Thursday, September 16, 2021

Nystrand v. Kingdom of Sweden: Another underemployed lawyer seeks bankruptcy relief

A common saying when I was young (in the last century) was the old adage that lawyers are people who wish to make a lot of money but are risk-averse. 

That observation certainly rang true when I went to law school in the 1970s. I graduated from the University of Texas School of Law with a class of 500 students, and nearly all of us found decent jobs as lawyers.

Even better, my classmates and I finished law school with little or no debt. Tuition was only $500 a semester. Working part-time as a law clerk for the Texas Attorney General's Office, I avoided student loans. I started my legal career debt-free, and  I quickly found a good job practicing law.

But law school tuition has shot up dramatically since the days I went to law school. Tuition at UT's School of Law is now $36,000 for in-state students--36 times what I paid. 

And the job market for lawyers is terrible. Many people now leave law school with enormous debt and little prospect of finding employment in their field.

And this brings me to the case of Nystrand v. Kingdom of Sweden, filed last spring in a Tallahassee bankruptcy court. 

Anneli Nystrand, a Swedish immigrant, graduated from the University of Miami School of Law in 1995. In my opinion, she did everything right. 

Nystrand attended a respectable law school and paid off her student loans, although it took her 15 years. She passed the Florida bar exam and landed a job with the Florida Department of Banking and Finance, probably a pretty good gig.

Unfortunately, as the years rolled by, Ms. Nystrand's financial situation deteriorated.  In 2013-2014, approximately 18 years after graduating from law school, she was on the job market. Although she applied for more than 200 attorney positions, she did not get a single interview.

In 2016-2017, she found a law job that paid only $39,000 a year. In 2017-2018, she worked for a law firm and made $50,000 a year.

In 2019--more than 20 years after graduating from law school-- Ms. Nystrand began accepting court-assigned cases for a flat fee. If she took a juvenile delinquency client, for example, she only received $377, which is less than the hourly rate of a corporate lawyer in a top-flight firm. 

Her total income for 2019 was only $20,000. In 2020, Nystrand did a little better, earning $46,000 before deducting expenses.

In April of this year, Ms. Nystrand filed an adversary complaint in a Florida bankruptcy court against the Kingdom of Sweden, seeking to discharge student loans owed to that Scandanavian country.

I have no idea what that is about. Nystrand's complaint does not state the amount of the debt or how it was incurred.  

Nevertheless, I am on Ms. Nystrand's side. I hope she is successful in clearing her debt to Sweden.  

Anneli Nystrand is one among hundreds of thousands of underemployed or unemployed attorneys who left law school with enormous debt. Now they are trying to build their careers in a soft job market--particularly for lawyers who attended second- or third-tier law schools. 

Florida has 11 law schools--far too many. Ms. Nystrand is forced to compete in a job market for attorneys saturated with people looking for work. 

All these unemployed or underemployed lawyers deserve reasonable access to bankruptcy courts. Senators Durbin and Cornyn's bill would allow distressed student-loan debtors to get bankruptcy relief ten years after their student loans become due.

If that bill becomes law, people like Anneli Nyastrand would immediately benefit.

But one more thing needs to be done. The American Bar Association, which allegedly regulates legal education, needs to get off its ass and close down some law schools. 

References

Nystrand v. Kingdom of Sweden, Case No. 21-400006-KKS (Bankr. N.D. Fla. Apr. 16, 2021 (adversary complaint).








 

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Department of Education pauses collection efforts against student-loan debtors: Guaranty agencies garnish wages anyway

In response to the COVID pandemic, the Department of Education allowed student-loan debtors to skip their monthly loan payments without penalty until September 30, 2021.  That pause was recently extended to January 30, 2022. 

Thanks to the Department's forbearance, millions of college-loan borrowers are enjoying a respite from making loan payments, knowing that DOE will not charge interest and penalties during this grace period and that their wages will not be garnished due to nonpayment. 

But guess what? Loan guaranty agencies continued garnishing the wages of student-loan borrowers despite the federal moratorium.  According to the Student Borrower Protection Center, the guarantee agencies garnished $27.2 million in May 2021 and $12.9 million in June 2021.

Will student borrowers recover these lost wages? Probably. But it will probably take a long time. After all, the Department of Education didn't forgive all student loans taken out by people who were defrauded by ITT Tech until five years after the for-profit college filed for bankruptcy.

The federal student loan program has enormous problems, and some of them will be difficult to fix. But surely, the Department of Education can require the loan guarantee agencies to abide by Department policy and the law.

But apparently, the guaranty agencies think they are above the law. In 2016, Educational Credit Management was assessed punitive damages for repeatedly garnishing the wages of a bankrupt student debtor in violation of the Bankruptcy Code. 

In an earlier case, ECMC was sanctioned for violating the Bankruptcy Code by collecting on a debt discharged in bankruptcy. 

Perhaps, you might conclude, the guaranty agencies inadvertently violate the law because they don't have the financial resources they need to keep track of their legal obligations. But that conclusion would be incorrect. According to a report issued by the New Century Foundation in 2016, Educational Credit Management, a nonprofit corporation, had more than $1 billion in nonrestricted assets.

