Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Weingarten v. DeVos: American Federation of Teachers accuses the Department of Education of mismanaging the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program

Last week, Randi Weingarten and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) sued Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education, accusing DOE of mismanaging the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF). AFT sued on behalf of itself and eight educators whose applications for public-service loan forgiveness were denied. 

Weingarten is president of AFT and she sued the Department of Education in her official capacity as an AFT officer. In a call to reporters, Weingarten was highly critical of DOE's handling of the PSLF program. “This program was not supposed to be negotiable or debatable," Weingarten told reporters.  "It is a right under [the] law. It shouldn’t be a crapshoot, but under Betsy DeVos, that is exactly what it’s become." 

PSLF was enacted by Congress in 2007 to aid student-loan borrowers who desired to enter public service occupations but were deterred by their burdensome student loans. Under the program, student-loan borrowers in qualified public-service jobs who make 120 monthly payments in approved federal loan programs are entitled to have their remaining student-loan debt forgiven. 

The first PSLF participants became eligible for student-loan forgiveness in the fall of 2017, after having made 120 student-loan payments over the previous ten years. When they applied for loan forgiveness, however, DOE denied 99 percent of the applications. Most PSLF loan-forgiveness applications were denied on the grounds that the applicants were not eligible to participate even though their loan servicers had assured them they were eligible.

Why is AFT interested in the way DOE is managing the PSLF program? 

AFT represents 1.7 million teachers and public-service professionals, and many AFT members are hoping to obtain student-loan relief under PSLF. In a survey of its members, AFT learned that 82% of AFT members who had submitted PSLF applications were denied. Many applicants were denied for failing to meet eligibility requirements due to misinformation provided by their loan servicer

According to AFT's lawsuit, DOE disregarded repeated misrepresentations by its student-loan servicers that student-loan borrowers were qualified for PSLF loan forgiveness. 
Those servicers misinformed [AFT members] that they were “on track” for PSLF and making “qualifying” payments for PSLF, even though they did not actually have qualifying loans or were not in qualifying repayment plans. Only years later, after they had made 120 payments and applied for forgiveness, did these public servants learn for the first time that their payments did not count. Had the loan servicers given these Plaintiffs the correct information, they easily could have consolidated their loans, entered qualifying repayment plans, and been eligible for forgiveness under PSLF. 

AFT is suing under two primary legal theories. First, AFT argues that DOE violated the Administrative Procedure Act in the way it handled PSLF loan-forgiveness applications. Second, AFT accuses DOE of violating due process under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

In some ways, AFT's lawsuit is similar to the one filed by the American Bar Association (ABA) against the Department of Education in 2016. The ABA accused DOE of wrongly denying ABA the right to participate in the PSLF program. It also sued on behalf of four public-service lawyers whose applications for PSLF loan forgiveness were denied.

Judge Timothy Kelly ruled on the ABA lawsuit last February and the ABA won a partial victory. Judge Kelly ruled that the ABA had no legal right to be recognized as a qualified participant in the PSLF program. On the other hand, Judge Kelly ruled that DOE violated the Administrative Procedure Act when it denied PSLF loan-forgiveness applications by three of the lawyer-plaintiffs in the ABA's lawsuit. In Judge Kelly's view, DOE had acted arbitrarily and capriciously in handling the lawyers' PSLF applications. Judge Kelly ordered DOE to reconsider the lawyer's PSLF applications in accordance with his opinion. 

Judge Kelly elected to rule in the ABA lawyers' favor based solely on Administrative Procedure Act violations and did not consider the ABA's due process claims.  Now AFT is raising a constitutional due process claim in its own case. 

Why are these developments important to the 45 million people who have outstanding student loans? 

PSLF  an important avenue of relief for people who are heavily burdened by student loans and can't pay them back. If these individuals work in approved public-service jobs for ten years and make 120 payments on their student loans, they are entitled to have their remaining loan balances forgiven. 

Thus, the Trump administration's decision to deny PSLF eligibility to 99 percent of applicants is alarming. If AFT prevails in its lawsuit, that victory could pave the way for PSLF relief for millions of other Americans working in public-service jobs.


*****


Note: The individual plaintiffs in AFT's lawsuit are: Cynthia Miller, Crystal Adams, Connie Wakefield, Deborah Baker, Janelle Menzel, Kelly Finlaw, Gloria Nolan, and Michael Giambona.




Saturday, July 6, 2019

Louisiana professor sentenced to 90 years in prison for misusing his university credit card: The shocking case of State v. Dufus Dorkmeister

Dr.  Dufus Dorkmeister, a folklore professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, was sentenced to 90 years in prison last Friday for abusing his university credit card. Judge Shelly Dick sentenced Dorkmeister to 30 years in prison on each of three counts of fraud, with the sentences to be served consecutively. 

"This is one of the most serious cases of fraud and embezzlement I have ever seen," Judge Dick lectured  Dorkmeister before pronouncing sentence. "Therefore, in essence, I am sentencing you to life in prison. You will not be eligible for parole until you are 137 years old."

Dorkmeister was accused of three separate acts of fraud.  First, while traveling to an academic conference on 19th-century Prussian folklife, he used his university credit card to buy an unauthorized donut in the New Orleans airport. According to the district attorney, the donut cost $1.82 (including sales tax).

 Dorkmeister testified it was a simple mistake. "My university card," he told the jury, " looks almost exactly like my personal credit care.  I just got the cards mixed up and  gave the cashier the wrong card."

Second, the District Attorney accused Dorkmeister of fraudulently seeking reimbursement for his parking fee at the New Orleans Airport.  State Policy requires all state employees to provide parking attendants with a signed form verifying they are on state business and should not be charged sales tax for parking fees.  Dorkmeister's fee was $7.70 cents, which included a 70 cent sales tax.

Again, Dorkmeister argued he was innocent. "I tried to give my official form to the parking attendant,' Dorkmeister testified tearfully, "but she laughed in my face and refused to deduct the 70 cents."

The third criminal charge, which the District Attorney described as the most serious offense, involved a purchase of 25 official University of Louisiana ballpoint pins without verifying that the pens were manufactured by a  vendor licensed to reproduce the University's logo. State policy requires professors to submit purchase requests for souvenir items to the Office of Communication and Technology, along with a photo of the vender's trademark license.

Dorkmeister testified at length on this matter. "I bought the ballpoint pens for my freshman students as little prizes for their academic work," Dorkmeister explained. "I did not know I had to get special permission from the Office of Communications and Technology to buy souvenirs bearing the University logo. I assumed the pens were legitimate because I bought them at the student union."

The District Attorney put Dorkmeister under savage cross-examination, forcing the professor to admit that ignorance of the law is no excuse. After deliberating for six minutes, the jury found Dorkmeister guilty on all three counts and recommended the maximum sentence.

