Monday, November 18, 2019

Pew Foundation says one out of four student-loan borrowers default within 5 years: But we already knew that.

The Pew Foundation issued a report recently with this snoozer title: Student Loan System Presents Repayment Challenges.  Really? That's like saying that icebergs posed a challenge to the Titanic.

The Pew Foundation's most interesting finding--picked up by the media--was this: Almost one out of four student-loan debtors default on their loans within five years.  But this should not be a shocker. Looney and Yannelis reached basically the same finding five years ago in their report for the Brookings Institution. These researchers reported that the five-year default rate for the 2009 cohort of borrowers was 28 percent (p. 49, Table 8).

And the Pew study probably understates the crisis. The report itself acknowledged that for-profit colleges were underrepresented in its study (p. 5), and we know that almost half of the students who attend for-profit colleges default within five years.

Most importantly, the Pew study did not address the "challenge" faced by more than 7 million college borrowers who are in income-based, long-term repayment plans (IBRPs). IBRP participants are not paying off their student loans even though they are in approved repayment programs. Why? Because people in IBRPs aren't making monthly payments large enough to pay down loan accruing interest, and this interest is capitalized and rolled into their loans' principal.

As much as it pains me to say this, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave a clearer picture of the student-loan crisis than the Pew Foundation.  A year ago, DeVos publicly acknowledged that only one out of four student borrowers are paying down principal and interest on their loans and that 43 percent of student loans are "in distress."

For me, the most disappointing thing about the Pew report was its tepid, turgid, and tedious recommendations for addressing the student-loan crisis, which I will quote:
  • Identify at-risk borrowers before they are in distress . . .
  • Provide [loan] servicers with resources and comprehensive guidance . . .
  • Eliminate barriers to enrollment in affordable repayment plans, such as program complexity . . .
Thanks, Pew Foundation. That was really, really helpful.

Note that the Pew Foundation said nothing about bankruptcy relief for distressed college borrowers, tax penalties for borrowers who complete their IBRPs, or the government's shameful practice of garnishing elderly defaulters' Social Security checks. Moreover, Pew said nothing about the Education Department's almost criminal administration of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.  And we didn't read anything about the out-of-control cost of higher education.

Let's face it.  College leaders, the federal government, and so-called policy organizations like the Pew Foundation refuse to acknowledge that the federal student-loan program is destroying the lives of millions of Americans. Instead, they are content to tinker with a system that is designed to shovel money to our bloated and corrupt universities.

America's colleges are addicted to federal money. Like a drug addict hooked on Oxycontin, they must get their regular fixes of federal cash.  After all, they've got to fund the princely salaries of college administrators and lazy, torpid professors.

Like first-class passengers on the Titanic who were sipping champagne when their ship hit an iceberg, the higher education industry thinks the flow of student-loan money will go on forever.  But a crash is coming.

Unfortunately, the people who created the student-loan crisis will be the ones floating away in the lifeboats--living off their cushy pensions and obscene retirement packages. The people who were exploited by the federal student-loan program, like the third-class passengers on the Titanic, will go down with the ship.

Lifeboats reserved for college presidents and DOE senior administrators


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

College life in the 1960s: College kids try to kill themselves in a 1961 Chrysler Imperial--but botch the job

I ain't hurtin' nobody. I ain't hurtin' no one.

John Prine

I enrolled at Oklahoma State University in 1966, just as the Vietnam War was heating up. The rules were quite clear. Boys could avoid the draft for four years if they kept their grades up. But if they flunked out, they’d be drafted and probably go to Vietnam.

I still remember some of my dorm buddies who lived with me in Cordell Hall, a four-story neo-Georgian monstrosity located near the ROTC drill field. No air conditioning. Most of us were poor or nearly poor or we wouldn’t have been living there.

I remember Alton and Bobby, two freshmen from southwestern Oklahoma. Alton was from the little town of Amber; Bobby was from the nearby hamlet of Pocasset.  If you asked them where they were from, they both would say Am-Po, expecting you to know that they were referring to the Amber-Pocasset Metropolitan Area.

And there was another kid whose name I’ve forgotten who was clinically shy and morbidly frail. His skin was almost translucent, which gave him the appearance of a young girl. I’m ashamed to say the guys in the dorm nicknamed him Elsie. He never objected.

Everyone liked Elsie, partly because he had something most of us didn’t have: a car. His parents loaned him their 1961 Chrysler Imperial, perhaps the ugliest car ever made. It had all sorts of buttons and gadgets, including power windows, which I had never seen before.

Elsie was incredibly generous with his car and loaned it to just about anyone who asked. One Saturday during the fall semester, Alton wanted to go to Oklahoma City to see his girlfriend, and he asked Elsie if he could borrow the Chrysler. Oklahoma City was 120 miles away, but Elsie offered to drive him there. Several bored freshmen joined the expedition, and six or seven of us piled into the Imperial for the run to OKC.

But Elsie didn’t drive us. Alton insisted on taking the wheel, and when we got out on Interstate 35, he said, “Let’s see how fast this baby can go.” In an instant, we were hurtling south at 120 miles an hour. No seat belts.

I was terrified but I didn’t have the courage to tell Alton to slow down. Then I looked through the rear window, and I saw a Highway Patrol cruiser closing in on us--siren wailing.

Alton panicked when he heard the siren. In a desperate attempt to get his speed down to double digits, he stomped down on the brake pedal and jerked up the hand brake. That definitely slowed us down.

Alton laid down about 100 feet of skid marks, which you can probably still see on Interstate 35. In an instant, the whole car was filled with smoke and the smell of burning rubber and fried brake pads.

We’re in big trouble now, I thought. But the cop didn’t seem concerned about the fact that seven idiot teenagers were apparently trying to kill themselves in a Chrysler. The cop said hardly a word; he just wrote Alton a speeding ticket and drove away in his cruiser.

Am-Po Bobby also had a car, an old Chevy Nova; and every Monday night he chauffeured a bunch of freshmen to Griff’s Drive-In. Griff’s sold tiny hamburgers for 15 cents apiece, and on Monday nights it sold them for a dime. Pooling our resources, we could usually scrape up three bucks, which would buy us 30 hamburgers. We all ate four apiece, and a couple of big eaters would eat five. Oh, we were living high!

One Monday night, we were waiting in Griff’s drive-through lane and Bobby spotted a metal gasoline can behind Griff’s back door. Bobby got out of the car, shook the can, and confirmed there was fuel in it. Free gas! Bobby put the gas can in the backseat of his car, and we picked up our 30 burgers at the drive-through window.

Unfortunately for Bobby, an alert Griff’s employee witnessed the theft and called the Stillwater police. A cruiser arrived immediately, and an elderly officer gave us all a lecture on stealing. He confiscated the gas can and then walked to the back of Bobby’s car to jot down the license plate number.

And what did Stillwater’s finest see on the rear bumper? A sticker that said, “Support Your Local Fuzz.” Now we’re really in trouble, I thought. We’re going to be arrested, OSU will kick us out of school, and we’ll all wind up in Vietnam.

But the officer had seen moron college students before and knew we were basically harmless. He just shook his head when he saw the bumper sticker and drove off without even giving us a citation.

The 1960 Chrysler Imperial: Power windows!


