Monday, July 30, 2018

A Deep Dive Into the Debtor Blaming 2018 Borrower Defense to Repayment Regulations. Essay by Steve Rhode










By Steve Rhode (originally posted on July 25, 2018)

Today the Department of Education (ED) has released their new rules for the program so let’s jump in and see what the Borrower Defence to Repayment program now looks like. I’m going to read the 433 pages so you don’t have to.The Department of Education put a hold on forgiving federal student loans for students who were victims of fraud by the schools that enrolled them. Under the Obama administration, the program would suspend collections activity while claims were being investigated and total forgiveness was a possible outcome.
Under the Trump administration claims were not approved and the rules were changed to only allow a partial forgiveness for most debtors based on an impractical standard.
It appears ED is trying to shift the responsibility for making good decisions for enrolling in questionable schools by pushing that obligation and blame on the student. The new rules say, “The goal of the Department is to enable students to make informed decisions on the front end of college enrollment, rather than to grant them financial remedies after-the-fact when lost time cannot be recouped and new educational opportunities may be sparse. Postsecondary students are adults who can be reasonably expected to make informed decisions and who must take personal accountability for the decisions they make.”
While ED says educational institutions should not mislead the students and “remedies should be provided to a student when misrepresentation on the part of an institution causes financial harm to that student,” let’s see how much power and practicality those remedies have.
The ED again turns back to putting the responsibility and blame on the student for enrolling in the wrong school that may have misled them. ED says, “students have a responsibility when enrolling at an institution or taking student loans to be sure they have explored their options carefully and weighed the available information to make an informed choice.”
But what seems to be missing from that lofty goal is some sort of pre-screening by the school to review the cost of the education and the expected salary for the chosen field. For example, the other day I wrote about the $90,000 associates degree in web design. Does the school have a responsibility to sell a fair product or is the responsibility now focused on the student for believing the hype?
ED says, “The Department has an obligation to enforce the Master Promissory Note, which makes clear that students are not relieved of their repayment obligations if later they regret the choices they made.” So if your 18-year-old self made a bad choice of schools that provided an overpriced education with little value, that’s your own damn fault.
The proposed rule document says, “As of January 2018, it had received 138,989 claims, of which 23 percent had been processed.” Some of these claims go back more than a year.
It is quite possible those became a major issue with the new ED because Borrower Defense Claims were being submitted and approved. These claims were not approved on no basis but because students had been misled or deceived by the school.
But here is where ED is turning the table on debtors, “the Department is concerned that several features of the 2016 final regulations might have put the Department in the untenable position of forgiving billions of dollars of Federal student loans based on potentially unfounded accusations. Specifically, those regulations would allow the Department to afford relief to borrowers without providing an opportunity for institutions to adequately tell their side of the story.”
These new rules say, students who feel they were misled and deceived by schools to get them to enroll and take out federal student loans, may still submit claims but as long as they are “not in a collections status.” So students who were saddled with questionable loans by a questionable school will have to continue to make monthly payments or stay out of collections while their claim is processed for an undetermined amount of time.
ED wants to encourage students to enroll in income-driven repayment plans and make payments on their loans. These would be the same plans that put people into decades-long repayment plans with potentially big tax bills at the end. Balances in these programs go up, not down, as the monthly payment is insufficient to cover the interest building.
ED is worried that students claiming they were harmed by their schools will strategically default on their otherwise unaffordable debt. As evidence to support this concern, ED cites research by those who intentionally defaulted on their mortgage payments to take advantage of mortgage modifications. Talk about apples and oranges here.
“The Department is trying very carefully to balance relief for borrowers who have been harmed by acts of institutional wrongdoing, with its obligation to the taxpayer to provide reliable stewardship of Federal dollars.” And while that might be true, then why isn’t the Department limiting access to federal funds by schools that engage in questionable practices?