After sentencing, Judge Dick denied bail while Dorkmeister appeals. The judge declared him a flight risk and remanded him for immediate delivery to Angola prison, where he will join 16 other professors. All 16 are housed in a maximum-security cell block reserved for rapists, child molesters, and credit-card abusers.

*****
This essay is a satire and Professor Dorkmeister is a fictional character. The policies lampooned in this satire are actual university policies.


College professors convicted of credit card abuse.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

In re Engen: Nondischargable student loans create a "prison of emotional confinement"

Bankruptcy Judge Robert Berger issued an opinion in 2016 that deserves to be better known than it is. Although the substance of Judge Berger's decision focused on an arcane provision of bankruptcy law, it also contains a trenchant summary of the misery that has been inflicted on millions of Americans by the federal student loan program.

In re Engen concerns Mark and Maureen Engen, a married couple who filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 13. Mr. and Mrs. Engen submitted a plan to pay creditors about $5,000 a month over five years. Under their plan, the Engens would completely pay off the first mortgage on their home, a car loan, and state and federal taxes. In addition, the Engens would make payments to nonsecured debtors who would only receive partial repayment.

In their plan, the Engens categorized their student-loan debt as a separate class of unsecured creditors and proposed to pay off this debt completely (without interest) before making payments on other unsecured claims (p. 529). The trustee in the Engens' case objected to giving student loans preferential treatment.

In a well-reasoned opinion, Judge Berger approved the Engens' repayment plan over the trustee's objection and explained why it was appropriate to categorize student loans as a separate class of unsecured debt.

First of all, Judge Berger explained, student-loan debt is a particularly onerous debt because it is quite difficult to discharge in bankruptcy.  Bankrupt debtors must file an adversary proceeding to discharge their student loans, and "[t]his bankruptcy litigation is sufficiently expensive and . . . so demanding, that debtors rarely even try to have student loan debt discharged" (p. 531, internal punctuation and citation omitted).

Indeed, a debtor's attempt to discharge student-loan debt is generally "an exercise in futility," with debtors forced to overcome what amounts to an "assumption of criminality" in order to obtain relief (p. 57, internal citation omitted).

In Judge Berger's opinion, the hardships associated with student-loan debt justify treating it as a separate classification in a Chapter 13 repayment plan. In fact, in some instances, lumping student loans with other unsecured debt would cause debtors to owe more on their student loans after bankruptcy than before they filed for bankruptcy relief.

Judge Berger then turned to an extended discussion of the pernicious quality of student-loan debt in the United States. Student loans, he observed, have caused many college graduates to delay marriage, defer car purchases, postpone home ownership, and put off saving for retirement.  Student debt is becoming a growing concern for older Americans, with more than a quarter of student loans held by debtors age 65-74 in default.

Judge Berger went on to articulate the grave harm suffered by distressed student-loan debtors who are unable to discharge their loans in bankruptcy. "Nondischargeable student loans may create a virtual debtors' prison," he wrote, "one without physical containment but assuredly a prison of emotional confinement" (p. 550).

Finally, Judge Berger ended his opinion with the forceful argument that bankruptcy relief benefits not just the distressed debtor; it also benefits society.
It is this Court's opinion that many consumer bankruptcies are filed by desperate individuals who are financially, emotionally, and physically exhausted. Sometimes lost in the discussion that the bankruptcy discharge provides a fresh start to honest but unfortunate debtors is that, perhaps as importantly, it provides a commensurate benefit to society and the economy. People are freed from emotional and financial burdens to become more energetic, healthy participants. (p. 550)
The Student Borrower Bankruptcy Relief Act of 2019 is now pending in Congress. This legislation, if adopted, will remove the "undue hardship" provision from the Bankruptcy Code and allow overburdened debtors to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy like any other nonsecured consumer debt. Supporters of this bill should cite Judge Berger's opinion in In re Engen, because it expresses one federal judge's view that the "undue hardship" provision in the Bankruptcy Code has created "a prison of emotional confinement" that burdens not only student debtors but our society as a whole.

"A prison of emotional confinement"


References

In re Engen, 561 B.R.523 (Bankr. D. Kan. 2016).

Monday, July 1, 2019

Hill v. ECMC: An Army veteran with PTSD sheds her student loans in bankruptcy

Hill v. ECMC: A veteran seeks to discharge her student loans in bankruptcy

Risa Rozella Hill enrolled at Wichita State University after getting out of the Army, and she obtained a bachelor's degree in social work in 2002. She went on to pursue a master's degree from Newman College but did not graduate. In 2008, she received an MBA from DeVry University.

Hill financed her studies with 23 student loans totally $127,000. She never paid anything on these loans, but she was never in default because she obtained various deferments or forbearances that entitled her to skip her loan payments.

In 2013, Hill began to experience symptoms of psychosis, including delusions, hallucinations, and voices that "instructed her to behave in certain ways." In 2014, she was involuntarily committed to psychiatric care in a Georgia hospital. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Hill was released from the hospital, but she was readmitted to another hospital a few months later after showing signs of psychosis. She was released again in November 2014.

Prior to filing for bankruptcy, Hill experienced periods of homelessness. The Social Security Administration deemed her disabled and she began receiving disability-benefit checks--her sole source of income. She also began living in publicly subsidized housing.

In 2017, Hill filed for bankruptcy and sought to have her student loans discharged. Hill was represented by the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. Educational Credit Management entered the litigation as the sole defendant.

Judge Sage Sigler discharges Hill's student loans over ECMC's objections

In evaluating Hill's claim, Judge Sage Sigler applied the three-pronged Brunner test to determine whether repaying the loans would constitute an "undue hardship" under 11 U.S.C. § 523 of the Bankruptcy Code. In Judge Sigler's opinion, Hill's disability income was hardly adequate to meet her basic needs.  Hill could not maintain a minimal lifestyle if she were forced to pay back her student loans, Judge Sigler concluded; and thus, Hill satisfied the first prong of the Brunner test.

Moreover, Judge Sigler continued, Hill's financial circumstances were unlikely to improve during the loan repayment period. "[T]he weight of the evidence demonstrates that [Hill's] condition will persist indefinitely," Judge Sigler observed; and any recovery from Hill's bipolar disorder was "purely speculative." Indeed, Judge Sigler wrote, "The prospect of [Hill] obtaining and maintaining employment commensurate with her prior jobs is unfortunately hopeless." In short, Hill met part two of the Brunner test.

Part Three of the Brunner test required Hill to show that she had handled her student loans in good faith.  Again, Judge Sigler ruled in Hill's favor. Hill met the good faith standard in spite of the fact she had not made a single loan payment.

Judge Sigler pointed out that Hill took the steps necessary to obtain deferments or forbearances, which the judge evidently viewed as a sign of good faith. Moreover, the judge noted, "Good faith effort only requires the debtor to have made payments when she was in a position to make such payments. [Hill] was never in such a position."