Oklahoma Highway Patrol: "Let's be careful out there."


Griff's Hamburgers: 10 burgers for a dollar (but only on Mondays)


Monday, November 4, 2019

Crocker v. Navient Solutions: A small win for student-loan debtors

Crocker v. Navient Solutions, a recent Fifth Circuit decision, is a small win for student-loan debtors. Essentially, the Fifth Circuit ruled that a private student loan obtained to pay for a bar review  course is dischargeable in bankruptcy. (The opinion also includes an extensive analysis on a jurisdictional issue, which will not be discussed here.)

Brian Crocker took out a $15,000 loan from Sallie Mae to pay for his bar-examination prep course. Subsequently, Crocker filed for bankruptcy and his  Sallie Mae loan was discharged.

Navient Solutions, which assumed the legal right to collect on Crocker's debt, continued trying to collect on the $15,000 loan after Crocker's bankruptcy discharge, claiming the debt was not dischargeable in bankruptcy. In August 2016, Crocker filed an adversary proceeding against Navient in the same bankruptcy court where he had obtained his bankruptcy discharge. Crocker sought a declaratory judgment that his Sallie Mae loan had been discharged and a judgment against Navient, holding it in contempt for continuing its collection efforts after Crocker's bankruptcy discharge.

A Texas bankruptcy court ruled in Crocker's favor, and Navient appealed.  The Fifth Circuit identified three types of student debt that are not dischargeable in bankruptcy without a showing of undue hardship:

  • Student loans made, insured, or guaranteed by a governmental unit (11 U.S.C. § 523(a) (8) (i)), including federal student loans.
  • Private student loans to attend a qualified institution (11. U.S.C. § 523 (a) (8) (B)). 
  • Debt arising from "an obligation to repay funds received as an educational benefit, scholarship, or stipend" (11 U.S.C. § 523 (a) (8) (ii)).

Sallie Mae's loan to Crocker was not a governmental loan, so § 523 (a) (8) (i) did not apply. Navient conceded that the loan was not made to a qualify institution, and thus § 523 (a) (8) (B) did not apply.

Instead, Navient argued that the loan was nondischargeable under § 523(a) (ii). Navient maintained that the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act made all private student loans nondischargeable, including Sallie Mae's $15,000 loan to Crocker to pay for his bar-exam prep course.

The Fifth Circuit disagreed. The court pointed out that the statutory provision Navient relied on did not mention loans at all. Instead that provision "applies only to educational payments that are not initially loans but whose terms will create a reimbursement obligation upon the failure of conditions  of the payments."

Therefore, the court ruled, "The loans at issue here, though obtained in order to pay expenses of education, do not qualify as 'an obligation to repay funds received as an educational benefit, scholarship, or stipend' because their repayment was unconditional. They therefor are dischargeable."

As Steve Sather, a Texas bankruptcy lawyer, observed in a recent blog essay, the Crocker decision is only a small victory for student-loan debtors. It is nevertheless a significant decision because it is a reminder that not all private student loans are covered by the Bankruptcy Code's "undue hardship" provision.  Private loans taken out by law school graduates to pay for bar-examination preparation courses can be discharged in bankruptcy.

References

Crocker v. Navient Solutions, __ F.3d __, 2019 WL 5304619 (5th Cir. Oct. 22. 2019).

Steve Sather. Fifth Circuit Grants Small Victories to Student Loan Debtors, A Texas Bankruptcy Lawyer's Blog, October 26 2019, http://stevesathersbankruptcynews.blogspot.com/2019/10/fifth-circuit-grants-small-victories-to.html.





Thursday, October 31, 2019

In interest of "diversity," colleges drop SAT/ACT scores for student applicants. But are the colleges sincere?

More than 1,000 colleges have dropped the ACT or SAT test as an admission requirement. According to a Washington Post story, more than half of the top 100 liberal arts colleges (as selected by U.S. News and World Report) have dropped standardize tests as part of their admission process.

The colleges will tell you they are ditching ACT and SAT tests because the tests discriminate against racial minorities and the socio-economically disadvantaged (poor people). But I think this explanation is mere blather.  The colleges are dropping standardized tests in the admissions processes for two reasons that they dare not articulate.

First, most of the elite colleges are engaging in race discrimination in making their admissions decisions.  Harvard, for example, has been accused of discriminating against Asian applicants based on an analysis of enrollment criteria. Asians lost their discrimination claim against Harvard, but they are appealing in a case that is likely going to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It is much harder for disappointed college applicants to claim they were discriminated against based on race when the objective criteria of SAT and ACT scores are jettisoned. College admission officers will argue that standardized test scores interfere with the goal of achieving diversity, which is just a disingenuous way of saying their admissions decisions are subjective and often based on race.

Regarding the less selective schools, many are ditching the ACT and SAT exams because they are so desperate for students that they've lowered their admission standards and don't want anyone to know it.  By tossing out standardized test scores, it becomes harder to document the fact that many colleges will now admit anyone who has a pulse and some student-loan money. In fact, the pulse may be optional.

A great many of the 1,000 colleges and universities that have gone test-optional for student applicants are obscure institutions that are probably struggling to keep their enrollments up. For example,  Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. only has about 1,000 students and is facing several financial problems. The Chair of the Earlham Board of Trustees released a letter to the campus  community in 2018, which acknowledged that the college had been "running substantial operating deficits" since 2008 and that its present level of cash flow was not sustainable.

I don't have inside information about enrollment challenges at the 1,000 colleges and universities that scrapped the ACT and SAT,  but I feel sure that many of them are scrambling to survive and that the chief motivation for most of them is to juice their enrollments and not to enhance "diversity."

Photo credit: Kayana Szymczak, New York Times









Sunday, October 27, 2019

Impeach DeVos, Not Trump: Democrats should focus on Betsy DeVos' outrageous mismanagement of the student-loan program

Let me start by saying this: I am a registered Democrat who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary race in Louisiana. I will vote for a Democrat in Louisiana's 2020 primary election, although I am not happy with my choices.  I am neither a MAGA Republican nor a Never-Trumper; I just want a decent person to be President. Is that too much to ask?

I admit that I am just an old white guy who lives in Flyover Country--and a cisgendered old white guy at that. Nevertheless, I don't get the Democrats' obsession with impeaching President Trump. Congressman Schiff wants to impeach Trump over a phone call? What's that about?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, Adam, but impeachment is never going to happen.  Nancy Pelosi will never call for a vote on the matter, and the Senate will never impeach the President. The 2020 election is only 12 months away--12 months! Why don't the  Democrats focus on nominating a reasonable candidate who can defeat Trump in 2020?

On the other hand, Trump's Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, is eminently impeachable and should be impeached. I've commented on her outrageously incompetent management of the federal student-loan program on several occasions. DeVos simply refuses to administer the government's various student-loan forgiveness programs in a competent manner. She's screwed up the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and the Borrower Defense program, and her agency opposes bankruptcy relief for distressed student-loan debtors--no matter how desperate a debtor's circumstances.

And now she has been held in contempt by a federal judge for defying a court order. U.S. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim ruled that DeVos and DOE violated Judge Kim's preliminary injunction to stop collecting on student loans owed by students who attended Corinthian Colleges, a defunct for-profit college.

