay it back. In fact, Fishman reported that one third of African American parents taking out PLUS loans had incomes so low they were able to make zero estimated family contributions (EFC) to their children's college costs.

As Fishman points out, Parent PLUS loans adds to  a family's total debt for putting a child through college. Black families with zero EFC accumulate an average of $33,721 in "intergenerational indebtedness," which includes an average of $11,000 in PLUS loans in addition to the amount borrowed by the students themselves.

Fishman's report adds to a growing body of evidence showing that African Americans are getting screwed by the federal student loan program. Ben Miller, writing for the Center for American Progress (as reported by Fishman) "found that 12 years after entering college, the median Black borrower owed more than the original amount borrowed."  And default rates for African American college graduates is almost triple the rate for white graduates: 25 percent for black graduates and only 9 percent for white graduates.

A Brookings Institution report also calculates high default rates for black student borrowers. Judith Scott's Brookings report estimates that 70 percent of African American borrowers in the  2003-2004 cohort will ultimately default.

And the student-loan default rate for African Americans who drop out of for-profit schools without graduating is catastrophic.  Three out of four black students who borrow money to attend a for-profit institution and drop out before graduating default on their student loans.

But who gives a damn if the federal student loan program screws African American students and their families? HBCUs like the Parent PLUS program, because the Parent PLUS default rate doesn't penalize the colleges.  Parent PLUS money is essentially "free money" to a HBCU although one third of African American families who take out these loans show zero ability to repay.

References

Rachel Fishman. The Wealth Gap PLUS. How Federal Loans Exacerbate Inequality of Black Families. New America.org, May 2018.

Andrew Kreighbaum. How Parent Plus Worsens the Racial Wealth Gap. Inside Higher Ed, May 15, 2018.










Thursday, May 10, 2018

CFPB to Shift Focus From Protecting Student Loan Debtors to Something Else. Essay by Steve Rhodes

By  on May 10, 2018
Recently the Trump administration has tried to change the law so individual states would not be able to enforce ;laws covering student loan debt collectors.

The new head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), Mick Mulvaney, has just released the updated agenda for the CFPB.
According to the new agenda, the CFPB would drop its efforts to push forward regulations of student loan collectors and scrap “student loan servicing” from its focus.
Mulvaney has also indicated the CFPB will retreat from doing anything regarding student loans in general.
“This defangs the watchdog and instead turns the office into a lapdog for the industry,” said Chris Peterson, a former top CFPB official who is now director of financial services at the Consumer Federation of America.
The unit which has been the tip of the spear on these CFPB student loan efforts to protect debtors has been informed they will be reorganized into the CFPB Office of Financial Education. Now there is a department title which just screams no enforcement.
“This is a very significant change in the mission of the student office,” said Christopher Peterson, a law professor at the University of Utah and former enforcement attorney at the CFPB.
“America is facing an ongoing student debt crisis, with outstanding student debt surpassing $1.5 trillion and over 8 million borrowers in default on their student loans. Closing the office for students is like shuttering the fire department in the middle of a three-alarm fire,” Alexis Goldstein, the senior policy analyst at Americans for Financial Reform, said.
I don’t get it. All actions that have been taken by the Department of Education and now the new modified CFPB have the net effect of restricting supervision of student loan collectors, limit state authority to protect citizens from student loan collection abuse, reduce debt elimination from federal student loan fraud by schools, and give easier access to student loan money by for-profit schools.
You don’t need to read the tea leaves here to see what is going on, you just need to look at the billboard.
I don’t care what your political stripes are. With all these changes any student with any student loan debt should expect to be less protected from collector misinformation, bad advice, and poor servicing.
If you don’t believe me, just go ahead and file a complaint against your student loan servicer and see how much protection you get. Your new friend will be the word NONE.

Steve's essay was originally posted on The Get Out of Debt Guy web site.

*****
Steve Rhode is the Get Out of Debt Guy and has been helping good people with bad debt problems since 1994. You can learn more about Steve, here. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Baby Boomers are stealing from the Millennials: Stocks and bonds for grandma and grandpa; perpetual debt for their grandchildren

Baby Boomers are stealing from the Millennials. People in their 60s and 70s are retiring comfortably in sunny Florida or taking luxury river cruises down the Danube. Meanwhile, their grandchildren are struggling with massive student-loan debt they will never pay off.

As John Rubino put it, "we baby boomers have rigged the system in our favor at the expense of pretty much everyone else," forcing younger generations to take out student loans to get their college degrees. "[S]tudent loans--barely necessary when most boomers graduated 40 years ago--have become a life-defining problem for our kids and grandkids."