Implications

In some ways, the Hill decision is unremarkable. Hill's mental illness (psychosis and PTSD) clearly qualified her for a student-loan discharge. What is remarkable is the fact that ECMC opposed it. ECMC dragged out its shopworn tactic of demanding that Hill sign up for REPAYE, a long-term income-based repayment plan--a plan that would have required her to make monthly payments of zero dollars due to her low income.

But Judge Sigler did not buy that line. ECMC's calculation of Hill's loan payments under REPAYE demonstrated that Hill had no discretionary income to dedicate to student-loan repayment. "The very reason [Hill's] payment amount would be zero-dollars a month under REPAYE is because she cannot afford to make payments under her student loans and maintain a minimal standard of living."

The Hill case is probably most significant as another case in which a bankruptcy judge refused to adopt ECMC's tiresome argument that all student-loan debtors should be placed in income-based repayment plans as an alternative to bankruptcy relief.  Judge Sigler identified the fundamental flaw in ECMC's argument, which is this: Debtors so destitute that they are required to make zero-dollar payments on their student loans clearly meet the first criterion for student-loan relief under Brunner. They cannot maintain a minimal lifestyle and pay off their student loans.


Saturday, June 29, 2019

Bernie Sanders wants to cancel $1.6 trillion in student debt: A bridge too far?

Senator Bernie Sanders is running for President a second time. Last week he made the news with his proposal to cancel all federal student-loan debt-- $1.6 trillion.  If Bernie makes good on this pledge, he will certainly make 45 million student-loan borrowers very happy.

Bernie also proposes to make a four-year college education tuition-free at public universities. If he can pull that off, millions of Americans will be delighted. A free college education! What's not to like?

I have supported student-loan reform for more than 20 years, and I applaud Senator Sanders for putting the student-loan crisis on the front burner of national politics. But in my view, Bernie's proposals may have gone a bridge too far.

First of all, the federal student loan program, which Congress inaugurated 50 years ago, has morphed into a giant Improvised Explosive Device (IUD). As we saw in the movie Hurt Locker, an IUD must be defused very carefully or it will blow up in our faces. No one really knows what the impact would be on the national fisc if the federal government were to write off $1.6 trillion in student-loan debt. Bernie says he will pay for this bonanza by taxing Wall Street, but that tax would fall heavily on retirees, who have most of their savings in mutual funds tied to the stock market.

Even if Bernie could cancel all student debt tomorrow, most students would still have to take out additional student loans to pay for their next semester's tuition, fees, and living expenses. Of course, Bernie's solution to that problem is to simply make a college education at a public institution tuition-free.

But let's think about Bernie's tuition-free college proposal for a moment. All public colleges receive some kind of financial support from the 50 individual states. Any plan for a tuition-free college education at a public institution must involve some coordination with 50 state governments. Is it realistic to think a Sanders administration could successfully negotiate with California, Illinois, New Jersey, and 47 other states to provide tuition-free college from sea to shining sea? I doubt it.

As for Bernie's proposal to forgive all student-loan debt, that notion seems unwise. Although it is true that millions of student-borrowers are unable to pay back their loans, some portion of the 45 million student debtors received fair value for their student-loan dollars. Do we really want to forgive student-loan debt taken out by people who attended Harvard Law School and landed high-paying jobs?

In my view, the best way to resolve the student-loan crisis is to reform the Bankruptcy Code and allow insolvent student-loan debtors to discharge their student loans through bankruptcy. People who took out student loans in good faith and cannot pay them back should get relief from their debts like any other insolvent debtor.

After all, the bankruptcy judges have the expertise and experience to determine who is entitled to bankruptcy relief from their student loans. All that needs to be done is simply to strike the "undue hardship" clause from the Bankruptcy Code.

In fact, Senator Sanders and several other presidential aspirants in Congress are co-sponsoring just such a bill. Titled the Student Borrower Bankruptcy Relief Act of 2019,  the bill has been filed in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Rather than forgive $1.6 trillion in student debt in one fell swoop, Congress needs to pass this bill so that distressed student-loan debtors can obtain relief in bankruptcy.


Bernie Sanders: We can have our cake and eat it too!





Thursday, June 6, 2019

Student Borrowers Beware: Joe Biden is a Lackey of the Banks

Fourteen years ago, Congress passed a so-called bankruptcy reform law at the behest of the banking industry. One provision--inserted solely for the benefit of the banks—made private student loans non-dischargeable in bankruptcy unless the debtor could show “undue hardship.” The banks justified this heartless legislation as a way to reduce interest rates on private student loans. They argued that the additional protection for creditors would make it possible for banks to loan students money at a lower interest rate because defaulting borrowers would find it virtually impossible to discharge their private college loans in the bankruptcy courts.

This legislation benefited Sallie Mae, Wells Fargo and other major players in the private student-loan market, but the U.S. Department of Education issued a report in 2015 arguing that this provision should be repealed.

This is what the DOE report had to say:
There has been no evidence that the 2005 changes to bankruptcy caused interest on student loans to decline or access to credit to increase significantly. As private student loans generally do not include the consumer protections, such as income-driven repayment plans, included in federal loans, the undue-hardship standard for bankruptcy discharge leaves private student loan borrowers in financial distress with few options.
According to an article in International Business Times (IBT), Senator Joe Biden was an enthusiastic supporter of this Fat Cat Assistance Act, which made it harder for insolvent student-loan debtors to obtain bankruptcy relief. As IBT’s David Sirota observed:
Though the vice president has long portrayed himself as a champion of the struggling middle class--a man who famously commutes on Amtrack and mixes enthusiastically with blue-collar workers—the Delaware lawmaker has played a consistent and pivotal role in the financial industry’s four-decade campaign to make it harder for students to shield themselves and their families from creditors, according to an IBT review of bankruptcy legislation going back to the 1970s.
Indeed, Ed Boltz, who was president of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys in 2015, observed that “Joe Biden bears a large amount of responsibility for passage of the bankruptcy bill.” In fact, the New York Times reported that Biden voted for the bill four times: in 1998, 2000, 2001, and in March 2005, when the bill finally passed the Senate by a vote of 74 to 25.

And—surprise, surprise!—as of 2015, the financial industry had donated $1.9 million to Biden over the course of his career. Now Joe is launching another campaign for the presidency.

So if you get an opportunity to vote for Joe Biden, keep this mind: he is a lackey of the banks. And if you are a student-loan debtor who supports Mr. Biden's presidential bid, then you are an idiot.

References

Christopher Drew & Mike McIntire. Obama Aides Defend Bank’s Pay to Biden Son. New York Times, August 24, 2008.

David Sirota. Joe Biden Backed Bills to Make It Harder for Americans to Reduce Their Student Debt. International Business Times, September 15, 2015.

U.S. Department of Education. Strengthening the Student Loan System to Better Protect All Borrowers. Washington D.C., October 1, 2015. [Note: This DOE report has been removed from the web.]

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Dude! Don't move to India to escape student loans!