Judge Kim was actually pretty steamed about DOE's intransigence. At one point, the Judge said, "I'm not sending anyone to jail yet, but it's good to know I have that ability."

The unlawful collection activities were actually carried out by DOE's contracted student-loan servicers, not DOE itself. But DOE is responsible for the servicers' actions. Mark Brown, a senior DOE official, acknowledged a screw-up. "Although these actions were not done with ill intent," Brown said, "students and parents were affected and we take full responsibility for that."

If the Democrats were smarter, they would focus their impeachment energy on DeVos, not President Trump.  An impeachment inquiry could speed ahead with full compliance with due process.  There would be no need to hold secret hearings in the basement of the Capitol. DeVos' malfeasance is adequately documented by competent evidence, including several adverse court rulings against DeVos and DOE. And I predict that some Republicans in both the House and the Senate would support impeachment once the facts of her maladministration were brought to light.

And impeaching DeVos would publicize to every beaten-down student-loan debtor that the Trump administration doesn't care about them.  President Trump's total indifference to the student-loan train wreck could be exploited by the Democratic candidates who are calling for student-loan forgiveness.

But the Democrats' aren't interested in doing something sensible. Like Captain Ahab chasing the great white whale in Moby Dick, they scour the oceans of bureaucratic nonsense looking for some way to impeach President Trump.  And Trump, like Moby Dick, may wind up putting a great big hole in the Democrats' boat.

Will the Great White Whale sink the Never-Trumpers?








Friday, October 25, 2019

Education Department official says he will resign and calls for massive student-loan forgiveness: Does he have a good idea?

Mr. A. Wayne Johnson, the Department of Education's "chief strategy and transformation officer," announced his resignation this week and called for massive forgiveness of student-loan debt.

 Johnson, who was appointed to his DOE position by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, proposes to forgive all federal student loan debt up to $50,000 per student. And he's also calling for a $50,000 tax credit for people who have already repaid their loans.

Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both presidential candidates, are also calling for wholesale forgiveness of student loans. Johnson's plan is more generous than Senator Warren's proposal, which puts income caps on student-loan forgiveness. On the other hand, Senator Sanders'  plan is even more generous than Johnson's. Bernie calls for forgiving all student-loan debt--about $1.6 trillion dollars with no income cap. Johnson's proposal would cost taxpayers less--an estimated $925 million.

Is massive student-loan forgiveness a good idea? I think it is. Johnson is right; the student loan program is "fundamentally broken." Even Secretary DeVos compared the program to a looming thunderstorm and admitted last year that only 24 percent of student debtors are paying back both principal and interest on their loans.

Indeed, virtually no one in the government's income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) will pay back their student loans because their monthly payments are not large enough to pay down accumulating interest on borrowers' underlying debt.  About 7.3 million people are in IBRPs, and millions more have defaulted on their loans or have them in deferment.

We know that massive student-loan indebtedness is hindering young people from getting married, having children, and buying homes. Researchers at Bard  College's Levy Economics Institute concluded that student-loan forgiveness would actually stimulate the national economy by freeing up money for student debtors to purchase houses and consumer goods.

Personally, I'm OK with all three student-loan forgiveness proposals: Johnson's, Warren's and Sanders'. Let's face facts; most of these loans will never be paid back.

But I think a better option would be for Congress to remove impediments to discharging student loans in bankruptcy, which it can easily do.  Congress just needs to pass a law that would remove the words "undue hardship" from the 11 U.S.C.  § 523(a) of the Bankruptcy Code.

Amending the Bankruptcy Code would allow federal bankruptcy judges to decide, on a case-by-case basis, which student-loan borrowers are truly insolvent and deserving of relief. These judges have the experience and the authority to weed out fraudulent claims and restrict debt relief to worthy candidates.

Massive student-loan debt relief without regard to individual circumstances would allow all 45 million student-loan borrowers to shake off their student debt--even those who obtained good value from their educational experiences and have the financial means to pay off their loans. I don't think that is good public policy.

Nevertheless, if the choice is between massive student-loan relief and the present system, I'm in favor of the plans put forward by Mr. Johnson, Senator Warren, and Senator Sanders. As I said, most of these loans will never be paid back and forcing millions of distressed student-loan debtors into 20- or 25-year income-based repayment plans just subjects them to a lifetime of stress, anxiety, and needless suffering.

A. Wayne Johnson will resign from Department of Education: Bye-bye, Betsy











Saturday, October 19, 2019

Betsy DeVos' Education Department is a clown car, but no one is laughing

For the last three years, the national political debate has focused on international issues: Russia, Ukraine, and now Syria. But look at what's happening at home. More than 45 million people are indebted by student loans, and more than half of these debtors cannot repay what they borrowed. In effect, they are victims of financial homicide.

Betsy DeVos, President Trump's Education Secretary, is spectacularly indifferent to this crisis, and she has made the crisis worse by her callousness and craven obsequence to the for-profit college industry. Without a doubt, she is guilty of malfeasance and venality. Let's summarize her reprehensible conduct:

Public Service Loan Forgiveness. The Department of Education has flatly refused to administer the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF) competently.  More than three-quarters of a million borrowers were qualified for the  PSLF program by Navient, DOE's contracted loan servicer. But DOE has only approved roughly 1 percent of the applications for loan forgiveness. Apparently, DOE takes the position that 99 percent of the people who believed they were qualified for PSLF loan forgiveness were mistaken.

A federal judge ruled last February that DOE had administered PSLF arbitrarily and capriciously in a lawsuit brought by the American Bar Association. Later, the American Federation of Teachers sued DOE, arguing, like the ABA, that DOE was administering DOE in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.  Has Betsy made amends? No.

Borrower Defense Program.  The federal government has a"borrower defense" process in place for student-loan borrowers to have their student loans forgiven if they can show that their for-profit college defrauded them. A few weeks ago, DOE issued new rules for administering the program. Betsy will allow the for-profit colleges to force students to sign covenants not to sue and waive their right to join class-action lawsuits. DOE's revised rules for processing borrower-defense claims are so onerous that DOE itself estimates that only 3 percent of applicants will get relief.

Student-Loan Bankruptcies.  DOE continues to take the position that distressed student-debtors are ineligible for bankruptcy relief, no matter how desperate the debtor's circumstances.  DOE has a policy in place (perhaps unwritten) that authorizes Educational Credit Management Corporation to assume the right to fight student-bankruptcy cases, and ECMC fights them all.  ECMC, by the way, has accumulated a billion dollars in unrestricted assets--a fat reward for naked brutality.

Betsy DeVos, a multi-millionaire who owns a huge yacht, presides over this clown car of an Education Department, which she has stuffed with cronies from the for-profit college industry. And the taxpayers provide her with a personal security detail that costs almost $8 million a year.

This clown car is not funny. Surely DeVos' maladministration of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, apart from everything else she has done or failed to do, provides ample grounds for impeachment.  I feel sure that if the Democrats voted articles of impeachment against her in the House of Representatives, some Republicans would vote for it.

And, if her reckless and lawless behavior was brought to the U.S. Senate, I think there would be enough bipartisan votes to remove her from office.

 Without question, 45 million student-loan borrowers would be interested in the outcome of any impeachment proceedings, and several million of these people are probably single-issue voters. In other words, millions of college-loan debtors will vote for the presidential candidate in 2020 who promises student-loan debt relief.  That candidate is not the guy who appointed Betsy DeVos to run the Department of Education.