Rubino is right. The people who run this country--judges, legislators, college presidents, and the captains of industry--got their college degrees for a modest sum; and most graduated with little or no student debt. But their grandchildren will take out massive student loans to get their postsecondary credentials; and many will remain indebted for decades.

According to a Brookings Institution report, most student borrowers with large loan balances are not defaulting on their loans; they just aren't paying them back. Millions have their loans in deferment, allowing them to skip their loan payments without being put into default.  Six million are now enrolled in some type of income-based repayment plan (IBR) that allows them to make smaller loan payments but keeps them indebted for 20 or 25 years.

Millions more are simply defaulting on their loans--which means their credit is shot and their loan balances have shot upward due to default penalties and accrued interest on their unpaid debt. According to the New York Times, college borrowers defaulted at the rate of 3,000 a day in 2016.

Rubino sees only one solution to this mess:"massive devaluation" of our currency to allow student debtors to pay off their loans with cheaper money. But that won't work unless Millennials' salaries rise high enough so that current debt loads are no longer burdensome. And there is no sign this is happening.

Total outstanding student-loan indebtedness is now about $1.5 trillion, or $1.6 trillion if you include private student-loan debt. About half of this amount will never be paid back. We really only have two options. We can forgive billions of dollars in uncollectable student-loan debt or we can continue to allow millions of Americans to slip out of the middle class--dragged down by their student loans and unable to buy homes or save for their retirement.



References

Adam Looney & Constantine Yannelis. Most students with large loan balances aren't defaulting. They just aren't reducing their debt. Brookings Institution, February 16, 2018.

Josh Mitchell. The Rise of the Jumbo Student Loan. Wall Street Journal, February 16, 2018.

John Rubino. Loan Shark Nation: Forcing Our Kids To Choose Between Student Loans And Everything Else.

The Wrong Move on Student LoansNew York Times, April 6, 2017.

Monday, May 7, 2018

College borrowers who see their student-loan debt triple will never pay off their loans: The tragic story of Rick Tallini

Pope Francis once said that a life prison sentence is essentially a death sentence, and of course he is right.

Something similar can be said about college borrowers who see their debt load double, triple, or even quadruple. They've received a life sentence of indebtedness, and a death sentence to any dreams they may have about retiring or purchasing a home.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about. Rick Tallini borrowed $55,000 to go to law school back in the 1990s.  Had he gotten a good job immediately after graduating, he would have been fine. But Tallini didn't find that good job, and so he put his loans in deferment for extended periods of time, while interest accrued at 8 or 9 percent.

Around ten years after he graduated (according to a CNBC story), Tallini's loans went into default, and his student-loan creditor tacked on additional fees. By the time Tallini consolidated his loans, he owed $150,000--nearly three times what he borrowed. Apparently, his debt continued to grow due to accruing interest, and now he owes $330,000--six times what he borrowed!

Will Tallini ever pay off this debt?  Of course not. The federal government sentenced him to a lifetime of indebtedness--an economic death sentence. Although the CNBC story did not say, Tallini probably does not own his own home, and he probably has inadequate savings toward his retirement.

Mr. Tallini, who is 61 years old, really has only two options: He can file for bankruptcy and attempt to discharge his debt in an adversary proceeding. If he goes that route, he could be in litigation for years because the U.S. Department of Education and its proxy debt collectors will overwhelm him with their teams of heartless attorneys.  And he might not prevail.

Alternatively, Tallini can sign up for a long-term income-based repayment plan that can last 20 or 25 years.  He could be dead before his repayment obligations are met. And if he is fortunate to still be above ground when his income-based repayment plan terminates, the IRS will send him a bill for the forgiven amount of his loan because the IRS considers forgiven debt to be income.

In my view, Mr. Tallini's case demonstrates irrefutably that America is no longer a just society and our colleges and universities are no longer working for the public good. Higher education (including legal education) is a racket financed by student loans owed by people like Rick Tallini, who went to law school more than 20 yeas ago hoping to build a good and satisfying life.

And look at what he got instead. Crushing debt he will never pay off.

Rick Tallini owes $330,000 in student debt. Photo credit: CNBC
References

Annnie Nova. He had $55,000 in student loans, now he owes $330,000 . . . Here's how it happened. CNBC.com, May 6, 2018.