Those questionable practices have led to massive amounts of unaffordable student loan debt sitting in a non-payment status. The lack of oversight by ED to rein in the access to federal student loan dollars by typically for-profit schools who have been approved by questionable accreditation.
So ED says, “With more than a trillion dollars in outstanding student loans, the Department must uphold its fiduciary responsibilities and exercise caution in forgiving student loans to ensure that it does not create an existential threat to a program that lacks typical credit and underwriting standards.”
But where were the underwriting standards for schools selling degrees that students would never be able to afford to repay? Where was the fiduciary responsibility for ED and student loan debtors?
ED appears to say they are not going to get involved in resolving disputes or claims of wrongdoing against schools. That is going to be left up to the individual student to fight with the school through the courts. How students will be able to afford to do that, is a mystery.
And ED is not going to block schools from forcing students into secret arbitration or stopping schools from allowing students to enter class action suits against the schools. Instead, ED says in its press release on the rulemaking “that institutions requiring students to engage in mandatory arbitration or prohibiting them from participating in class action lawsuits provide plain language explanations of these provisions to enable students to make an informed enrollment decision.” So students who decide to go to schools that block access to courts to remedy claims were stupid to enroll.
Here is what the rule says, “it seems reasonable that consumer complaints should continue to be adjudicated through existing legal channels that put experienced judges or arbitrators in the position of weighing the evidence and rendering an impartial decision.”
Even with the Borrower Defense to Repayment program in place, ED again takes the step to say the student was the idiot in this situation when they enrolled at a school they believed. ED says, “As stated in the Master Promissory Note the borrower signs when initiating their first loan, the borrower is expected to repay the loan even if the borrower fails to complete the program or is dissatisfied with the institution or his or her outcomes.”
On the issue of a group discharge of federal student loans if a school is found to have engaged in “a misrepresentation made with knowledge of its false, misleading, or deceptive nature or with a reckless disregard for the truth,” ED punts and says that will be the focus of a different rule. This appears to close the door for bulk discharges of schools found guilty of deception, like in the Corinthian Colleges case.
As evidence why the group discharge would be harmful to students, ED says “Because an institution can refuse to provide an official transcript for a borrower whose loan has been forgiven, group discharges could render some borrowers unable to verify their credentials or work in the field for which they trained and have enjoyed employment.” Maybe the real answer is that is a school was found to deceive students they should still have to provide a transcript.
In the past, schools who enrolled students who never graduated from high school or had a GED could be found to have taken advantage of people who may not have been qualified to enroll in higher education. The proposed rule shifts the burden back to the uneducated student when it says, “We also propose changes to the Department’s current false certification regulations. The Department believes that in cases when the borrower is unable to obtain an official transcript or diploma from the high school, postsecondary institutions should be able to rely on an attestation from a borrower that the borrower earned a high school diploma since the Department relies on a similar attestation in processing a student’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).”
Where is the underwriting in this process that ED says it engages in?
These new rules would apply to federal student loans first disbursed on or after July 1, 2019.
They would also “require a borrower to sign an attestation to ensure that financial harm is not the result of the borrower’s workplace performance, disqualification for a job for reasons unrelated to the education received, a personal decision to work less than full-time or not at all, or the borrower’s decision to change careers.”
Feel free to read the entire document, here.
My impression of the proposed new rules is the Department of Education wants to shift all the responsibility for falling for school marketing overpriced education to the least informed person in this transaction, the student.
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see how this is going to work out. Badly for debtors.
If ED is worried about underwriting and a fiduciary responsibility then why are they passing out easy loans with little regard to affordability, to begin with? Does the government have a duty to protect it’s citizens or does it need to protect its poor financial decision making and schools they pump loans through? Or is this new policy all about blaming the victim instead of investigating the claims for validity?