Betsy DeVos's Education Department is a clown car.



Sunday, October 13, 2019

I smell trouble: The Trump economy is smoke and mirrors

The Trump economy is going gangbusters! Wages are rising, unemployment is low, and the stock market is near an all-time high. Real estate prices are going up, the bond market is in a rally--maybe we'll all get rich.

But let's look a little closer at this halcyon picture, starting with the unemployment rate, which is now below 4 percent. As Nicholas Eberstadt explained in Men Without Work, a book that more people should read, the official unemployment rate does not measure the percentage of people who aren't working and aren't looking for work. In the years 2006 to 2016, Eberstadt wrote, 17 percent of working-age men in their prime working years (ages 20-64) reported having no employment in the previous month. (p. 27)

As Eberstadt explained, America now has a "caste" of working-age guys who have decided not to get a job. "Members of this caste can, at least, expect to scrape by in an employment-free existence, and membership in the caste is, in an important sense, voluntary" (p. 35).

And then there are the millions of people getting paychecks who aren't doing anything useful. Just look at the universities, crammed with tenure-protected men and women who have good retirement plans and excellent health insurance, but who aren't doing much of anything to improve our society. Do we really need a professor to teach medieval European literature or the history of the Ottoman empire in classrooms to students who don't give a damn? And how are these parasites getting paid? We know how they are getting paid: students are taking out massive student loans.

It is true the economy seems to be humming along, but if things are so good, why can't Congress pass a balanced budget? If we can't live within our income when the economy is rosy, how can we pay the nation's bills when the economy heads south?

Of course, people are still buying expensive cars--SUVs with all kinds of marvelous gadgets--heated seats, automatic backup features, and entertainment systems that allow our kids to watch  Shrek while we're barreling down the interstate at 70 miles an hour.

But many car buyers have to take out long-term loans to pay for these marvelous new vehicles. According to the Wall Street Journal, the average car-loan term is now 69 months, and six-year loans and even seven-year loans are becoming more and more common. As WSJ writers Ben Eisen and Adrienne Roberts observed, "Car loans that are increasingly stretched out are a pronounced sign that some American middle-class buyers can't afford a middle-class lifestyle."

In his memoir Night, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote that the Jews in his Transylvania village were warned that the Nazis were committing genocide in central Europe, but no one believed it.  Today, we have a clear sign that the American economy is a house of cards. Next week, the Trump administration will begin a new round of quantitative easing when it will buy $60 billion in Treasury bills. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this move basically means the feds have gone back into the money-printing business.

You can write me off as a grumpy old geezer, but that's only partly true. Actually, I'm a worried old geezer. My wife and I have savings, but we are largely dependent on our pensions and Social Security to maintain ourselves in our retirement years.

If the national and global economies fall apart, a lot of elderly Americans are going to suffer--and I don't just mean being forced to eat the senior breakfast at Denny's. President Trump's critics should spend more time examining the rot in the national economy and less time fulminating on Trump's phone call to Ukraine, about which nobody gives a damn.






Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Why doesn't Congress do something useful to relieve the student-loan crisis? A couple of modest suggestions

Some famous guy once said that people are prone to see the speck in another person's eye while ignoring the log in their own eye. That observation reminds of our national political scene--nothing but vitriol and no good being done.

But there are several things Congress can do--uncontroversial things in my opinion, which would help relieve the massive student-loan crisis.  For example, Steve Rhode recently wrote an essay on a new California law that requires colleges to give students their transcripts--including students who have unpaid debts to their college.

As Mr. Rhode quoted, the new law (AB-1313) states: "Schools and colleges have threatened to withhold transcripts from students as a debt collection tactic. The practice can cause severe hardship by preventing students from pursuing educational and career opportunities, and it is therefore unfair and contrary to public policy." Does anyone in Congress disagree with that statement?

The law's dictate is quite simple:
Whenever a student transfers from one community college or public or private institution of postsecondary education to another within the state, appropriate records or a copy thereof shall be transferred by the former community college, or college or university upon a request from the student.
Withholding transcripts and diplomas because a former student is indebted to the college is a common practice among the for-profit institutions, which prompts an obvious question. Why are colleges lending money to students in the first place?

There are two answers to that questions. Some for-profit colleges are not content simply to suck up Pell Grant money and federal student-loan money. They want more cash, and many have no qualms about forcing their students to take out loans--often at high interest rates--in order to continue with their studies.

Second, many for-profits have trouble meeting the Fed's 90/10 rule, which requires a for-profit college to receive no more than 90 percent of its operating revenues from federal student-aid money.  One strategy for getting the 10 percent of auxiliary funding that they need is to loan their students money.

California passed a sensible law, and Congress should adopt it so that the law's restrictions apply nationwide. I repeat--does any person in Congress disagree with what the California legislature did?

Just this morning, Steve Rhode  responded to a a man who claimed that his entire Social Security check was garnished by some outfit called Account Control Technology due to an unpaid student-loan debt. As Mr. Rhode pointed out, the Internal Revenue Service cannot deduct more than 15 percent of an individual's Social Security check as a garnishment. So there is a screw-up somewhere for this individual to lose his entire Social Security check.

But why should elderly Americans have any of their Social Security checks garnished due to unpaid student loans? As the General Accountability Office reported some time ago, these garnishments almost always go toward paying accumulated interest and penalties; and the sums collected do nothing to actually pay down the underlying debt. So what's the damn point?

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Clair McCaskill introduced a bill a few years ago to stop the practice of garnishing Social Security checks to collect on defaulted student loans, but the bill went nowhere. Why can't Congress get off its fat ass and pass that bill?






Sunday, October 6, 2019

A tribute to Dinky, who gave me a lift in his pea-green Studebaker

Dinky was a classmate of mine at Anadarko high school. He was one of those rare individuals who felt perfectly at home in the world at a young age. He had a wry sense of humor that never deserted him and he never missed an opportunity to meet girls. I remember he joined the First Baptist Church just long enough to go to the Baptist Bible camp at Falls Creek, where he hoped to meet some pretty Baptist girls. What a brilliant idea!

I don't think life was easy for Dinky when he was a kid. He grew up poor in a large family--I don't know how many brothers and sisters he had, but there was a bunch of them. For a time, his family lived in Batesville, a row of run-down rental houses strung out on Highway 281 near the old Wichita Indian Agency. It was not a distinguished neighborhood, but Dinky airily referred to his home as his "Batesville townhouse."

Dinky's parents ran the local office of the Mistletoe Express, which delivered packages and freight to towns across Oklahoma. I didn't know his parents well, but I liked them. They occasionally sponsored dances in the Mistletoe Express warehouse, and they kindly turned off all the lights except for one dim bulb painted red. In my eyes, getting invited to a Mistletoe Express dance outranked a visit to the White House.

As his nickname implied, Dinky was small for his size, but he was a natural athlete. I considered myself too frail to play high school football, but Dinky, who weighed less than I did, was the quarterback. I remember one home game when he was knocked out cold by a beefy lineman from one of our opponent schools--Chickasha maybe or Lawton. He lay inert on the field and Coach Wells hurried out to see if he was seriously injured.