Zero Hedge posted an article yesterday about people who fled the United States to escape their student loans. (Annie Nova wrote the original story for CNBC).  Chad Haag, for example, graduated from the University of Northern Colorado and emigrated to India to get away from $20,000 in college-loan debt.

Apparently, Haag is somewhat ambivalent about India. He gets to see elephants--a plus.  But Haag is not crazy about the plumbing. "Some toilets here are holes in the ground you squat over," he confided.

Zero Hedge went on to report on a woman who went to Japan to teach English and a guy who moved to China--also to teach English. Both said they were partly motivated to leave the U.S. by their student-loan debt.

Dudes! Don't move overseas to dodge your student loans. People who cannot find good jobs can enroll in one of the Department of Education's income-based repayment plans (IBRPs). If they are unemployed or living below the poverty line, their monthly loan payment will be zero. An IBRP is a terrible option, as I have often said. But for most people, it beats moving to Asia.

Frankly, I'm not buying the underlying premise of this story. Millions of people have defaulted on their student loans and hardly any of them have left the U.S.  Why would they? People can't dodge their student loans by moving overseas. The debt will be waiting for them when they return, along with accumulated interest and penalties.

My guess is that student-loan debtors who leave the United States have multiple motives. Mr. Haag, for example, married an Indian national, which must be the major reason he is living in a country that doesn't meet his hygiene standards. And thousands of people teach English overseas simply to experience another culture.

If we are looking for signs of suffering, we shouldn't focus on a handful of people who have left the country with student loans hanging over their heads. We should reflect on plummeting birth rates, declining homeownership, and inadequate savings for retirement.

The student-loan program is a catastrophe but publicizing a few outliers is a distraction. We need to relieve the suffering experienced by millions of people. In my mind that can best be accomplished in the bankruptcy courts. And then we need to find a better way to finance higher education.




Wednesday, May 22, 2019

How Can I Get Out of the Student Loan I Cosigned for My Son? Advice from Steve Rhode, the Get Out of Debt Guy

If you are thinking about taking out a Parent PLUS loan to finance your child's college education or co-signing a relative's loan, you should read Steve Rhode's essay, first published at Get Out of Debt Guy, a consumer counseling web site.

Question:
Dear Steve,
It took my son 6 years to get a BA degree. By the 5th year, I ran out of money so I co-signed a private loan for him. For the past 4-5 years, I pay on this loan diligently every month because he refuses to the pay the loan or give me anything towards the payment and I don’t want to jeopardize my credit.
The original loan amt was 34K it is now only down to 29K because the interest rate keeps going up ..now it is at 7.75%. Additionally, he refuses to re-finance the loan
How can I get out from under the responsibility of his debt without jeopardizing my credit?
Sue
Answer:
Dear Sue,
Your son is being kind of a jerk. You helped him finish school and he can at least make some payment, even if he can’t pay it all each month.
Unfortunately, when you cosigned the loan you agreed to be 100% responsible for the loan. There is nothing good in cosigning if you are the one signing. My universal law of cosigning is don’t do it.
If you don’t want to ding your credit then you either need to pay the loan off in full or keep making at least the minimum monthly payment.
If you wanted to remove your liability for the debt you can do that but it will have a credit impact. Some of those options include filing bankruptcy or paying less than you owe on the balance as a settlement. However, you will need to go delinquent to settle it and the balance forgiven may be reported as a bad debt and be taxable.
The only way to make this situation different without harming your credit or costing you a big chunk of change would be to go back in time to the minute before you cosigned for him.

*******
Steve Rhode is the Get Out of Debt Guy and has been helping good people with bad debt problems since 1994. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Brookings Institution researcher criticizes federal student-loan program: "It is an outrage"

Last month, Adam Looney of the Brookings Institution released a paper that is chock full of ideas for fixing the federal student-loan program. Looney began his paper with a withering condemnation of the program in its present form, which he accurately described as an outrage. I am quoting his critique verbatim, just putting his words into a bullet-style format:
  • "It is an outrage that the federal government offers loans to students at low-quality institutions even when we know those schools don't boost their earnings and that those borrowers won't be able to repay their loans."
  • It is an outrage that we make parent PLUS loans to the poorest families when we know they almost surely will default and have their wages and social security benefits garnished and their tax refunds confiscated . . ."
  • "It is an outrage that we saddled several million students with loans to enroll in untested online programs, that seem to have offered no labor market value."
  • It is an outrage that our lending programs encourage schools like USC to charge $107,484 . . . for a master's degree in social work (220 percent more than the equivalent course at UCLA) in a field where the median wage is $47,980."
All these failures, Looney charges, "are entirely the result of federal government policies." 

Nevertheless, for all its faults, Looney thinks the federal student loan program is worth fixing, and he makes several interesting reform proposals:

First, Looney recommends a cap on loans to graduate students. Currently, graduate students in the Grad PLUS program can take out student loans to pay the entire cost of their studies, no matter what the cost, which is nuts. 

This "sky is the limit" loan policy has led to the escalating cost of getting an MBA or law degree. In fact, the American Bar Association estimates that the average student at a private law school takes out  $122,000 in student loans. 

Second, Looney recommends applying an "ability-to-pay" standard to parent loans or eliminating them altogether. In my view, the Parent PLUS program should be shut down. It is insane to lure parents into financing their children's college education by taking on massive student-loan debt--debt which is almost impossible to discharge in bankruptcy.

Third, Looney recommends the REPAYE program as the default student-loan repayment plan for all students. Unless a student opts out, all student-loan borrowers would be automatically enrolled in the REPAYE program when they begin repaying their student loans.

REPAYE, introduced by the Obama administration, allows student debtors to pay 10 percent of the discretionary income (income minus 150 percent of the poverty level) for 20 years rather than attempt to pay off their loans in the standard 10-year repayment plan.

In conjunction with automatic REPAY enrollment, Looney calls for voiding all fees, capitalized interest, and collection costs on current borrowers--costs and fees they wouldn't have suffered if they had been automatically enrolled in REPAYE. In addition, he proposes to cancel all student-loan debt that is 20 years old or older--without regard to the status of these loans.

Finally, Looney calls for a halt in wage and Social Security garnishment, and an end to the Treasury Offset program--the program that allows the government to capture defaulted borrowers' tax refunds.

These are all good proposals, but I have reservations. First, is it good public policy to automatically enroll all student-loan debtors in REPAYE--a 20-year income-based repayment plan? If we go that route, we will be creating a massive class of indentured servants who will be paying a percentage of their income to the government for a majority of their working lives.

Moreover, most people in those plans will never pay back the principle on their loans and could wind up with huge amounts of forgiven debt after 20 years, which would be taxable to them as income.

Secondly, Looney's proposals--all good, as I have said--are complicated, and the Department of Education has a dismal record managing just about every aspect of the student-loan program. For example, individuals enrolled in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program have been applying for debt relief, and the Department of Education has rejected 99 percent of all claims.