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. 

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Divorce, birth rates and home ownership: All are negatively affected by crushing student-loan debt

According to Student Loan Hero, about 1 out 8 divorcees queried in a recent survey said that the student loans they took out before getting married eventually led to their divorce.  And the survey also found that more than a third of couples with student debt delayed their divorce because they couldn't afford the expense.

Apparently, student loans are now such a significant marital problem that one New York attorney recommends couples sign a prenuptial agreement specifying that the person helping to pay off the spouse's student loans gets reimbursed in case of a divorce. How romantic!

Experts have long agreed that money problems put a strain on marriages, but student loans are a particularly nasty form of debt. No wonder so many divorcees cited student loans specifically as a major cause of their marital split. Unlike car loans, credit card debt and home mortgages, student-loan debt is almost impossible to discharge in bankruptcy. Moreover, student-loan borrowers have huge penalties slapped on their college-loan debt if they default--25 percent of the amount owed, including unpaid interest.

The Student Loan Hero survey is only the most recent evidence of the pain Americans are suffering from student loans. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that Americans are having fewer babies; and college loans are one of the reasons.

The Times conducted a survey of men and women in the 20-to-45 age group, and almost two thirds said they planned to have fewer children than their ideal because of financial concerns.  Among people who said they planned to have no children, 13 percent cited student debt.

And the Federal Reserve Bank of New York documented last year that student debt was negatively affecting the housing market. A 2017 Federal Reserve Bank report observed that home ownership among young people declined by 8 percent over an 8-year period (2007 to 2015);  and the Feds concluded that a substantial reason for this decline is rising levels of student-loan debt.

The Fed report also observed that more young Americans are living with their parents than in previous years. In 2004, about one third of 23-25-year-olds lived with their parents. In 2015, 45 percent of people in this age bracket were living with mom and dad--a big increase.

None of this bad news should be surprising as Americans borrow more and more money to go to college. In 2002, only 20 percent of student borrowers owed $20,000 or more. Last year, 40 percent of student debtors owed that much or more. And borrowers owing $50,000 or more jumped from 5 percent to 16 percent during the same time period.

Remarkably, almost no one in the higher education industry even acknowledges a problem with soaring student-loan debt. If there  is a problem, the industry flacks tell us, the easy solution is extended repayment terms. Simply force Americans to pay back their loans over 20 years or even 25 years, university insiders insist.

Do you suppose Betsy DeVos thinks about distressed student borrowers when she sips her martinis on her $40 million yacht, the Seaquest? I doubt it. Based on the way she's running the Department of Education, my guess is that she worries more about protecting the predatory for-profit colleges than the students who got swindled by them.

And who do you suppose Betsy is more likely to invite for drinks on the Seaquest--a single mom who defaulted on a loan she took out to attend the University of Phoenix or an equity-fund manager who owns part of the University of Phoenix?



Betsy DeVos's $40 million yacht--193 feet long!


References

Moriah Balingit. Someone untied Betsy DeVos's yacht in Ohio. Damage EnsuedWashington Post, July 26, 2018.

Jessica Dickler. 1 in 8 divorces is caused by student loans. CNBC.com., July 27, 2018.

Ben Luthi. Survey: Student Loan Borrowers Wait Longer and Pay More to Get Divorced. Student Debt Hero, July 24, 2018.

Claire Cain Miller. Americans Are Having Fewer Babies. They Told Us Why. New York Times, July 5, 2018.

Rick Seltzer. Percentage of Borrowers Owing $20,000 or More Doubled Since 2002. Inside Higher Ed, August 17, 2017.

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.

Steve Rhode. Student Loan Debt Hurts Economy, Consumers, and Retirement SavingsPersonal Finance Syndication Network, September 2017.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Betsy DeVos, the for-profit college industry's best pal, rolls back regulatory protections for students who were defrauded by for-profit colleges

This week, Betsy DeVos, President Trump's lamentable Secretary of Education, proposed new rules for implementing the Department of Education's Borrower Defense to Repayment Program.

The new rules--433 pages long--outline the DeVos regime's procedures for processing fraud claims filed by students who took out federal loans to attend for-profit colleges and were swindled.  The New York Times and Steve Rhode of Get Out of Debt Guy reported on this development, but Rhode's analysis is more comprehensive and insightful than the Times story. Rhode's essay is the one to read.

Millions of Americans have been defrauded by for-profit colleges--literally millions. Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech filed for bankruptcy, brought down by regulatory pressures and fraud allegations. Those two institutions alone had a half million former students.

Globe University and Minnesota School of Business both lost their authority to operate in Minnesota after a Minnesota trial court ruled they had misrepresented their criminal justice programs.  Last month, the Minnesota Court of Appeals partially upheld the trial court's judgment, finding sufficient evidence to support a fraud verdict on behalf of 15 former students who testified at trial.

In California, DeVry University agreed to pay $100 million to settle claims brought by the Federal Trade Commission that it had advertised its programs deceptively. In the wake of that scandal, the company owning DeVry changed its name from DeVry Education Group to Adtalem Global Education.

The Art Institute, which charged students as much as $90,000 for a two-year associates' degree,
agreed to pay $95 million to settle fraud claims brought against it by the Justice Department, but the settlement is paltry compared to the amount of money borrowed by 80,000 former students.  And there have been numerous small for-profits that have been found liable for fraud, misrepresentation, or operating shoddy programs.

The for-profit scandal is a huge mess. If every student who was defrauded or victimized in some way by a for-profit college were to receive monetary restitution, it would probably cost taxpayers a half trillion dollars.