By the time Coach Wells arrived by his side, Dinky had regained consciousness. His first words were, "How is the crowd taking it, Coach?"

One more clear memory of Dinky. When he was about 15 years old, he acquired an ancient pea-green colored Studebaker and he began driving regularly around town. My God, that was an ugly car! And it spewed out more black smoke than an ocean liner. I don't think Dinky gave a damn about the fact that he didn't have a driver's license. And apparently, the Anadarko police didn't care either.

I lost track of Dinky after we graduated high school, but I saw him years later at our high-school class's annual reunion. We were in our thirties.

"Do you remember that night I picked you up on Central Boulevard?" he asked me. "You were crying and you showed me belt marks on your legs."

I had wiped that night from my memory, but Dinky's question brought it back.  Yes, my father had beaten me with his belt that night and I had run out of our house to get away from him. It was a rainy, cold autumn night, and I was only wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I wasn't even wearing shoes.

Dinky stopped to give me a lift in his pea-green Studebaker. I was shivering and crying, and I remember the car's heater was blowing hot air. I also remember showing Dinky the belt-shaped bruises on my legs and I remember vowing to run away from home--my fool's dream.

I must have been a pathetic sight, but Dinky was sympathetic; and as far as I know, he never told anyone about that night--which I still appreciate.

Years later, thinking about that evening, it occurred to me how old I must have been when my father beat me with his belt. Dinky was driving, so I must have been at least 15-years old. And there I was, barefoot, wet, and coatless; humiliated and crying; rattling on about running away from home.  Dinky--good old Dinky--rescued me in his magical Studebaker.

Thank you, Dinky. I don't know if there is a heaven, but if there is, you will be there. Maybe God will replace the engine on your trusty Studebaker so it won't burn so much oil. Maybe He will give it a paint job. And maybe that will be your job in paradise--rescuing desperate kids.

I myself may never know what heaven looks like, but I feel quite sure it won't look like Anadarko.

A 1950 Studebaker





Friday, October 4, 2019

Feds spend millions on Betsy DeVos' personal security: Do Americans hate her that much?

Politico (Nicole Gaudiano and Caitlin Emma) reported that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' security detail is projected to cost taxpayers $7.87 million in the coming fiscal year. That's up by about $1.5 million over last year's cost: $6.24 million.

Betsy is protected by the U.S. Marshals Service, which says its job is to "monitor and mitigate threats" to DeVos's personal safety.

Is that cost really necessary? After all, the four previous Education secretaries were content to be protected by the Department of Education's modest security force.

I have a few comments about Secretary DeVos' security detail. First, since DeVos' security costs are going up, that must mean that threats against her are accelerating. If that's true, maybe DeVos and President Trump should ask themselves why so many people are angry with her instead of just hiring more marshals.

Indeed, millions of student-loan borrowers have lots of reasons to be mad at Betsy DeVos: her gross mishandling of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, her efforts to water down protections for students who were defrauded by their colleges, and her shameless pandering to the for-profit college industry.

But then Betsy DeVos' heavy security detail is probably not that unusual among the nation's top public officials. I feel sure that most powerful politicians--Republicans and Democrats alike--have bodyguards. Do you think Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Lindsey Graham, and Mitch McConnell go to the grocery store unaccompanied?

What a world we live in! Our elected and appointed officials--people we count on to look after the public interest--are being driven around in chauffeured limousines--protected from public contact by tinted glass and armed bodyguards. The only citizens they spend any time with are rich people with big checks in their hands.

So if you want to meet Betsy DeVos, you have two choices. You can become filthy rich and make a big donation to the Republican Party. In gratitude, Betsy might invite you over for cocktails on her yacht, the Seaquest.

If you aren't rich, you won't meet Betsy DeVos unless you throw yourself in front of her limousine and get run down by her chauffeur. Maybe then you and Betsy could have a little chat about your student loans while you're waiting for an ambulance.

Betsy's yacht






Thursday, October 3, 2019

America is a two-headed snake and both heads are venomous: Nasty politics will destroy us all

My friend David, a herpetologist, recently returned from a research expedition in India where he discovered a two-headed snake. David identified the snake as a banded krait, a venomous creature common in India and Southeast Asia.  The krait's bite is quite lethal, generally killing the victim in less than eight hours. When a banded krait has two heads, both heads are venomous.

A two-headed snake! How does that work?  Not very well.

David told me that both heads have independent executive powers, although one head usually dominates the other. The two heads sometimes disagree about what direction to take and they often fight with each other for food. Because the two heads don't get along well together, they usually die quite soon if left in the wild.

It seems to me that America has become a two-headed snake. Conservatives dominate in the South, the Midwest, and the Rocky Mountain West. Liberals dominate on both coasts and in the large cities--Chicago, Houston, Denver, etc.

At the margins at least, conservatives and liberals hate each other. Liberals are outraged at the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, and some will stop at nothing to overturn the election results. If the Democrats can't impeach him based on the Mueller report, they will try to impeach him for a phone call to Ukraine. If that doesn't work, new justifications will pop into Adam Schiff's head and will continue popping into his head until Trump is out of office.

Meanwhile, legislatures in conservative states are trying to diminish a woman's right to have an abortion, passing laws that may very well be unconstitutional.  And Trump's education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has angered so many people with her reckless and heartless administration of the student-loan program that she needs a personal-security detail that costs the taxpayers $21,000 a day.

Our nation's politics are insane, and we are more politically divided now than at any time since the Civil War. Of course, America has seen nasty politics before: the Know-Nothing party of the 1850s, the rising of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, and the McCarthy era.  But these demented episodes were short because Americans of goodwill came to their senses. But I see no end to our present political madness.

If Trump is re-elected, his enemies in the Democratic Party will continue to undermine him and plot for new ways to impeach him. If a Democrat is elected and some of the candidates' spending schemes are enacted into law, the nation will quickly go bankrupt and the stock market will plummet so far and so fast that 1929 will look like a Methodist picnic by comparison.

Meanwhile, Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran are watching our political antics like a bunch of kids eating popcorn during a Three Stooges movie. They can see we are self-destructing, and it must be fun for them to watch.

American politics has become a venomous, two-headed snake. Our elected leaders are so bent on crushing their political enemies that they are willing to wreck the national economy just to harm their foes. And make no mistake: our nasty politics will destroy us all--no matter which venomous head prevails over the other.









Puerto Rico bankruptcy plan will cut pensions for some retired public employees: The bell tolls for you, dude!

According to the New York Times, a federal oversight board has issued a plan to deal with Puerto Rico's financial collapse. In addition to giving the territory's bondholders a "haircut," the board proposes to cut pension obligations to retired public employees. "Their pensions would be cut on a sliding scale," the Times reported.  "The biggest pensions would be reduced by, at most, 8.5 percent, and the smallest pensions would not be cut at all."

Puerto Rico scrapped its defined-benefits pension program years ago, forcing all public employees into defined-contribution plans similar to 401(k) plans. In the future, all of Puerto Rico's public employees will be in retirement plans that are subject to the vagaries of the stock market.

If we don't live in Puerto Rico, why should we care? Because Puerto Rico's pension meltdown is a movie that will soon be coming to your town. Nationwide, the Wall Street Journal reported recently, the states' public pension funds "have less than 73 percent of what they need to fund future pension obligations to public workers."