Congress has a lot to do to clean up the student-loan mess, but it might start by holding hearings to examine the practices of the guaranty agencies.  Congress might begin by asking why some of the guaranty agencies are so rich. It might also inquire into the agencies' attorney fees the agencies run up chasing distressed student-loan debtors into the bankruptcy courts. 

Finally, Congress might look into how much the guaranty agencies are paying their senior management.  More than ten years ago, Bloomberg reported that the current CEO of ECMC was making more than $1 million a year.  What do you think ECMC's current CEO makes?  My guess--somewhere in the high seven figures. 

We don't need no stinkin' pause on student-loan collections.





Monday, September 6, 2021

"If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have skipped college": Freshman enrollment is down 13 percent at 4-year schools

Freshman enrollment dropped an astonishing 13 percent last year, and overall college enrollment sank 4 percent. 

What accounts for this exodus? The COVID pandemic partly explains it. Colleges switched from classroom teaching to online instruction in the spring of 2020, which was decidedly inferior. Undoubtedly, many students have decided not to go back to college until the professors resume teaching face-to-face.

But COVID is only a partial explanation for the student-enrollment downturn.  Cost is a huge factor. It now costs about $75,000 a year (including room and board) to attend a private liberal arts college--$300,000 to get a four-year degree.

Private schools have slashed freshman tuition by more than 50 percent to lure new students through the door, and almost all first-year private-college students now get some sort of discount.  

But for most schools, that strategy has not been successful. Enrollments continue to drop.

But there is a third factor that helps explain plummeting college enrollment.  Students have figured out that a four-year college degree is no guarantee of a good job--particularly a degree in liberal arts or the social sciences.

Many employers no longer require new employees to have a college degree, including Apple, Google, IBM, and Bank of America. Young people have discovered that a vocational-school certificate may lead to a better job than a four-year degree in gender studies.

For example, CNBC carried a story about a young person who left college to enroll in a 14-week coding boot camp, "If I knew then what I know now," the former college student explained, "I probably would have skipped college."

As a guy who spent 25 years as a college professor in the higher-education gulag, I'm glad to see college enrollment declining.  Too many students ruin their lives by taking out student loans to get vacuous college degrees from institutions that don't teach students to think or solve problems. 

Colleges have hired market firms and "enrollment management" administrators to attract warm bodies back into the classroom. But young people are beginning to wise up. Small liberal arts colleges, in particular, are struggling to survive as their student enrollment shrinks.

More and more young Americans have come to realize they can have a good life without going to college. Unfortunately, some college students don't figure that out until they have destroyed their financial future by taking out too many college loans.

LSU students in a crowded classroom: Ain't we got fun!






Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Do you want to attend a university that has a "Boil Water Advisory" link on its website?

 Hurricane Ida slammed into New Orleans on August 30th--the sixteenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Most of the city is without power, and the Big Easy's colleges and universities were forced to close. 

According to Inside Higher Education, New Orleans's Dillard University won't resume classes until September 13, when all courses will be taught virtually. Xavier University of New Orleans moved its students to Dallas and will resume classes remotely on September 7. Tulane canceled classes through September 12, and instruction will be virtual until after the conclusion of fall break.

Meanwhile, the city of New Orleans is in big trouble. Not only did the town lose power, but water and sewage services were also compromised.  The mayor has imposed a curfew to discourage looting. College students may want to get out of town, but there is a gasoline shortage.  

Obviously, New Orleans universities are doing what they have to do in the wake of a catastrophic hurricane.  No one can blame them for canceling classes and for switching to online instruction when they reopen.

But think about Hurricane Ida from the perspective of a New Orleans college student.  The cost of attending Tulane University (including room, board, and fees) is almost $75,000 per year. Students won't want to lay out that kind of bread to take online classes.

Hurricane Ida is a reminder that students need to think about their safety and security in the cities where their universities are located. New Orleans can be dangerous during hurricane season, and NOLA has experienced recurring problems with its water supply.

In fact, Tulane has a "Boil Water Advisory" posted on its website--not for Ida but for any municipal water advisory. Tulane advises students not to drink tap water, and not make ice or brush their teeth with it during a Boil Water Advisory. 

If you are trying to decide where to go to college, do you really want to pay $75,000 a year to live in a city where you may not be able to brush your teeth with tap water?

And New Orleans is not the only city having to deal with environmental crises. Lake Tahoe Community College pushed back the start date for its fall semester classes due to wildfires in the area.

Some experts believe climate warming is responsible for wildfires in the West and increasingly ferocious hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. I think they may be right.

So, young people deciding where to go to college need to consider more than the reputation of the university's football team or its ranking as a party school. They need to think about wildfires and hurricanes.













Friday, August 27, 2021

Never co-sign a student loan. I repeat: Never co-sign a student loan.

 Joss recently wrote Stever Rhode (the Get Out of Debt Guy) and asked for advice about a student loan her father took out to help finance her college education. Joss co-signed the loan but understood that her father would pay the loan back. He didn't.

