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).