Thursday, December 3, 2020

Steve Rhode points out that wholesale forgiveness of student loans is impossible. Bankruptcy Relief for distressed college debtors is the best option

 Millions of words have been written about the student loan crisis. Heck, I've probably written a couple of million words about it myself. 

For my money, Steve Rhode's succinct and cogent essay, published yesterday, is the best analysis of this catastrophe. Mr. Rhode explains why massive student-loan forgiveness is a bad idea. Instead, he argues that bankruptcy relief is the better option. He also points out the fatal flaws in the federal student-loan program, which have brought us to the brink of calamity.

I urge you to read Steve Rhode's essay in its entirety.  My commentary will highlight a few key points.

First of all, Rhode points out that taking out student loans to pay for a college education was a mistake for millions of Americans. He cites a New York Life survey, which found that the average student-loan borrower took 18.5 years to pay off student loans, starting at age 26 and ending at 45.

That is a significant portion of life to have to be tied to a student loan payment that should have been directed to saving for retirement and then mushroomed into a giant nest egg. It can take decades to recover from that financial mistake. But that’s not the only financial regret people have.

Shockingly, millions of Americans took out student loans and never finished their degrees. For those people, student loans are a dead loss.  Instead of enhancing their economic future, dropouts shot themselves in the foot by taking out student loans.

Rhode also points out (as have many others) that the for-profit college industry has wreaked havoc among a population of Americans who took out student loans to attend for-profit schools. He cites a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which found that “[s]tudents who attend for-profit institutions take on more educational debt and are more likely to default on their student loans than those attending similarly selective public schools.”

The Federal Reserve Bank study then went on to say: "Overall, our results indicate that, on average, for-profit enrollment leads to worse student loan outcomes for students than enrolling in a public college or university, which is driven by higher loan takeup and worse labor market outcomes."

The federal student loan program is a mess. It is probably the worst public policy decision Congress ever made when it launched a program more than a half-century ago that now has more than 40 million people ensnared by a total of $1.7 trillion in outstanding student-loan debt.

But massive student-loan forgiveness is not a viable option. 

First of all, wiping out all that debt is fundamentally unfair. And here I will quote Steve Rhode's analysis:

As Howard Dvorkin, Chairman of said, “Only one-third of the people in this country get a four-year college education. The two-thirds without a college education is expected to subsidize their education when it is very likely that they earn less than the people who are receiving the educational subsidy.” 

As Mr. Dvorkin pointed out, “The issue of forgiving debt is complicated. What about all the people that have already struggled to pay their debts, and now other people get loans forgiven. That’s not fair.”

In any event, as Mr. Rhode explained, millions of people are already in a loan forgiveness plan. About 9 million people are in income-based repayment plans that allow them to make minimal loan payments that don't even cover accruing interest on their underlying debt.

So what is the solution to the train wreck we call the federal student-loan program? This is what Steve Rhode recommends:

I hate to state the obvious here, but rather than worry about the inequities of forgiveness and who wins and loses, the most rational and logical option is to roll back the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA).

It was this pernicious law that made even private student loans virtually nondischargeable in bankruptcy.  Many of the congresspeople who voted for this bill still hold elected office. They should be ashamed of themselves. 

Just as importantly, Mr. Rhode argues, Congress needs to remove the "undue hardship" language from the Bankruptcy Code and allow distressed debtors to discharge their college loans in bankruptcy like any other consumer debt.

Steve Rhode succinctly points out the merits of reasonable bankruptcy relief:

Returning to allowing both federal and private student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy has many features:

1.      It is a current and accepted legal process with clear rules and guidelines. 

2.      The debt is forgiven tax-free. 

3.      It allows people a chance to get a fresh start from an impossible situation. Oftentimes these issues are the result of accidents, injuries, medical issues, pandemics, etc. 

4.      A bankruptcy Trustee and Judge must review and approve the discharge plan. If a consumer has too much income for a full immediate discharge, they will be required to enter a five-year repayment plan in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. 

5.      Forgiveness will be restricted to only those that qualify. 

6.      The fact the loans may now be dischargeable should force lenders to make better loan decisions before just handing the money to anybody. 

7.      If loans are less abundant or actually just based on repayment ability, then schools would have to ratchet back tuition fees. Less easy money would be available. 

8.      This process would be restricted to those who need and meet the accepted legal standards for bankruptcy. 

9.      People that can afford to repay their loans will have to do so through their Chapter 13 repayment plan.

10.  We can eliminate this ridiculous game and administration of student loans that will never be repaid and have to be dealt with.

As I said at the beginning of this commentary, I urge people to read Steve Rhode's article in its entirety. I agree with him completely.

Let's see what Congress does in the coming months. The way out of the nightmare is to amend the Bankruptcy Code.  Various student-loan forgiveness scenarios will not fix this enormous problem. 

If loan forgiveness is the best idea Congress has to offer, then our nation's political leaders will have opted for the status quo. And the status quo will ultimately destroy our nation's colleges and universities along with the lives of millions of student-loan debtors. 

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