Annie Nova. These are the ways student loans stop people from buying houses. CNBCcom. March 31, 2018.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Mount Ida College closes down: Knowing when to fold 'em

General George Washington fought a brilliant campaign in the Delaware Valley during the winter of 1776-1777, but he knew when to fold his cards. He won a stunning victory at the battle of Trenton, where he caught the Hessians with their pants down on the day after Christmas.  But a week later, Washington and his army found themselves facing General Cornwallis' elite British forces arrayed against him across Assunpink Creek. Night was falling; and Washington knew his army would be annihilated if it didn't hit the road before dawn.

What to do?

Washington didn't stick around for a battle. His army sneaked away under cover of darkness, leaving campfires burning and a small rear guard to deceive the British into thinking the Continentals were going to fight it out the next morning.

Mount Ida College, like George Washington, knows when to slip away. Following Washington's example, it gave every indication that it would be open for business for the 2018-2019 school year. The college admitted a new freshman class; it even offered scholarships to attract more students.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, Mount Ida announced it was shutting down.  It had been quietly negotiating with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which agreed to buy Mount Ida's 72-acre campus for $70 million. It also revealed that it had agreements in place with nearby colleges to take Mount Ida's transfer students.

Did Mount Ida behave reprehensibly? I don't think so. I'm sure Mount Ida's governing board knew it had to act in secrecy in order to make a clean getaway.

Understandably, students, parents, and Mount Ida professors are angry.  "Why are you preying on our children, luring them to come to Mount Ida with nonexistant money?" a mother of an incoming freshman asked.

Professor Fernando Reimers, a Harvard professor and member of the state board of higher education, also judged Mount Ida harshly. "It seems to me that this is not only an example of system failure," Reimers fulminated self-righteously.  "[T]his is an example of serious leadership failure."

But what does Professor Reimers know about running a small liberal arts college? Not much, I'll warrant.

Mount Ida is the latest name on a growing casualty list of small colleges that are calling it quits.  These little boutique schools just can't make it in an age of soaring tuition and an ever more burdensome regulatory environment.

We shouldn't condemn Mount Ida's governing board for the way it announced the school's closure. There is no painless way to shut down a college. It may have acted deceptively by pretending it was going to be operating for another year, but Mount Ida was simply stoking its campfires, much like Washington did on the banks of Assunpink Creek, sneaking away as best it could in the face of overwhelming forces.

As the immortal Kenny Rogers put it, you have to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run. In the next few years, we will see a lot of small colleges shut down. Parents who don't want to run the risk that their children's college will shut down precipitously, should send their kids to a public university.

George Washington knew when to fold 'em.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Fail State, Alexander Shebanow's Documentary about For-Profit Colleges, is an excellent movie. Go see it.

A few nights ago, I watched Fail State, Alexander Shebanow's documentary movie about the seedy for-profit college industry.  Director Shebanow did a masterful job of explaining how for-profit colleges have used deceptive recruiting techniques, strategic campaign contributions, and congressional lobbyists to rip off vulnerable Americans: minorities, the poor, and first generation college students. Over the years, the for-profits have sucked up billions of dollars in federal student-aid money while offering shoddy education programs that left their students with enormous student-loan debt and no work skills.

Shebanow's movie has two broad themes. First, the director shows the for-profit college industry for what it is: a quasi-criminal enterprise that undermines the integrity of higher education. Second, Shebanow's story showcases community colleges as the proper institutions for offering inexpensive but useful postsecondary training.

The student-loan crisis is a long, sad saga of corruption and deceit, and no 90-minute movie can cover the whole story. Nevertheless, I wish Fail State had touched on some of the reforms that could offer student-loan victims relief from crushing debt.

About 20 million people are burdened by student loans they can't pay back. This number includes students who attended for-profit colleges, private nonprofit schools, and state universities.  The Federal Reserve Bank of New York has documented that this huge level of indebtedness is undermining the national economy. In my view, the only sensible thing to do is open up the bankruptcy courts to theses sufferers and give them an opportunity for a fresh start, freed from debs they cannot pay.

Moreover, although Shebanow's indictment of the for-profit colleges is damning and irrefutable, I wish the movie had more clearly stated that this industry needs to be completely shut down. Trying to clean up this gangster industry by enacting tougher regulations will be about as effective as trying evangelize a crocodile.

In a sense, Fail State is much like The Big Short, the star-studded movie about the subprime mortgage meltdown. Both stories are sagas about greed, corruption, and governmental indifference. Shebanow directed a fine movie, and everyone thinking about enrolling at a for-profit college should be required to see it before signing on the dotted line.


References

Zachary Bleemer, et al. Echoes of Rising Tuition in Students' Borrowing, Educational Attainment, and Homeownership in Post-Recession America. Federal Reserve Bank of New York Staff Report No. 820, July 2017.