Some state pension funds are worse off than others. Three states--Kentucky, Illinois, and New Jersey--have less than 40 percent of what they need to fund future pension obligations.  New York and California are also woefully underfunded.  And Texas, which sends me a pension check every month, would be less than 40 percent funded if it adjusted its investment expectations to a realistic level.

What's going to happen? First of all, one by one, the states will abandon defined-benefits pension plans and put all public employees into 401(k) type plans that offer no certainty about retirement income.

And--in many states--retired public employees will start seeing cuts in their retirement income, just as Puerto Rico's retired employees are probably going to experience. For now, at least, Puerto Rico's federal oversight board proposes to cut the biggest pensions the most and to leave modest pensions untouched.

The coming public pension meltdown, like the coming student-loan meltdown, will affect the entire nation. But what did we expect? Some retired public employees are getting pension checks that total a quarter-of-a-million dollars a year. And some pension plans allow public employees to retire with full benefits at the age of 55 or even younger.

As Jonathan Swift observed, "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Right now, the news media is concentrated on such weighty matters as President Trump's lousy hurricane predictions. But when the nation's retired public employees go to their mailboxes and find they have smaller pension checks than they received the month before--the public mind will concentrate wonderfully.

And then, my friends, we will see real trouble.



Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Shenk v. U.S. Department of Education: A bankruptcy judge denies student-loan discharge to 59-year-old army veteran

As John Lennon famously observed, "Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans." Certainly, Mr. Shenk, a military veteran, had other plans for his life other than filing for bankruptcy at the age of 59 in an effort to discharge $110,000 in student loans.

Timothy Shenk served 13 years in the U.S. Army (infantryman in the 82nd Airborne Division).  He then enlisted in the National Guard in order to obtain the 20 years of military service that would make him eligible for full retirement. That was a good plan.

Shenk also planned to become a teacher and he obtained a bachelor's degree from SUNY Cortland in 1999.  He then worked on a master's degree program in Adolescent Education, and he completed all the course work to obtain his degree.  That also was a good plan.

Unfortunately, Shenk had unpaid student loans, and SUNY Cortland refused to award him his diploma. In addition, the university had a five-year time frame to meet program requirements and that time period elapsed years ago.  Consequently, Mr. Shenk will never receive the degree he worked for, even though he met all program requirements.

Shenk married when he was a young man and he and his wife had four children. But the marriage ended in divorce, and he became liable for public assistance payments made to his ex-wife. By the time he filed for bankruptcy, he had paid off most of that obligation, which is commendable.

Bankruptcy Judge Margaret Cangilos-Ruiz expressed some sympathy for Mr. Shenk. She pointed out that his graduate studies were interrupted because the State of New York called him back for active military service after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. "The bitter irony is that when ordered by the Governor, [Shenk] assisted New York State at a time of dire need only later to have the State refuse to confer the degree that may have put him on a financial path to pay what he owed."

Nevertheless, Judge Cangilos-Ruiz denied Shenk's request for a student-loan discharge on the grounds that he did not meet the stringent standards of the three-part Brunner test.  He was unemployed at the time of the bankruptcy proceedings and he could not pay back his student loans and maintain a minimal standard of living. Thus he met Brunner's first requirement.  But the judge believed Shenk's financial circumstances would likely improve. He was employable, the judge pointed out, and he would soon be eligible for a small military pension and Social Security benefits.  The judge also said that Shenk failed Brunner's good-faith test because he had made no payments on his student loans over a number of years.

I think Judge Cangilos-Ruiz erred when she refused to discharge Mr. Shenk's student loans. First of all, universities should not be allowed to withhold a diploma simply because the would-be graduate has unpaid student loans. Such a policy amounts to putting student borrowers in debtor's prison--they cannot pay back their debts because their credentials are being withheld.

Moreover, Judge Cangilos-Ruiz denied Mr. Shenk a discharge partly due to the fact that he would eventually receive Social Security benefits and a modest military pension. In my view, no one who is nearing retirement age should be required to devote one penny of meager retirement income to paying back student loans.

In short, the equities of this case favored Mr. Shenk. Perhaps he made some mistakes in planning his finances but he served his country for 20 years in the U.S. military and he worked to obtain a graduate degree that his university refused to give him.

In any event, Mr. Shenk will probably never be able to repay $110,000 in student-loan debt. His only recourse now is to sign up for a long-term income-based repayment plan that could stretch out for as long as 25 years--when he will be 85 years old!

Isn't it ironic that presidential candidates are calling for a college education to be free to everyone while a man who served his country for 20 years is burdened by enormous student-loan debt? Thanks for your service, Mr. Shenk.

References

Shenk v. U.S. Department of Education, 603 B.R. 671 (Bankr. N.D.N.Y. 2019).







Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Like driving into a CAT 5 hurricane, the Department of Education is taking the student-loan program toward catastrophe

I lived in Houston when Hurricane Rita hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. Weather forecasters predicted that Rita would make landfall in Galveston Bay and that Galveston and towns south of Houston would suffer massive flooding and wind damage. The hurricane predictors also warned that parts of Houston would flood.

Responding to these warnings, hundreds of thousands of people--perhaps a million--fled Greater Houston in every direction. Some Houstonians traveled west toward San Antonio on I-10, some drove up I-45 toward Dallas, and others evacuated to the east on I-10.

My wife and I decided to head east toward Baton Rouge, where we could shelter with family. But we miscalculated. Our major mistake was to evacuate too late. As we drove east on I-10, we discovered that the highway was clogged with cars as were all auxiliary routes and surface roads.

Moreover, as we listened to our car radio, we heard the hurricane experts change their prediction about where Rita would make shore. It would not batter Galveston, they said; it would make landfall in southwestern Louisiana near the town of Cameron.

After about an hour on the road, my wife and I reached these conclusions. First, we would not reach Baton Rouge before Rita made landfall because the Interstate was fast turning into a parking lot. Second, we would run out of gas before reaching our destination and become stranded on the highway. And third--and perhaps most importantly--we were driving straight into the storm!

So we turned around and headed home to Houston. We arrived at a deserted city, but the Alabama Ice House was open and serving cold, draft beer to a small group of patrons. I still remember the taste of my ice-cold Red Stripe, served by a bartender who didn't give a damn about hurricanes. In the end, we suffered no damage from Rita.

After that experience, I vowed to pay closer attention to oncoming storm and evacuate early if I had any indication that a hurricane was headed my way.

The federal student-loan program is the economic equivalence of a CAT 5 hurricane hovering just offshore of our national consciousness. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has described the program as a looming thunderstorm but she seems intent on driving straight into it.

As everyone knows from listening to the media, 45 million Americans have outstanding student loans that now total $1.6 billion. As DeVos has publicly admitted, more than 40 percent of those loans are "in distress" and only about one debtor in four is paying back both principal and interest on this debt.

More specifically, we know that 7.3 million college borrowers are in income-driven repayment plans that are designed so that people will never pay off their loans. More than 5 million people are in default, and another 6 million have loans in deferment or forbearance.

That's 18 million people whose total indebtedness grows larger by the month. Very few of these 18 million souls will ever pay back their student loans.