So how do we fix this problem? The Obama Administration approved rules that would have streamlined the process for resolving student-fraud claims, but Betsy DeVos pulled back those rules just before they were to have been implemented.

The new DeVos rules, summarized by Steve Rhode, put most of the blame on students for enrolling in these fraudulent and deceptive for-profit colleges. According to DeVos' DOE, "students have a responsibility when enrolling at an institution or taking student loans to be sure they have explored their options carefully and weighed the available information to make an informed choice."

DeVos' janky new rules forces fraud victims to continue paying on their student loans while they process their damned-near hopeless fraud claims, while DOE processes those claims--if at all--at a snail's pace.

DeVos nixed the Obama administration's ban against mandatory arbitration clauses that the for-profits have forced students to sign as a condition of enrollment. Sometimes these clauses also bar class action suits. So under Betsy DeVos' administration, many defrauded students will be barred from suing the institutions that cheated them.

Betsy and her for-profit cronies want struggling student debtors to enroll in long-term income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) that last from 20 to 25 years. Payments under those plans are generally so low that student debtors' loan balances are negatively amortizing. Borrowers in IBRPs will see their loan balances go up month by month even if they make regular monthly payments. In other words, most IBRP participants will never pay off their loans.

Some people are predicting the student-loan scandal will eventually lead to a national economic crisis similar to the one triggered by the home-mortgages meltdown. I am beginning to think these doomsday predictors are right. Already we see that student loans have impacted home ownership and may even be a factor in the nation's declining birth rates--now so low that the American population is not replacing itself.

Two things must be done to destroy the for-profit college cancer that is destroying the hopes of millions for a decent, middle-class life:

1) First, the for-profit college industry must be shut down. No more University of Phoenixes, no more DeVrys, no more Florida Coastal Universities.

2) Second, everyone who was swindled by a for-profit school should have easy access to the bankruptcy courts, so they can shed the debt they acquired due to fraud or misrepresentations and get a fresh start in life.

And there is a third thing we need to do. Congress should impeach Betsy DeVos for reckless dereliction of duty and blatant misconduct against the public interest.  Let's send her back to Michigan, where she can enjoy her family fortune as a private citizen and not as a so-called public servant.



References

Mark Brunswick. Globe U and Minn. School of Business must close, state says after fraud rulingStar Tribune, September 9, 2016. 

Christopher Magan. Globe U. and Minnesota School of Business to start closing campusesTwin Cities Pioneer Press, December 21, 2016.

State of Minnesota v. Minnesota School of Business, A17-1740, 2018 Minn. App. LEXIS 277 (Minn. Ct. App. June 4, 2018).

Sarah Cascone, Debt-Ridden Students Claim For-Profit Art Institutes Defrauded Them With Predatory Lending Practices.  Artnet.com, July 23, 2018.

Erica L. Green. DeVos Proposes to Curtail Debt Relief for Defrauded StudentsNew York Times, July 5, 2018.

Claire Cain Miller. Americans Are Having Fewer Babies. They Told Us Why. New York Times, July 5, 2018.

Steve Rhode. A Deep Dive Into the Debtor Blaming 2018 Borrower Defense to Repayment Program. Get Out of Debt Guy (blog), July 25, 2018.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Minnesota Court of Appeals upholds fraud verdict against Minnesota School of Business and Globe University

Last month, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld a fraud verdict against Minnesota School of Business (MSB) and Globe University (Globe). This is the latest setback for MSB, which has experienced several regulatory and litigation woes in recent years.
2018: MSB/Globe University Lose a Fraud Suit in Minnesota Court of Appeals

In 2014, the  Minnesota Attorney General’s Office sued MSB and its sister school, Globe University, accusing the two schools of violating the Minnesota Consumer Fraud Act and the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act. According to the Minnesota AG Lori Swanson, MSB/Globe  mislead prospective students to believe that the schools' four-year criminal-justice program would lead to a becoming police officer and that it's two-year criminal-justice program would lead to becoming a probation officer.
These programs were expensive, ranging from $39,000 to $78,000. As the Minnesota Attorney General's Office said in its recent press release, "As a result of the schools’ misrepresentations, many students were saddled with large amounts of student loan debt without the ability after graduation to obtain a job in their chosen career field of serving Minnesota’s citizens as police and probation officers."
After a 17-day trial, a Minnesota trial court ordered restitution for 15 students who testified they had been defrauded and approved a restitution program that would enable other students to file fraud claims as well. Under the trial court's order, these claimants "would receive a rebuttable presumption of harm and causation."