So these are my revisions to Mr. Looney's proposals:
  • Amend the Bankruptcy Code to allow distressed student-loan debtors to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy like any other consumer debt.
  • Shut down the Parent PLUS program immediately, and allow parents who took out Parent PLUS loans or cosigned private loans for their children to discharge those loans in bankruptcy.
  • Finally (and this is basically Mr. Looney's proposal) wipe out all penalties, fees, and capitalized interest for all 45 million student-loan borrowers and stop garnishing wages, tax refunds, and Social Security checks of student debtors in default.
My proposals, Mr. Looney's proposals, and for that matter, Senator Warren's debt-forgiveness proposal are shockingly expensive. Any policy that grants student-loan forgiveness to the millions of people who deserve it will cost billions--a quarter of a trillion dollars perhaps or even more.

But let's face facts. Millions of student borrowers are not paying back their loans under the present system. Indeed, Secretary of education Betsy DeVos acknowledged last November that only one debtor out of four is paying down principle and interest on student loans.

Let's admit that the student-loan program is a catastrophe, grant relief to its victims, and design a system of higher education that is not so hideously expensive.

Image credit: Quora.com


References

Adam Looney. A better way to provide relief to student loan borrowers. Brookings Institution, April 30, 2019.






Saturday, May 11, 2019

Education Secretary Betsy Devos Hires Private Accounting Firm to Audit the Student Loan program: Asking For Bad News

Secretary of Education Betsy Devos hired McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm, to audit the federal student loan program. Why did she do that?

After all, the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office or the Inspector General could have done the job. Why hire a private firm?

I'm thinking Secretary DeVos and the Trump administration realize the federal student-loan program is under water. They know the news is bad, but they want to know just how bad it is. After all, Secretary DeVos compared the program to a looming thunderstorm in a speech she made last November.

It took 42 years, DeVos pointed out, for the federal student-loan portfolio to reach half a trillion dollars (1965 until 2007). It took only 6 years--2007 to 2013--for the portfolio to reach $1 trillion. And in 2018--just five years later--the federal government held $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loans. In fact, uncollateralized student loans now make up 30 percent of all federal assets.

This wouldn't be a problem if student borrowers were paying off their loans. But they're not. As DeVos candidly admitted last November, "only 24 percent of FSA borrowers—one in four—are currently paying down both principal and interest." One in five borrowers are in delinquency or default, and 43 percent of all loans are "in distress" (whatever that means).

Although DeVos did not say so explicitly, she basically acknowledged that we've arrived where we are because the government is cooking the books. Student loans now constitute one third of the federal balance sheet. "Only through government accounting is this student loan portfolio counted as anything but an asset embedded with significant risk" DeVos said. "In the commercial world, no bank regulator would allow this portfolio to be valued at full, face value."

We can hope that McKinsey and Company will give us an accurate accounting. But we already know the news will be catastrophic.  More than 7.4 million people are in income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) that stretch out for 20 and even 25 years. IBRP participants make loan payments based on their income, not the amount they borrowed. Virtually no one in these plans will ever pay off their loans. 

Millions more have their loans in deferment or are prolonging their education to postpone the day they will be obligated to start making loan payments. Thus--as DeVos disclosed--only a quarter of student-loan borrowers are paying back both principal and interest on their loans.

Over the past 15 years or so, presidential administrations have juggled the numbers to postpone the day of reckoning. "After us, the deluge," has been the watchword.  Meanwhile, university presidents are saying nothing about this looming thunderstorm. They hope the deluge won't come until they are drawing their pensions.

The McKinsey report, when it comes, will be a shock to the public consciousness. And there is only one solution. We must admit that the federal student-loan program is totally out of control and allow its victims to discharge their loans in bankruptcy.

Before the deluge: Photo Credit Yale Center for British Art

References

Michelle Hackman, Josh Mitchell, & Lalita Clozel. Trump Administration Hires McKinsey to Evaluate Student-Loan Portfolio. Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2019.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

A Kansas bankruptcy judge grants Vicky Jo Metz a partial discharge of her student loans, and she wins her appeal

Vicky Jo Metz borrowed $16,613 back in the 1990s to attend a community college, but she never got a degree. Over the years, she filed for bankruptcy three times, but she continued making payments on her student loans under court-approved repayment plans. In fact, she paid almost 90 percent of what she originally borrowed.

Nevertheless, Metz's student-loan debt kept growing due to accruing interest. By 2018, her total debt had grown to $67,277--four times what she borrowed. 

In 2017, Metz commenced an adversary proceeding in a Kansas bankruptcy court, seeking to discharge her student loans. Her creditor, Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC), objected to a discharge. Put Metz in an income-based repayment plan (IBRP), ECMC demanded. 

But Bankruptcy Judge Robert Nugent disagreed. Metz, who was 59 years old, would never pay off her student loans under an IBRP, Judge Nugent reasoned. On the contrary, if Metz entered a 25-year IBRP and faithfully made her income-based monthly payments, her debt would continue to grow due to accruing interest. By the time Metz completed her repayment plan, she would owe $157,277—nine times what she borrowed! Although her student-loan debt would be forgiven after 25 years of making payments, Metz would face significant tax liability because the IRS considers forgiven debt as taxable income.

 Judge Nugent granted Metz a partial discharge of her student loans. He canceled all the accrued interest on her student debt but required her to pay the original $16,613.

ECMC appealed Judge Nugent's decision to a federal district court, and Judge John Broomes upheld Judge Nugent's ruling. Like Judge Nugent, Judge Broomes applied the three-part Brunner test to determine whether it would be an undue hardship for Metz to repay her student loans.

In Judge Broomes' view, Metz could not repay her student loans and maintain a minimal standard of living. Thus, she met part one of the Brunner test. Moreover, she met part two of Brunner because her financial situation was not likely to change. Finally, in Judge Broomes’ view, Metz met part three of the Brunner test because she had handled her student loans in good faith.

In its appellant’s brief, ECMC renewed its argument that Metz should be placed in an IBRP and downplayed the tax consequences of such a plan. Metz would probably suffer no tax consequences from an IBRP, ECMC argued, because she would likely be flat broke when her IBRP concluded.  Under current law, ECMC pointed out, individuals pay no federal tax on forgiven debt if they are insolvent at the time the debt is forgiven.

In a footnote, Judge Broome pointed out the absurdity of ECMC’s position “The import of that argument,” Judge Broome wrote, “is that under ECMC’s plan, [Metz] will be kept insolvent, if not entirely impoverished, until she is eighty years old and the debt is forgiven—what a pleasant system.”

Judge Broomes’ Metz decision is the second appellate court decision out of Kansas to uphold a bankruptcy court’s partial discharge of student-loan debt. The first decision, Murray v. ECMC, granted a partial discharge to Alan and Catherine Murray, a married couple in their late forties, whose student-loan debt had quadrupled over 20 years due to accruing interest.