What is the U.S. Department doing about it? As I said, Betsy DeVos is driving full speed into the storm.  She refuses to grant significant debt relief to the people who signed up for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program--granting only about 1 percent of the applications.

And DeVos's DOE is doing everything it can to deny distressed student-loan debtors relief in the bankruptcy courts. DOE or its hired gunslinger, Educational Credit Management Corporation, fight nearly every student debtor who attempts to discharge student loans by filing for bankruptcy.

DeVos is also slowing down and complicating the process whereby college borrowers can have their student loans forgiven on the grounds that their college or school defrauded them.

Is the student-loan program in a bubble similar to the housing bubble of 2008? Yes, it is. In fact, when the student-loan bubble bursts, the suffering will be greater than the home-mortgage disaster.

The Democrats are "woke" about this crisis and Senators Warren and Sanders propose massive debt relief.  As I have said in a previous commentary, I am OK with their proposals; but politically that is not likely to happen.

As I have been saying for a quarter-century (yes, really), the best solution to this train wreck is to allow insolvent student-loan debtors to discharge their loans in bankruptcy. The Democrats have introduced legislation to accomplish this, and several Democratic presidential candidates are among the bill's co-sponsors.

But that bill is going nowhere, in spite of the fact that the Democrats hold the House of Representatives.  So we have two political parties that are ignoring the hurricane warnings. The Democrats decry the situation without doing anything about it in Congress, and the Republicans are racing to the center of the storm, oblivious to the human disaster that is building like a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico.

This will not end well for anyone.



Saturday, September 21, 2019

"Impeach the mother f--ker": Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, vulgar discourse, and a personal apology

Almost everyone agrees that public discourse has become cruder, especially public discourse in the political arena. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib may have hit the low point of this trend when she called President Trump a "mother f--ker," but perhaps not. She justified her profanity by saying she was only "speaking truth to power," and Congress did not censor her for her language.

I've heard three explanations for the explosion in vulgar language in public conversations. Some people put the blame on President Trump, who often resorts to crude language and insults his adversaries by giving them demeaning nicknames. I think there is some truth to that argument.

Some commentators say we are speaking more profanely just to get people's attention. We are continuously bombarded by rude language transmitted by radio, television, and social media. Some people may think they must use profanity just to get noticed.  If Congresswoman Tlaib had simply called for impeaching President Trump, no one would have noticed. By calling the President a "mother f--ker," she grabbed worldwide attention. Even the South China Morning Post carried the story.

Finally, I've heard pundits say public figures speak profanely because they do not have the vocabulary to formulate their ideas without cursing. They simply do not have the language skills to present rational arguments.

When I was in law school many years ago, my professors insisted on students speaking civilly and respectfully. I remember a day in Professor Lino Graglia's antitrust-law course.  Professor Graglia was pacing back and forth at the front of the classroom while he asked students question after question about relevant court decisions.

One day, a law student used a mild expletive while answering one of Professor Graglia's questions. Graglia stopped in mid-step, and, in a commanding voice, thundered these exact words: "We do not use that kind of language in this classroom."

Professor Graglia then paused for a few seconds to gather his thoughts, and then he said something I will never forget. "You are all training to be officers of the courts and we must use language that shows our respect for the institutions that we serve."

I say I never forgot Professor Graglia's words, but in fact, I forgot them a few days ago. In a blog essay titled "Arrogant Bastards," I chastised our elite college presidents for doing virtually nothing about the student-loan crisis.

I regret those words, and I know why I used them. I felt like I needed to write something shocking just to get people to read my essay and I was too lazy in the moment to convey my criticism through rational language.

I apologize. I should not have called these college presidents arrogant bastards. I should have described them as arrogant and heartless. That's what I really meant to say.

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib: "Impeach the mother f--ker"


Friday, September 20, 2019

Student Debt Only Went Up 2 Percent Last Year! (Is This a Good News-Bad News Joke?)

An airline pilot, flying a transoceanic route, made an announcement over the intercom to the passengers. "I have some good news and bad news," he said.

"First, the bad news. One engine is on fire, we're low on fuel, and we have no idea where we are." But on the bright side, he continued, "We're making great time!"

The Institute for College Access and Success issued a report this week that strikes me as a good news-bad news joke. Student debt levels for the graduating class of 2018 was $29,200, only 2 percent more than the previous year. I suppose that's good news.

But the bad news is this: About 45 million Americans are student-loan debtors, and collectively they owe $1.6 trillion in student debt. According to TICAS, over 20 percent of African Americans will default on their student loans within 12 years of entering college, 7 times the rate for whites (p, 9).

Among students who began their studies at for-profit colleges, TICAS reported, 30 percent will default within 12 years of entering college, seven times the default rate for students who first enrolled at public institutions.

These dismal outcomes are happening during a nationwide enrollment decline, which is hitting the nonprofit private schools the hardest. The small liberal arts colleges are frantically trying to keep enrollments up. They've slashed tuition by an average of 50 percent. They've started new academic programs. They're cutting faculty lines, particularly in the humanities. They've hired marketing firms, and have tried re-branding themselves with billboards and hip slogans.

But for many liberal arts schools, these strategies will not keep them afloat. And this reminds me of another story.

A Texas rancher told a friend he had begun an experiment to lower his livestock feed bills.  "I began feeding my horse a little less hay everyday," he confided, "until I finally weaned him off hay altogether.

"How did that work out for you?, his friend asked.

"It was working great," the rancher said. "But unfortunately, my horse died before I was able to complete the experiment."


The experiment was a success, but the horse died.
Photo credit: DelawareOhioNews.com


Thursday, September 19, 2019

The enrollment crash is an existential threat to liberal arts colleges: Bucknell VP Bill Conley's insightful essay

Bill Conley, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Bucknell University, wrote a perceptive essay for Chronicle of Higher Education about the "Great Enrollment Crash" at liberal arts colleges. There has been a huge downturn in undergraduate education at liberal arts colleges, and no turnaround is in sight. As Conley put it:
Higher education has fully entered into a new structural reality. You'd be na├»ve to believe that most colleges will be able to ride out this unexpected wave [ declining enrollment] as we have the previous swells.
What's going on?

First, as Conley explains, the demographics are bad. Americans are having fewer children. In fact, the birth rate has fallen below replacement levels in the U.S., just as it has in Europe. There are fewer high school graduates who want to go to college.

Secondly, the demand for a liberal arts education has plummeted. As Conley reports, degrees in the humanities dropped from 17 percent of all degrees in 1967 to just 5 percent in 2015.

Moreover, the current crop of college students is more focused than past generations on getting a college degree that will lead to a good job. More and more students are choosing to major in business, biology, or economics, while philosophy majors are becoming an endangered species.

The liberal arts colleges have responded to this threat by slashing tuition prices for incoming first-year students. On average,  the colleges are only collecting half their posted tuition rates. Colleges hoped to attract more students by lowering tuition, but that strategy hasn't worked for many of them.

Of course, the liberal arts colleges aren't the only sector of higher education facing enrollment declines. As Conley pointed out, the Pennsylvania System of Higher Education has seen its public institutions lose 20 percent of their enrollments in less than 10 years.

Increasingly, families are looking to more affordable public universities for their children's college education and eschewing the small, private liberal arts schools. The obscure, non-elite liberal arts colleges are suffering the most, and several have closed in recent years.