Josh didn't know her father was not paying down the loan until it showed up on her credit report. Unfortunately, although Josh's dad bailed on his commitment, Joss is responsible for paying back the loan.

Remember that venerable old saying: Never lend money to a friend because you will lose them both.  

This same advice applies to co-signing student loans. Just don't do it, because it is an excellent way to break up a family.

Banks that issue private student loans almost always require the student to find a co-signer--and that co-signer is usually Mom, Dad, Gramps, or Grandma.

It may seem like a good idea at the time--one for all and all for one. But if the student doesn't pay back the loan, the bank is coming after Mama, Pop, Granny, or Old Granddad.

Conversely, as in Joss's case, if Pop takes out a student loan to help pay Junior's way through college and Junor co-signs the loan, Junior will be personally on the hook if Pop skips town.

How do people find themselves in the situation of being asked to co-sign a student loan? I think, in most cases, the student maxes out on federal student loans and needs more money to continue going to college.  

The student takes out a private student loan and gets Mom or Dad to cosign. Or Mom and Dad take out a private loan, and junior cosigns. 

This is never a good idea. In fact, if Junior needs to take out private loans to attend college, Junior should go to Plan B.   Junior should either drop out of school, go to work, and save enough money to return, or Junior should transfer to a cheaper college.

If there is an exception to this advice, it does not now occur to me.

Hell, no! I'm not co-signing your student loans.




Wednesday, August 25, 2021

LSU uses COVID money to clear student debt: "What a good boy am I!"

 Louisiana State University announced this week that it will use $7 million in COVID relief money to clear debts that students owe the university. About 4,000 students will benefit.

That's wonderful!

But before we stand up and cheer, let's recognize that LSU is not spending $7 million to help students pay off their federal student loans. LSU is using COVID relief money to clear debts that students owe LSU--including outstanding balances on tuition, fees, and debt owed LSU for housing, meal plans, and parking.

Much of that debt is probably uncollectible. Students who dropped out of LSU in mid-semester may have left owing unpaid balances on meal plans, dorm rent, and parking tickets. But how can the university collect on that debt unless it sues the former student in court?

Do you think a student who dropped out of LSU in April 2020 and went back to his home in Dry Prong, Louisiana, is going to pay the university the 200 bucks he owes for parking violations? I would guess not.

By clearing that debt with federal money, LSU is simply paying itself.  All that is well and good, but should LSU and the other universities that adopt this strategy pat themselves on the back?  

LSU describes its actions as student-centered, but it is really acting in its own self-interest. Students who leave LSU owing unpaid bills can't get their transcripts and can be barred from registering for more classes. By paying off student debts with federal money, LSU enables former students to re-enroll.

I would be more impressed with universities following LSU's path if even one elite college president would speak out about the student loan crisis.  Approximately 45 million Americans owe $1.7 trillion in federal loans, and a high percentage can't pay those loans back.

I haven't heard a single college president call for bankruptcy reform to allow distressed college borrowers to shed their oppressive student loans in bankruptcy. I haven't heard one college CEO speak out about abuses in the for-profit college sector. And no college leader will admit that tuition costs are too high. 

No, universities are taking their cue from Little Jack Horner. They use fed money to pay themselves and say, "What a good boy am I!"






Friday, August 20, 2021

Online teaching sucks: Don't pay $50,000 a year to take classes in your pajamas

 American universities are in a tight spot. When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, almost all of them closed their campuses and switched to online instruction.

Result? Students filed hundreds of lawsuits against the colleges, claiming--rightly in my opinion--that online teaching is inferior to face-to-face instruction and wasn't what they paid for. In many of these cases, students were paying tuition priced north of $25,000 a semester, yet they could not personally interact with a single professor.

Now, as the 2021 fall semester approaches, colleges must decide what to do.  Basically, they have three choices:

First, they can continue with online instruction, hoping that students will consent to another year of taking courses on their home computers.

Second, colleges can reopen their campuses but require students to wear masks and maintain social distancing. But such a policy imposes onerous burdens on students, which many of them probably won't accept.

Third, colleges and universities can reopen their campuses for face-to-face learning while insisting that all students get the COVID vaccine.

In my opinion, most colleges have no real choice--they've got to get professors and students back in the classroom under more or less normal conditions, and they've got to require everyone in the campus community--students, instructors, and staff-- to get vaccinated. 

If colleges continue teaching in an online format, they will experience significant losses in enrollment.  Why? Because online learning sucks, and everyone knows it.

 A recent report by the Brookings Institution confirmed what everybody already knew: "Online coursework generally yields worse student performance than in-person course work." Moreover, the Brookings researchers reported, "The negative effects of online course-taking are particularly pronounced for less academically prepared students and for students pursuing bachelor's degrees."

College bureaucrats may worry about getting sued if they make professors and students get vaccinated.  But the Seventh Circuit, in a decision issued in early August, ruled that Indiana University can require its students to be vaccinated as a condition of enrollment.

So--the bottom line is this--universities have the legal authority to require students to get vaccinated against COVID and refuse admission to students who won't get their shots.

And that's what they had better do. Because students and their parents won't put up with another year of online instruction that costs 25 grand a semester.