Together, Metz and Murray stand for the proposition that long-term, income-based repayment plans are not appropriate for insolvent student-loan debtors when it is clear that debtors in these plans will never pay off their loans. Had ECMC had its way with Vicky Jo Metz, she would have made monthly student-loan payments for a quarter of a century—until she was in her eighties.  At that point, she would face a huge tax bill for $150,000 in forgiven debt or she would be insolvent. As Judge Broome remarked: What a pleasant system.



References

Educational Credit Management Corporation v. Metz, Case No. 18-1281-JWB (D. Kan. May 2, 2019).

In re Murray, 563 B.R. 52 (Bankr. D. Kan 2016); aff’d sub nom. Educational Credit Management Corporation v. Murray, No 16-2838, 2017 WL 4222980 (D. Kan. Sept. 22, 2017).

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Senator Elizabeth's Student-Loan Forgiveness Plan Isn't Radical: The Feds are Already Forgiving Billions of Dollars in Student Debt

Adam Levitin, writing for Credit Slip, made a profound observation about Senator Elizabeth Warren's proposal to forgive massive amounts of student-loan debt.  Her harsh critics, Levitin, writes, moan and grown about the morality of contracts, the unfairness of allowing some student borrowers to escape their legal obligations, and the enormous cost of forgiving billions of dollars of accumulated student-loan debt.

In Levitin's view, these critics are only demonstrating that they don't know anything about how the federal student-loan program works. If they did, Levitin explains, they would know that "we crossed the debt forgiveness Rubicon long, long ago." In fact, enormous debt forgiveness is already "baked into the federal student loan program."

Levitin is absolutely right. Far less than half of student borrowers who have entered into repayment are paying down the principal of their loans. Millions of student-loan debtors have their loans in deferment, which means they aren't paying anything on their debt. Another 7.5 million borrowers are in income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) with their repayment schedules set so low that their monthly payments don't even cover accruing interest on their loan balances.

And then we have the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), which allows qualified public-service workers to make income-based payments for 10 years, after which their loan balances are forgiven. How many people are in the PSLF  program (or think they are in it)? We don't really know, but well over a million student borrowers have applied to become PSLF eligible.

Even Betsy DeVos, Trump's Secretary of Education, publicly admitted that the student loan program is a mess. As DeVos revealed last November, only one borrower out of four are paying down both principal and interest on their student-loan debt.  Almost one out of five borrowers are delinquent on their loans or in default. And 43 percent of student loans, by DeVos's calculation, are currently "in distress."

As Mr. Levitin succinctly put it:
The only real difference between Senator Warren's proposal and the existing forgiveness  feature in the student loan program is whether the forgiveness comes in a fell swoop or is dribbled out over time. Given the federal government's infinite time horizon, the difference is really just an accounting matter. 
In other words, to baldly state the point, millions of student-loan debtors aren't paying back their loans and never will. Probably half of the $1.56 trillion in outstanding student loans will never be paid back.

Levitin argues that all student borrowers should be enrolled in income-based repayment plans by default when they finish their studies.  But I disagree. Putting every college graduate into a 20- or 25-year repayment plan is basically making these degree recipients indentured servants for the government--bound to pay a percentage of their wages to the Department of Education for a majority of their working lives.  If we do that, we will have basically created a permanent underclass of 21st century sharecroppers.

Moreover, as Levitin correctly points out, there is an enormous psychological benefit to Senator Warren's plan, which grants immediate debt forgiveness rather than dribbling it over over two decades or more in income-based repayment plans. "Consumers feel weighed down by the stock of their debt, even if they won't actually have to repay a large chunk of it." Indeed, it is well established that student-loan debt is preventing Americans from buying homes, having children, or saving for their retirement.

And then there is a rarely discussed problem with  the current debt-forgiveness system: tax liability. People whose loans are forgiven after a quarter century of making income-based payments will get tax bills for the amount of their forgiven debt because the IRS considers forgiven loans as taxable income.  Of course that problem could be easily fixed if Congress would enact legislation making forgiven student-loan debt nontaxable.

But Congress hasn't done that. Why? Because our politicians want to pretend that the federal student loan program isn't broken. It's like that old explanation of the Russian economy during the days of the Soviet Union. "The government pretends to pay us," a proletarian explained, "and we pretend to work."

Student-loan debtors: The new sharecroppers



Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Senator Elizabeth Warren's Proposal to Cancel Student Debt: A Great Idea (Just Needs a Little Tweaking)

Earlier this week, Senator Elizabeth Warren astonished the higher education community (and me in particular) by announcing three bold proposals: 1) free undergraduate education at public universities; 2) massive student-loan forgiveness, and 3) a ban on federal funding for for-profit colleges.

Student-loan debtors all over America should stand up and applaud Senator Warren. She is the first national political figure to call for an end to federal aid for the for-profit colleges. This sleazy racket gets about 90 percent of its revenues from federal student-aid money. If Congress shut off that spigot as Warren proposes, most of them would close in less than 30 days.

The for-profit college industry, with its armies of lawyers and lobbyists, has Congress in its back pocket. They surely understand that Senator Warren's proposal is an existential threat. Watch how this sleazy racket starts shifting resources to sabotage Warren's presidential bid.

On the other hand, Warren's call for free college education is not original. Senator Bernie Sanders promised free college during his 2016 presidential run and Senator Kamala Harris has put free college on her campaign platform. Nevertheless, it's a good idea.

It's Warren's third proposal, however, that is the real stunner. She's calling for massive student-loan debt forgiveness for 95 percent of student borrowers.

Senator Warren's student-loan forgiveness plan is a little complicated and has some limitations. she wants to forgive up to $50,000 in student-loan debt but would reduce this benefit for high-income families.  But her basic idea is sound. Why?

First of all, millions of Americans will never pay back their student loans whether Warren's proposal is implemented or not, so we might as well forgive the debt. Almost 8 million people are in income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) that allow them to make monthly payments based on their income and not how much they owe.  For most of these people (almost all of them actually), their loan payments are so small that they don't cover accruing interest.  For people in IBRPs, their debt grows larger each month as interest accrues. They will never pay back the amount they borrowed.

Several million more student-loan borrowers have their loans in deferment while the interest accrues and capitalizes on their original debt. Most of those folks will never repay their loans.

Finally, there is a good argument that forgiving all this student debt--$1.56 trillion--would boost the economy. Unburdened by debt they will never repay, millions of Americans will be able to rejoin the middle class--buy houses and cars, have children, save for retirement.  Indeed, a study by researchers at Bard College's Levy Institute makes that very argument.

Conservatives recoiled in horror at Warren's proposal to forgive student debt, spewing a lot of blather about the sacred nature of contract obligations, the unfairness to people who paid off their student loans, etc.

But in my view, Warren's student-loan forgiveness proposal does not go far enough. Millions of student-loan debtors are entitled to student-loan forgiveness with no $50,000 cap. And millions of parents have co-signed student loans or taken out Parent PLUS loans, and they also are entitled to relief.