"I don't see these trends changing," Conley wrote, "especially when coupled with stagnating income and the resulting pressure on a family's return-on-investment calculus." In short, he summarized, "Disruption is here to stay."

I agree with Mr. Conley's forthright assessment of liberal arts education; and personally, I think it is doomed. Liberal arts colleges were founded to educate students in the humanities, literature, history, and philosophy; but few students appreciate those fields of study. Furthermore, the liberal arts have been balkanized, as faculty obsess on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation so that there is no longer even a broad consensus about what constitutes a liberal arts education.

In my view, I think the small, liberal arts colleges should prepare for a dignified death because they are going to die anyway. They need to develop contingency plans for placing their students in other institutions when they close and they need to make the best provision they can for laid-off faculty members--many of whom will be unable to find new jobs. After all, what university wants to hire a middle-aged philosophy professor?

This is a sad turn of events, and I do not think the liberal arts colleges brought this calamity on themselves. Rather they are like the blacksmiths of the early twentieth century, who were put out of work by Henry Ford's cars.

I don't have a solution to this existential crisis among the small, private schools. But I have some advice for students who are choosing a college. Don't enroll at an expensive, obscure, private college. Get your degree from a reputable public institution.

And if you are a newly minted Ph.D. looking for your first academic job, don't go to work at a small liberal-arts college. Even if you get tenure at some out-of-the-way little school in New England or the Midwest, that won't keep you from being laid off. And once you lose that tenured job at a college that was closed, you will find it damned hard to get another one.


Monday, September 16, 2019

Higher education leaders oppose Democrats' proposal for free college: Why?

College tuition has risen faster than the rate of inflation for the past quarter-century. While wages have remained stagnant, the cost of going to college has shot through the roof. According to Forbes writer Camilo Maldonado, tuition rose 8 times faster than wage growth during the years 1989 to 2016. Eight times faster!

Why? The colleges say they are forced to raise tuition rates because the states are providing less support for higher education. But this lame explanation--repeated ad nauseam--is mostly bullshit. The colleges don't mention the explosion in administrative positions-the profusion of assistant vice presidents, executive associate deans, etc. It is not uncommon for senior administrators at public and private universities to draw salaries that exceed a quarter-million dollars a year.

In any event, everyone agrees that rising tuition costs have forced millions of American students to take out student loans, which now total $1.6 trillion. Something must be done to alleviate the distress.

Several Democratic candidates for the presidency have proposed making college education free at all public colleges and universities. You would think the higher education community would love that idea. But it doesn't. Vassar president Catharine Hill criticized Bernie Sanders's free-college idea when he ran for president in 2016. Her lame-brained solution was to expand long-term income-based repayment plans. And that's basically what we've done--creating repayment plans deliberately structured so that students can never pay off their college loans.

Now we are in the early stages of the 2020 presidential election season, and more Democratic hopefuls have joined Bernie in proposing a free college education for everyone. Senators  Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand (who recently dropped out of the presidential race) have all endorsed a free-college proposal.

But the higher education community still opposes the idea. Just a few days ago, Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, published an op-ed essay in Chronicle of Higher Education, in which he cited a couple of liberal tropes to justify his opposition to free college.

A free college education would hurt low-income students, Rosenberg argues, because they would be "squeezed out" in the application process that would become more competitive if tuition were free. And he also contends that free college would exacerbate the nation's already low graduation rate.

Huh? How could free college be bad for low-income students? How could it make graduation rates go down?

Mr. Rosenberg is the president of Macalester College, a very good liberal-arts school in Minnesota, but he does not mention that free college at public institutions would severely disadvantage the private colleges. Who would pay $54,000 a year in tuition and fees to attend Macalester College if they could enroll at the University of Minnesota tuition-free?

 I'm sure Mr. Rosenberg's arguments against free college are sincere and his commitment to private liberal-arts education is genuine. But a great many university presidents and higher-education policy wonks simply don't care about the student-loan crisis, which has motivated political leaders to propose a free college education.  They want to preserve the status quo in higher education, with the federal government spewing more than a $100 billion a year to support the present system.

How many elite-college presidents have come out in favor of a free college education? I don't think any of them have. Unlike Mr. Rosenberg, most college leaders are keeping silent about their qualms, but rest assured they will fight tooth and nail if a Democrat is elected President and tries to get a free-college plan through Congress.

Meanwhile, I don't think any of these arrogant college presidents have lifted a finger to ease the student-debt crisis.  The status quo works just fine for them.

Macalester College: $54,000 in tuition and fees
(the bagpipe music is complimentary)



Thursday, September 12, 2019

Overbuilt "luxury" student housing: Speculators are turning university towns into slums

The Commercial Observer ran a story a few days ago about a financial crisis in the so-called luxury student-housing market. As reported by Matt Grossman, the default rate in this niche of the securitized real-estate market has gone up dramatically in recent years and now stands at15.3 percent. That's 60 percent higher than the default rate just eight months ago when it was 9 percent.

Luxury student-housing became a hot new investment sector a few years ago. Speculators built thousands of student-housing units in college towns all over the United States.  These units included features to attract college students--swimming pools, basketball courts, tanning beds, and fitness centers. Rents were high--over $1,000 a month. But parents often co-signed the leases, and many students paid their rent with student-loan money.

After the new complexes were rented up and began showing positive cash flow, the speculators packaged them into mortgage-backed securities and sold them to investment pools--pension funds, hedge funds, and other institutional investors.

But the speculators built too many luxury student apartments. College students--a notoriously fickle bunch--tended to move out of older units to take up residence in swankier new digs. Vacancy rates spiked upward in the older buildings, the new owners found themselves unable to service their mortgages, and now many of these so-called luxury apartment buildings are going into default.

How did this happen? First, as I have said, these luxury apartments were overbuilt by speculators; and the speculators simply did not care. They had no local ties to the college towns. Their plan was to sell the units quickly while they were still new, take their profits, and move on to the next investment.

Moreover, most of this so-called luxury student housing is not luxury housing at all. It's just new housing. If you go inside one of these apartments, you will likely find plastic interior doors, cabinets made out of particle board rather than wood, and cheap appliances and amenities.

And now--in the space of just a few years--universities all over America are ringed by aging apartment complexes, many of which have gone into default. As the buildings decay, rents are slashed, maintenance is deferred, and before long these so-called luxury apartment buildings become slums.

I see this tragedy unfolding in my own neighborhood, where thousands of apartment buildings have been thrown up in the flood plain near Louisiana State University. But you can see this phenomenon in almost any town with a major university.

Everybody knows that the federal student-loan program has created millions of paupers, people who have amassed so much student debt that they will never pay it off. Even Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has acknowledged this calamity.

But the federal student-loan program has also contributed to an environmental crisis--the emergence of slum housing around America's colleges and universities. The glut in student housing is at least partly attributable to the federal student loan program, which allowed students to rent luxury apartments with borrowed money

 If you want to see an example of this crisis, drive through the Tigerland neighborhood, a jumble of old apartment buildings originally built for students near LSU in Baton Rouge.

Parts of Tigerland are now a serious slum where you would not want to live if you were a college student.  And not far away, new apartments are still being built--Tigerlands in the making in just a few years.