College professors: They're alive! They're alive!

References

Klaassen v. Trs. of Indiana Univ., No. 21-2326, 2021 WL 3281209 (7th Cir. Aug. 2. 2021).




Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Insanity 101: Medical Doctor with $650,000 in Student Debt Will Pay $80 a Month Under Income-Based Repayment Plan

Tamara Parvizi, age 51, sought to discharge $653,743 in student-loan debt in a Massachusetts bankruptcy court. That's a lot of debt--just shy of two-thirds of a million dollars. 

For 15 years, Parvizi took out student loans to pursue several degrees, and she became fluent in at least four languages. Nevertheless, Parvizi never made a single payment on her student debt other than offsets to her income tax refunds--which totaled less than $4,000 (Parvizi v. U.S Department of Education, slip opinion, p. 4).

Parvizi obtained a bachelor's degree from Clark University in 1990. In 1991, she enrolled in medical school at the University of Rochester but dropped out in 1995 without getting a degree.

Later, Parvizi enrolled at the University of Massachusetts, where she received a master's degree in public health.

In 2006, Parvizi made a second attempt to become a medical doctor. She enrolled at St. George's University School of Medicine, located on the Caribbean island of Grenada.  This time, she completed the program and graduated with a medical degree in 2012.

After obtaining her M.D. degree, Parvizi began a psychiatric residency at the University of Vermont, which she did not complete. She left the residency program in 2013 after being put on a remediation plan (p. 2).

At the time of her adversary proceeding, Parvizi owed $478,000 in unpaid principal on her student loans plus $175,000 in interest. Her annual income was less than $29,000.

The Department of Education opposed Parvezi's request for bankruptcy relief. DOE argued that Parvezi was qualified for REPAYE, an income-based repayment program that would only require her to pay $80 a month over 25 years (based on her current income).

But Parvizi was unwilling to sign up for REPAYE, testifying that she had "suffered enough." She placed most of the blame for her financial predicament on personnel at the University of Vermont. "[W]hy should I pay for the mistakes of a residency program director whose behavior cost me my life, my pursuit of happiness," she asked (p. 4).

Based on Parvizi's eligibility for the REPAYE plan, Judge Elizabeth Katz denied Parvizi's request to discharge her student loans. However, the judge ruled that she would discharge any student-loan debt Parvizi might owe after completing a REPAYE plan.

Who would quarrel with Judge Katz's decision? It is hard to sympathize with a woman who ran up almost half a million dollars in student debt to get a master's degree and a medical degree and who never made a single voluntary payment on her student loans.

On the other hand, I have great sympathy for Dr. Tamara, who undoubtedly did her best to get an education and build a satisfying career. And she may well have been right when she argued that her financial predicament was mainly due to people who made unfair decisions while in her residency program.

Nevertheless, Tamara Parvizi's case demonstrates the insanity of the federal student loan program. Why is the federal government loaning money to a person who left one medical school program without a degree and then pursued another program at a medical school outside the United States?

And what is the point of requiring Dr. Parvizi to pay $80 a month for 25 years while interest on her student loans continues to accrue--probably at a rate of at least $30,000 a year?

This is crazy. And who benefits from all the money the federal government loaned Tamara Parvizi? I suspect the primary beneficiaries are the people who own a private medical school in the Caribbean.

References

Parvizi v. U.S. Department of Education, Adversary Proceeding No. 19-3003 (Bankr. D. Mass. May 13, 2021).



St. George's University School of Medicine: A "Second-Chance Med School"




Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The Feds messed up the federal student loan program: And everything they do to fix it just makes things worse

 Many years ago, when I was a fledgling attorney, my senior partner gave me some advice I never forgot. 

He told me that a competent attorney won't make many errors, but all lawyers will make a mistake at some point in their careers.

When you realize you made an error, he advised me, admit it to yourself and immediately begin trying to repair the damage. 

Why? Because the longer you ignore a blunder, the worse the consequences will be. 

I have tried to follow my senior partner's advice throughout my career--first as a lawyer and then as a professor--and I have learned that this advice is always the right thing to do.

But Congress is not following my law partner's advice. Since it created the student loan program more than 50 years ago, it's made several colossal mistakes, but it muddles on--like a drunk driver who causes a multi-car pileup and then leaves the scene of the accident.

For example, Congress screwed up when it allowed for-profit colleges to participate in the student-loan program.  The evidence of corruption, price gouging, and fraud in that sector is well documented.

But the for-profits are sort of like a deadbeat relative who asks you if he can crash on your couch. Once you let him in and give him a house key, you can't get the sonofabitch out.

Congress also made a mistake when it amended the Bankruptcy Code to make it almost impossible for distressed college borrowers to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy. We now have thousands of people who owe three or four times what they borrowed, but they can't free themselves from that debt in bankruptcy court.

And here's another screwup--the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF). PSLF was intended to relieve the student-loan burden for people wanting to take public service jobs:--firefighters, school teachers, nurses, etc.

But that program is so botched up that 98 percent of the people who thought they were in the PSLF program were denied relief. As Steve Rhode said in a recent podcast--PSLF is a "dumpster fire."