So I propose a few tweaks to Senator Warren's brave proposal:

First, all Parent Plus loans should be forgiven immediately for any family with household income under $200,000. And all parents and relatives who cosigned private student loans should be relieved of any legal obligation to repay that debt.

Secondly, instead of instituting a loan-forgiveness plan, I propose that distressed student-debtors be allowed to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy as proposed in Representative John Katko's recently filed bill. People who took out student loans to go to law school and then got rich as corporate lawyers should pay back their loans. But people who otherwise qualify for bankruptcy relief should be able to discharge their student loans like any other consumer debt.

But let's not quibble about the details. Senator Warren's call for free college and student-loan forgiveness are basically good ideas. And her call for shutting off federal aid to the for-profit colleges is stunningly brave.

In my view, it is time to stop heckling Senator Warren about Cherokee-Gate. She is a serious presidential candidate who has made bold and thoughtful policy proposals. Americans should listen to what she has to say about the student-loan crisis because--let's face reality--a lot of student-loan debt will never be paid back.

References

Elizabeth Warren. I'm calling for something truly transformational: Universal free public college and cancellation of student loan debt. Medium, April 22, 2019.

Scott Fullwiler, Stephanie Kelton, Catherine Ruetschlin, and Marshall Steinbaum. The Macroeconomic Effects of Student Debt Cancellation. Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, February 2018.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Dicent v. Kaplan University: An unhappy student sues a for-profit university, but the Third Circuit forces her to arbitrate her claims

Maria Dicent enrolled in an online legal studies program at Kaplan University in 2014. She did not have a good experience. In 2017, she sued Kaplan in a federal court, accusing the for-profit university of making false claims and disseminating false advertisements.

According to Ms. Dicent, Kaplan lured her into enrolling in Kaplan's online program by using deceptive tactics. She said she had not been informed that she would need 180 hours to graduate, far more hours than a typical four-year degree program requires and that she had not been able to keep her eBooks, which she apparently paid to use. She also said Kaplan's financial aid office retaliated against her because she refused to allow her photo to be used to promote Kaplan.

Unfortunately for Ms. Dicent. she signed an arbitration agreement when she enrolled at Kaplan back in 2014. In that agreement, Dicent promised not to sue Kaplan and to arbitrate any claims she might have against the for-profit. She also agreed to waive her right to a jury trial.

Based on the arbitration agreement, a federal trial court threw out Dicent's suit and ordered her to arbitrate her clam. Dicent, who pursued her case without a lawyer, then appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which sided with the trial court.

Dicent argued on appeal that she was not aware of the arbitration agreement, but the Third Circuit did not buy her argument. A clearly labeled Arbitration Agreement was included in Dicent's enrollment packet, the court noted; and Dicent admitted having signed the packet with an e-signature.

Dicent v. Kaplan University is an unfortunate decision. The Obama administration recognized that for-profit colleges were using arbitration agreements to prevent students from suing them for fraud or other misconduct. Obama's Department of Education adopted a regulation forbidding the for-profits from forcing their students to sign arbitration agreements.

 Betsy DeVos, President Trump's Secretary of Education, scuttled the Obama ruled shortly after taking office, but a federal court ordered her to implement it. In light of that ruling, Secretary DeVos released new guidance to the for-profit colleges, instructing them to drop enforcement of mandatory arbitration agreements.

In recent years, a few courts have invalidated arbitration agreements on various grounds. Some courts have labeled them adhesion contracts--agreements which a stronger party forces a weaker party to sign on unfavorable terms. Other courts have looked at the inherent unfairness in some of these agreements. For example, a California court refused to enforce an arbitration agreement that required California students to arbitrate their disputes against a medical-training school in Indiana.

Poor Ms. Dicent. Acting without an attorney, she was probably unaware of the legal arguments that can be made against arbitration agreements that for-profit colleges require students to sign as a condition of enrollment. She may not have known that the Obama administration recognized these agreements for what they are--a shyster tactic to protect for-profit colleges from being sued for fraud.

I feel quite certain that Ms. Dicent was telling the truth when she said she did not know about the mandatory arbitration agreement until Kaplan submitted it in district court. Almost all students sign long, turgid documents as a condition of enrollment, and most of them sign without reading. What would be the point? When students enroll at a for-profit college, they are enrolling on the college's terms, and they realize they have no power to negotiate.

What is so bad about arbitration agreements? First of all, the complaining party is usually required to pay half the arbitrator's fees, so arbitration may be more expensive for the student than a lawsuit. Second, arbitration agreements often bar students from banding together to file class actions suits, which is virtually the only way students can obtain justice against the well-funded for-profits with their battalions of lawyers.

Finally, it is well known that arbitration generally favors the corporate party. That is why banks, financial-services institutions, and for-profit colleges force their customers to sign them. The arbitrators know they will see a defrauded student only once, but they will see the corporate party again and again. If they get a reputation for siding with the underdog, the corporations won't choose them to arbitrate their disputes.

The for-profits know they will repeatedly be accused of defrauding their students. The best way to deal with this constant threat is to get the students to promise not to sue before allowing them to enroll. Then when students get defrauded--as many of them will--there will be damn little they can do about it.


References

Dicent v. Kaplan University, Civil Action No. 3:17-cv-01488 (M.D. Pa. June 15, 2018), aff,d No-18-2982 (3d Cir. Jan. 3, 2019).

Dicent v. Kaplan University, WL 158083, No-18-2982 (3d Cir. Jan. 3, 2019) (unpublished opinion).

Kreighbaum, Andrew (2019, March 18).  DeVos Tells Colleges to Drop Arbitration Agreements, Inside Higher Ed.


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

More than a thousand college campuses closed over the past five years: The for-profit scourge

Earlier this month, Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 1,200 college campuses have closed over the last five years, displacing nearly half a million students. As Chronicle reporters Michael Vasquez and Dan Bauman explained, most of these campuses were operated by for-profit colleges, which often have campuses in multiple locations.

For example,Vatterot College, Education Corporation of America, and Dream Center Education Holdings closed their doors during the last six months, and together these colleges operated 126 campuses.

As the Chronicle article pointed out, college closures can be traumatic events for students, who are forced to interrupt their studies and search for replacement colleges. Low-income and minority students are disproportionately affected. Seventy percent of the students who attended the closed institutions received Pell Grant aid, and 57 percent are black or Hispanic.

Betsy DeVos's Department of Education is doing everything it can to prop up the venal for-profit college industry, and yet this sleazy sector continues to be under stress. The for-profits are facing increased competition from public universities, which are rolling out their own online degree programs and encroaching on the for-profit colleges' target population. Arizona State University and Purdue University, both public institutions, now have big online footprints.

In addition, more and more Americans have figured out that a degree from a for-profit college almost always costs more than a comparable degree from a public institution and rarely leads to a good job. No wonder the student-loan default rate among for-profit-college students is so high. More than half of the students who borrow money to attend a for-profit college default within 12 years after beginning repayment--four times the default rate of students who attended community colleges.