MSB and Global appealed this ruling, and last month, the Minnesota Court of Appeals approved part of the trial court's judgment but not all of it. The appellate court ruled that the 15 testifying students had adequately proved their injuries and causation under the Minnesota Consumer Fraud Act. Therefore the trial judge's restitution order for these 15 students was upheld.

On the other hand, the appellate court ruled that the state had not satisfied its burden of showing a causal nexus between MSB/Globe's representations and injury to students who had not testified at trial. Therefore, the trial court's restitution plan for other students was not approved by the appellate court.
2017: Minnesota Supreme Court rules MSB loaned student money at usurious interest rates 

Last month’s decision by the Minnesota Court of Appeals is MSB’s latest litigation setback. Last year, after a long, drawn-out lawsuit brought by the Minnesota Attorney General's Office, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that MSB had charged its students usurious interest rates and had loaned students money without having a valid lender's license.

According to the Minnesota Supreme Court, MSB had loaned students money at interest rates ranging from 14 to 18 percent. The students never saw this money; it went directly to the school to pay students' tuition and fees.

Minnesota has a usury law that caps interest rates at 8 percent unless the lender offers an open-end  credit plan. MSB had not loaned students money pursuant to an open-end credit plan, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled; therefore its interest rates were usurious under state law. In addition, the court concluded, MSB was in the business of making loans and had loaned money to its students without having the required state license.

2016: MSB/Globe's Fraud Ruling Led Minnesota to Revoke MSB/Globe’s Authority to Operate

In September 2016, in the wake of the trial court's fraud ruling against MSB, Larry Pogemiller, Minnesota Commissioner of Higher Education, revoked MSB/Globe's authorization to operate in the state of Minnesota.   Last month's ruling by the Minnesota Court of Appeals, partly affirming the trial judge's fraud decision, would seem to vindicate Pogemiller's decision.

And then there was more bad news for MSB/Globe. In December 2016, The U.S. Department of Education revoked the two school's access to federal student-aid money, which provided the bulk of the schools' operating revenues.

Globe University Continues to Survive in Wisconsin

One might think that all this litigation and regulatory pressure would cause MSB and Globe to shut down completely; but--like a Timex watch, Globe University, at least, has kept on ticking. Broadview University, another for-profit school owned by the same people who own Globe and MSB, has purchased four Globe campuses in Wisconsin, and this purchase was approved by the Trump administration's Department of Education.

Jeanne Herrmann, Broadview's CEO, said claims against MSB/Globe were unfounded. “Whatever one may think of the motivations of the litigation in Minnesota, that state-specific allegation had and continues to have nothing to do with the school’s campuses outside of Minnesota, " Herrmann said in a written statement (as reported by Inside Higher Ed).
We'll Always Have Wisconsin!

So if you are a student who liked how you were treated in Minnesota by MSB or Globe, simply move to Wisconsin, where you can enroll at Broadview University, which is owned by the same nice folks who own MSB and Globe.  I’ll bet your credits will transfer, and you will enjoy the same friendly and professional service in Wisconsin that you got in Minnesota. You Betcha!


 References
Mark Brunswick. Globe U and Minn. School of Business must close, state says after fraud ruling. Star Tribune, September 9, 2016. 

Paul Fain. A Shuttered For-Profit Re-emerges. Inside Higher Education, August 9, 2017.

Christopher Magan. Globe U. and Minnesota School of Business to start closing campuses. Twin Cities Pioneer Press, December 21, 2016.

State of Minnesota v. Minnesota School of Business, A17-1740, 2018 Minn. App. LEXIS 277 (Minn. Ct. App. June 4, 2018).

State of Minnesota v. Minnesota School of Business, 899 N.W. 467 (Minn. 2017).

U.S. Department of Education. Globe University, Minnesota School of Business Denied Access to Federal Student Aid Dollars. U.S. Department of Education press release, December 6, 2016.


Wednesday, July 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




References

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

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


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this Texas court opinion significant? Three reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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


References

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

Sunday, July 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It's the interest, knuckleheads!"


References

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

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

Friday, July 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here are my two cents.

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

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

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

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

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

La Brea Tar Pits


References

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






Thursday, July 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does this mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Honorable Judge Keith Watkins


References

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

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

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

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