And then there are the various income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) that the brainy policy wonks said would relieve the debt burden on people who had taken out so many loans that they could not pay off the debt under ta standard 10-year repayment program.

How's that working out? We now have more than 8 million people in IBRPs that can last for a quarter of a century. And how many of these people have had their deads cleared? According to the National Consumer Law Center--only 32!

And the IRBP participants are making monthly payments that are not large enough to cover accruing interest. Virtually all these people will owe much more than they borrowed when they finish their 25-year repayment plans.

Do you want to talk about the Parent PLUS program, which preys on low-income families and has a ten percent default rate?

Let's face it, the federal student loan program and its toxic offshoots is a calamity--the mother of all calamities. Its impact on the economy and individual lives makes the 2009 home-mortgage scandal look like a Sunday school class.

And now, what has our government done? It has extended the pause on student loan payments until the end of January 2022. That's right, millions of student loan debtors are excused from making their monthly payments for almost two years!

Did that move solve anything? No, it did not. By extending the loan-payment pause, the Department of Education merely postponed the day it will have to admit that the student-loan program is a trillion-dollar screwup.


It is always best to admit your mistakes and do your best to repair the damage.


Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Bipartisan Senate Bill Would Permit Debtors to Cancel Student Loans in Bankruptcy After 10 years: Too Good To Be True?

 Is this the year of Jubilee? Is this the year that distressed student-loan debtors finally get to shake off mountainous debt in the bankruptcy courts? 

Maybe.

This week, Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican,  filed a bill that would allow college-loan debtors to discharge their federal student loans in bankruptcy after a ten-year waiting period.  

This bipartisan bill, titled the Fresh Start Through Bankruptcy Act, would also require colleges with high student-loan default rates to partially repay the government for the cost of discharged loans.

 Will this bill make it through Congress? After all, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Claire McCaskill filed legislation to stop the Department of Education from garnishing the Social Security checks of elderly loan defaulters. That proposal went nowhere. And Representatives John Delaney and John Katko filed a bill to take the "undue hardship" language out of the Bankruptcy Code, and that bill died a quiet death.

I am enthusiastically in favor of the bill filed by Senators Durbin and Cornyn. I hope it passes. 

But if it does, Congress will need to repeal the Grad PLUS Act, which allows students to borrow unlimited amounts of money for graduate school. We can't let someone run up a quarter of a million dollars in student-loan debt getting a doctoral degree in music theory, and then shed all that debt after ten years.

And we will undoubtedly need more bankruptcy judges. Approximately 45 million people are carrying student loans. Several million of them will be immediately eligible for bankruptcy relief if the Durbin-Cornyn bill passes. That's a lot of people showing up at the nation's federal courthouses.

Congress will also have to address the abusive for-profit college industry if overburdened student debtors get access to the bankruptcy courts.  As student debt gets cleared through bankruptcy, it will quickly become evident that many bankrupt student borrowers acquired their debt at for-profit colleges.

But perhaps those are reforms for another day.

I have been arguing for bankruptcy relief for student-loan debtors for more than 20 years. If the Durbin-Cornyn bill passes, what will I write about? 

I may have to say, as the Lone Ranger often observed at the end of his weekly television show, "My work here is done."

On the other hand, who really believes Congress will do the right thing?


The Lone Ranger: "My work here is done."


Saturday, July 31, 2021

Newsweek reports: Parent Plus Loans 'Are Fraught with Peril'

 Years ago, I was strolling along a lakeside hiking trail in a Dallas-area park. As I was walking across a wooden bridge, I looked down to see a ball of wriggling snakes below me.

It was a big cluster--about the size of a beachball. It was a scary sight, and I didn't stick around long enough to determine whether the snakes were poisonous. I just hurried on my way.

The Department of Education's Parent PLUS program is like a big ball of snakes. The program has become so predatory, so large, and so politically charged that we don't want to even try to untangle it.  We just want to hurry along without thinking about it.

Parent PLUS is a federal program that lends money to parents to help them pay for their children's education. Although Congress supposedly intended the program to help affluent families, six out of ten parent borrowers are from low-income households.  And, as Matt Krupnick reported for Newsweek, at 140 schools, 80 percent of parent borrowers are in low-income homes.

Parent PLUS default rates are high. According to a Newsweek analysis, nearly ten percent of parents at 1000 colleges defaulted or were seriously late with payments within just two years of their child left college. At some schools, Parent PLUS default rates ran as high as 30 and even 40 percent.

And borrowing costs are high: "6.28 percent for the 2021-2022 academic year plus an upfront fee of 4.22 percent" (as reported by Newsweek).

In 2019-2020, parents took out Parent PLUS loans on behalf of three-quarters of a million students, and the loan amounts averaged about $16,000. 

But the average Parent PLUS loan at some colleges is much larger. At Spelman College, an HBCU in Atlanta, the median Parent PLUS loan was $85,000 for parents whose children graduated or left school between 2017 and 2019.

Other schools with high Parent PLUS loan amounts include New York University (almost $67,000) and Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles ($60,000). The median loan amount is also high at several art and music schools: Berklee College of Music in Boston, Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia.

Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, and other news media have shown that some colleges are taking advantage of their students' parents by encouraging them to take out loans in addition to the federal loans and Pell grants that students receive on their own.

This is predatory behavior. And parents who take out Parent PLUS loans will find it is almost impossible to discharge these loans in bankruptcy.

Congress needs to shut down the Parent PLUS program. Or at the very least, Congress should amend the Bankruptcy Code to allow financially distressed parents to discharge these loans in bankruptcy.

But Congress will probably take no action. It sees the Parent PLUS program as a big ball of snakes, and no politician has the guts to close down this pernicious scam against low-income parents.

The Parent PLUS program is a ball of snakes.





Thursday, July 29, 2021

Do you feel the love? Universities pay off student debts with your money

 I bought a Subaru in 2019, and the company promised to make a $250 donation to one of four Subaru-selected charities.  Subaru calls this program "Share the Love."

As I recall, I selected Meals on Wheels, and I was glad to have Subaru donate some money to that worthy charity on my behalf.

Nevertheless, I feel sure that Subaru took a tax deduction for that donation, and I suspect that Subaru priced that $250 into the amount I paid for the car. If so, Subaru was taking credit for a charitable contribution that was indirectly being made by me.

Something like that is happening with American universities using federal COVID money to pay off student loans.  That money is not university money--that's your money.

For example, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the CUNY Comeback Program, a state initiative to forgive $125 million in student debt owed by about 50,000 students who attend City University of New York.

But get this. CUNY and the state of New York are not contributing one dime to the CUNY Comeback Program.  All $125 million is coming from federal  COVID relief money.  In other words, American taxpayers from all fifty states will be contributing through their taxes to a relief program that benefits 50,000 students who attended one university located in New York City.

And think about this. CUNY students will not see any of this money. Nor will any of these funds go to help students pay off their federal or private loans. It's all going to CUNY.

Basically, CUNYis writing off $125 million in money owed to the university by its students and paying itself with federal grant funds.

And how did 50,000 CUNY students wind up owing CUNY so much money in the first place? My guess is this money primarily represents fees and penalties CUNY tacked on to students' tuition bills--late payments, parking fees, graduation fees, etc. 

And I think it is safe to assume that a significant percentage of this debt was uncollectible. To the extent this is true, CUNY engineered a windfall for itself--$125 million in federal money flowed directly into its coffers to clear debts that students might never have repaid.

Don't get me wrong. As I have said many times, I favor any scheme that offers relief to college borrowers, no matter how poorly the plan is devised.  And CUNY's Comeback program will clear some debt owed by its students.

But let's be honest about what is going on. CUNY and other universities have taken federal COVID relief money and used it to clear debt owed by their students directly to the institutions. Wilberforce University, a private HBCU in Ohio, is another college using federal funds to pay off student debt owed to itself.

I think many colleges are doing what CUNY and Wilberforce are doing--using federal money to pay off student debts that are owed to themselves. And then they pat themselves on the back for being compassionate.

But here is the real tragedy about the billions of COVID relief dollars the feds sent to American colleges over the past year. Many of these schools would have closed had they not gotten massive infusions of federal cash. These institutions weren't attracting enough tuition-paying students to pay their bills.

The U.S. Department of Education propped up many faltering colleges with COVID relief money, postponing the day when they will close. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of students are taking out federal and private loans to pay tuition to colleges on their death beds--colleges that will croak in the years to come.

Is that a good policy? I don't think so.










Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Jornada del Muerto: People who take out student loans but don't graduate are on "the route of the dead man"

 Jornada del Muerto is a hundred-mile stretch of the Camino Real, which once ran from Mexico City to the northernmost outpost  of the Spanish colonial empire.  

There was no water on this stretch of the Camino, no livestock forage, and no firewood.  Literally, the Jornada del Muerto was the "route of the dead man."

Nevertheless, travelers in the 17th and 18th centuries could survive the Jornada if they prepared by taking plenty of water, watering their horses just before embarking, and traveling quickly over this desert road.

Many young people believe their college years will be an exciting journey that leads to a good job and a middle-class life. But people who leave college with a lot of debt and no diploma may find that they would have been better off financially if they had not gone to college at all.  In fact, their trip through college could turn out to be a modern-day journey of death--at least financial death.

As Professor Phillip Levine put it, college dropouts "ma[ke] an investment that ha[s] no return." They take out student loans but never obtain the credential that enables them to land a good job.

Not surprisingly, non-completers have high student-loan default rates--three times higher than individuals who graduate. 

In my view, too many young people look upon their college years as a golden time of unbridled freedom, casual sex, and binge drinking--all paid for with student-loan dollars.

That could be a big mistake--especially for students who take on too much college debt and never get a diploma.


El Jornada del Muerto: Don't take a dead man's route through college.



Monday, July 26, 2021

In re Standish: Should you be required to use your inheritance to pay off student debt?

 Martha Standish took out student loans when she was in her late 40s to get an undergraduate degree in accounting. Later she took out a Parent Plus Loan to help her daughter with college expenses.