It is regrettable that so many for-profit college students are having their lives disrupted by the closure of their institutions, but these shutdowns are a blessing in disguise.  Some students will transfer to low-cost community colleges, which will allow them to take out smaller student loans or avoid student loans altogether.  Those that transfer to public institutions are likely to  have more rewarding educational experiences than they were getting at these dodgy for-profit outfits.

In short, it may seem shocking that so many for-profit colleges are closing, but it is undoubtedly a good thing. In spite of everything that Trump's Department of Education has done to aid the for-profit college racket, this industry is in trouble. The for-profit colleges are a blight on American higher education. Let us look forward to the day when they are extinct.


Friday, April 12, 2019

Democrats are "woke" about Public Service Loan Forgiveness: Senators Kaine and Gillibrand file legislation to overhaul PSLF

The Trump Administration hates the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF). Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007, PSLF allows student-loan debtors who work in public-service jobs to have their student loans forgiven if they make 120 student-loan payments in a qualified repayment plan.

The first PSLF participants to have accumulated 120 student-loan payments became eligible for debt relief in 2017--10 years after the program was introduced. As has been widely reported, the Department of Education approved less than 1 percent of the applications for PSLF forgiveness that it had processed as of  September 2018.  In fact, DOE said 70 percent of the applicants were not eligible for PSLF participation.

So far, over one million student-loan borrowers have applied to DOE to have their employment certified as PSLF eligible, and millions more are counting on PSLF for debt relief but haven't applied yet. It's a mess.

And it is especially a mess for people who borrowed $100,000 or more to get a law degree or other graduate degree. According to the American Bar Association, the average debt load for people who attended a private law school is $122,000. For many of the people who accumulated six-figure student-loan debt to finance their graduate studies, PSLF is the only viable option for debt relief.

Betsy DeVos, Trump's Secretary of Education, apparently does not care that her agency has frightened or angered millions of people who are counting on PSLF to manage their student loans. According to a news report, a senior DOE official said that DOE does not support PSLF and would not implement it if it were not legally obligated to do so.

But the Democrats are "woke" about this problem. This week, Senators Tim Kaine and Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a bill to overhaul the PSLF program. Thirteen Democratic senators signed on as co-sponsors, including all the U.S. Senators running for President (Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker).

The Kaine-Gillibrand proposal defines eligible public-service organizations broadly to include all federal, state, and local government agencies and all charitable organizations that qualify  for tax-exempt status under 501(c)(3) of the tax code. As Jason Delisle pointed out in a 2016 analysis of PSLF, that definition applies to one quarter of the American workforce.

In fact, the bill's definition of public service differs markedly from the one developed by DeVos's DOE. DOE defines a public service organization as one that is primarily involved in public service,thus excluding organizations like the American Bar Association, which is primarily devoted to serving the legal profession, although it engages in some public service work.

The Kaine-Gillibrand bill also specifies that all student-loan debtors qualify for PSLF, regardless of the federal loan program or repayment plan they are in. This provision also expands eligibility for PSLF participation far beyond what the DeVos DOE permits.

I support passage of the Kaine-Gillibrand bill, and I hope it is enacted by Congress. But we should not deceive ourselves about the cost of PSLF. Thousands of people seeking debt relief under PSLF owe $100,000 or more. Most of these people are making income-based monthly payments on their loans that are not large enough to cover accruing interest. Their debt load is increasing month by month as accrued interest gets capitalized and added to their loan balances. If these people's student-loan debts are forgiven after 10 years, the government will essentially be forgiving the entire amount that was borrowed plus a lot more due to the accrued interest that will also be forgiven.

Remember Josh Mitchell's story in Wall Street Journal about Mike Meru, who borrowed $400,000 to go to dental school? Dr. Meru is making payments of about $2,000 a month in an income-based repayment plan, but his debt has grown to $1 million due to accrued interest. If Meru gets a qualified public-service job and holds it for ten years, DOE will forgive the entire $1 million plus additional interest!

This is a huge problem, and the Kaine-Gillibrand bill won't solve it. Under the GRAD Plus program, graduate students can borrow the total cost of their graduate education--tuition, books, and living expenses--no matter what the cost. It is not surprising then that graduate-school tuition prices went up dramatically after the GRAD Plus program was enacted.

If the bill becomes law, the Kaine-Gillibrand proposal will give relief to millions of student-loan borrowers. But the bill is just a stop-gap measure. As I have said, the only solution to the student-loan crisis is bankruptcy relief for honest debtors who can't pay back their student loans.  More than 45 million Americans have outstanding student loans. I think most of them would vote for a presidential candidate who endorses bankruptcy relief for distressed student-loan debtors.




Thursday, April 11, 2019

Rep. Maxine Waters didn't ask mega-bank executives a stupid question at a congressional hearing; She asked them the wrong question

Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Chair of the House Financial Services Committee, asked seven big-bank executives an ignorant question when she had them appear before her committee earlier this week.

“What are you guys doing to help us with this student loan debt?" Waters asked the bankers.  Three of them  separately informed Waters that their banks have been out of the federal student-loan business since 2010, when the federal government began dispersing student loans directly. 

Ms. Waters apparently didn't know that, which must have been embarrassing to her. Nevertheless, Waters did not ask a stupid question. She asked the wrong question. In fact, several banks are involved in the private student-loan market: Wells Fargo, Citizens Bank, Suntrust, and Sallie Mae--to name a few. 

And it is a dirty business. Several banks are bundling their private student loans and selling them to investors as student-loan backed securities called SLABS, very much like the mortgage-backed securities that went south during the 2008 home-mortgage crisis. 

Moreover, most banks require student borrowers to find co-signers for their private student loans, which usually means Mom and Dad.  If a student defaults on a private student loans, the co-signer is on the hook to pay back the debt.  Can a co-signer discharge a child's student loan in bankruptcy? Probably not.  When Congress passed the so-called Bankruptcy Reform Act in 2005, it inserted a clause in the Bankruptcy Code making private student loans nondischargeable in the absence of "undue hardship."

So this is the question Congresswoman Maxine Waters should have asked the bankers who were arrayed before her at the Financial Services Committee hearing yesterday. "Do you support a change in the Bankruptcy Code that would make student loans dischargeable in bankruptcy like any other consumer debt?"

Put another way, she might have asked the bankers if they support Representative John Katko's bill to remove the "undue hardship" language from the Bankruptcy Code, which would allow destitute debtors to shed burdensome student-loan debts in the bankruptcy courts. How would the bankers have answered if Maxine Waters had asked them the right question? 

And here are a two questions for Congressman Waters:

Do you support Congressman Katko bill, which calls for taking the "undue hardship" language out of the Bankruptcy Code? 

Will you agree to be a co-sponsor of Representative Katko's bill, even though Mr. Katko is a Republican?

Megabank CEOs: "We don't know nothin' bout no student loan program."