Eleven years after graduating, Standish filed an adversary proceeding in a Kansas bankruptcy court seeking to discharge about $30,000 in student loans. By this time, she was 63 years old. She made $18.36 an hour working at an engineering firm, and her expenses slightly exceeded her income.

Bankruptcy Judge Robert Berger applied the Brunner test in deciding whether Ms. Standish qualified to have her student loans discharged under the Bankruptcy Code's "undue hardship" rule.  To be entitled to a student-loan discharge, Standish was required to make three showings:

1) "[S]he cannot maintain a minimal standard of living for herself and her dependents if forced to repay her student loans."

2)  "[A]dditional circumstances exist indicating that this state of affairs will persist [for] a significant portion of the repayment period . . . ."

3) "[S]he made good faith efforts to repay her loans."

After an extensive analysis, Judge Berger ruled in Standish's favor on two parts of the three-part Brunner test.  

First, he ruled that Standish could not maintain a minimal standard of living and make payments on her student loans. Thus, she met the first part of the Brunner test.

Second, Judge Berger ruled that Standish's dismal economic circumstances were unlikely to improve enough for her to pay off her student loans in the future. "As her age advances and her health deteriorates, she will soon reach a point at which her continuing employment is no longer possible," the judge observed. Moreover, Standish was unlikely to see her income go up. Based on these facts, Judge Berger ruled that Standish met the second part of the Brunner test.

Finally, regarding Brunner's "good faith" prong, Judge Brunner noted approvingly that Standish had "diligently minimized her expenses while maximizing the income she could earn with her degree." She also made payments on some of her loans while deferring others.

Nevertheless, Judge Berger ruled that Standish failed the good-faith prong of the Brunner test. 

Why? Because she received an inheritance and did not use the inheritance money to pay off her student loans. Instead, she used her inheritance to help pay for her daughter's education and other expenses. 

As Judge Berger explained:

[Standish's] decision to dedicate her inheritance to her daughter's education and other expenses prohibits the Court from finding that her pursuit of a discharge is in good faith. [Standish] received around $45,000 from her mother's estate. None of that money was used to pay the student loans. It is notable that this money would have been enough to pay off all or almost all her student loans.

Judge Berger clearly sympathized with Ms. Standish. He ruled in her favor on two parts of the Brunner test and only ruled against her on the good-faith standard because of her inheritance. "It is a tragic irony,' Judge Berger wrote, "that [Standish's] very efforts to relieve her daughter of the financial enserfment caused by student loan debt doomed her effort to discharge her own student loans."

Millions of Americans are burdened by student loans that prevent them from buying a home or saving for retirement. Some are probably counting on an inheritance to offset the catastrophe of their student debt.

But Judge Berger's decision--which is in harmony with current law--should be a wake-up call to student debtors who believe an inheritance will allow them to retire with dignity despite crushing student debt. As the Standish decision illustrates, an inheritance might foreclose bankruptcy relief for student borrowers even if they are otherwise qualified for relief under Brunner.

And--even more chilling to think about--the feds might try to garnish inheritance money from people who defaulted on their student loans. To my knowledge, this has not happened yet, but that possibility should not be discounted. 

Just another reason why Congress should amend the Bankruptcy Code and allow honest debtors to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy like any other nonsecured debt.

References

In re Standish, 628 B.R. 692 (Bankr. D. Kan. 2020).



Sunday, July 11, 2021

"Can too many brainy people be a dangerous thing?" Overproduction of graduate degrees may lead to political instability

 Peter Turchin wrote an essay for Nature magazine, in which he predicted growing instability for the United States and Europe. 

Why? Turchin thinks western society has produced too many graduates with advanced degrees. This "overproduction of elites" has created a large class of unhappy people--many of whom are drifting into radical politics.

According to Turchin's thesis (summarized in The Economist), the various would-be elites struggle against each other for wealth and prestige. The conflict becomes particularly intense during a time of growing inequality. 

"The rewards for being at the top are then especially lucrative, both in terms of earning power and political influence, and those who miss out feel the loss more keenly."

Without question, American universities have produced too many people with advanced degrees--degrees that often do not bring enhanced status or wealth. The schools have turned out too many lawyers, too many MBA graduates, too many people with advanced soft-skill degrees in ethnic studies, gender studies, and diversity.

Most people who get these advanced degrees take out student loans to finance their studies--often loans in six figures. As the Wall Street Journal reported a few days ago, a high percentage of people with master's degrees from such elite institutions as Harvard and Columbia don't find jobs that pay enough for them to service their student loan debt.

As our universities create more and more would-be elites, their graduates become angrier and angrier. "Articulate, educated people rebel, producing a scramble for political and economic power."

I think Professor Turchin has analyzed our present malaise quite perceptively. Millions of Americans are living in a condition of barely contained rage.

But, in my view, these would-be elites have not yet focused their anger in the right direction. All those millions of people who took out massive student loans in the hope of improving their social and economic status should be angry at the universities that fleeced them and the politicians that refuse to reform the federal student loan program.

Unfortunately, our colleges have not given their graduates the problem-solving and analytical skills they need to figure out who screwed them over. Nevertheless, I think the rubes will eventually figure it out; when they do, there will be hell to pay.


Yucking it up at Harvard: Such fun to fleece the rubes!








Saturday, July 10, 2021

The Ivy League's Biggest Scam: Expensive Graduate Degrees That Don't Pay Off

 If you are thinking about enrolling in a pricey Ivy League graduate program, read a recent Wall Street Journal article titled "'Financially Hobbled for Life': The Elite Master's Degrees That Don't Pay Off." 

Reporters Melissa Korn and Andrea Fuller report on a WSJ analysis of student debt owed by people who graduated from prestigious schools like Harvard, NYU, and Columbia. Two years after getting degrees from these toney joints, a high percentage of elite-school graduates were not working in jobs that would allow them to pay off their student loans.

For example, a New Jersey guy got a master's degree in Fine Arts in film at Columbia. Two years after graduating, he owes nearly $300,000 in student loans (including interest) and earns between $30,000 and $60,000 a year. Will this man ever pay off his student loans? Not bloody likely.

And this is not an isolated example. The WSJ reported that the median student-loan debt for Columbia's film program graduates was $171,000 in 2017-2018.  How many of those people are earning $171,000 in their current jobs? How many will ever pay off their student loans?

What attracts bright people to expensive Ivy League graduate programs? As one Columbia film graduate said, "We were told by the establishment our whole lives this was the way to jump social classes."

But we were told wrong. I got an essentially useless doctorate from Harvard, thinking the degree would erase Oklahoma from my vita. But it didn't. I still have range dust in my diction, and I still see the world much like my hard-scrabble ancestors saw it--the ones who lived through the Dust Bowl.

The WSJ analysis focuses mainly on Columbia University's film program and its graduate program in theatre arts. But there are other unindicted co-conspirators.  

Harvard's master of education degree, for example, is a scam.   You can get a master's degree from Harvard Graduate School of Education in only nine months, but the total cost of that experience is $85,000 (including room and board). 

I picked up a Harvard master's degree as I went through Harvard's doctoral program. I was proud of it at the time. I went to the graduation ceremony (very posh) and even framed the diploma.

But I no longer put that degree on my vita, and I lost the diploma somewhere along the way.  Thinking back on that experience, I wonder at my naivete.  I sat in packed classrooms containing as many as 200 students, and most of my teachers were nontenured instructors.  

One of my Harvard professors enjoyed rock-star status while I was there. She gave one two-hour lecture a week for a four-hour course. Her graduate students taught the other two hours.  Office hours? If you wanted to see this professor, you had to submit a written petition to one of her graduate students explaining why your appointment was worth this professor's precious time.

I say again. If you are thinking about taking out loans to get an Ivy League master's degree, read the WSJ article first.  If you still want to pursue that path, consult a good therapist--because you are delusional.

If you are from Oklahoma, a Harvard degree won't take the range dust out of your diction.


Thursday, July 8, 2021

12-foot long python escapes into a Baton Rouge shopping mall: What the hell are we doing?

 A 12-foot long python escaped from the Blue Zoo Aquarium in Baton Rouge a few days ago, and the Fire Department began looking for it in the Mall of Louisiana.

But do not worry. A Blue Zoo spokesperson said that Cara (the snake's name) is "a very sweet snake." Apparently, it poses no threat to my grandchildren.

I did not know that Baton Rouge's biggest shopping mall even had a zoo. But it does. It is a private enterprise that charges daily admission and (until recently at least) offered a snake show three times a week.

It is illegal for people to own giant, exotic snakes in Louisiana unless they have a government permit.  I quote the statute:

The importation or private possession of constrictor snakes in excess of eight feet long . .  obtained in any manner, shall be only by permit issued by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries except for animals kept by animal sanctuaries, zoos, aquariums, wildlife research centers, scientific organizations, and medical research facilities . . . .

I feel sure the Blue Zoo is legally entitled to possess a snake and was not breaking the law by keeping it in its shopping mall location. 

But what the hell are we doing? 

The Florida Everglades are infested with pythons because people once owned them as pets. Those snakes either escaped or were set free by owners who got bored with them.

As far as anyone knows, there are no pythons in South Louisiana, although the climate is hospitable to them. The Blue Zoon Aquarium is not far from Bluebonnet Bayou, where native snakes thrive. I'm sure Care would feel at home there.

Our world is dangerous enough without running unnecessary risks that can make it more dangerous. We will not be made safer by doing things we shouldn't be doing just to make a buck.

The Blue Zoo people are sorry Cara slithered away. "This is like we lost our child," a spokeswoman lamented.

Nevertheless, Cara is no less dangerous because it has a cute name. You can name an alligator Tiffany, and the son-of-a-bitch will still kill you.

Postscript: Searchers found Cara this morning. The snake was in a crawlspace inside the shopping mall. 

"A very sweet snake"


Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Want to be a College Professor? Some Things to Consider

So you want to be a college professor. 

You enjoy writing, research, and teaching. You want to live in a world of ideas. Why not academia?

It may seem like a nice life. Most professors have almost complete control of their time. They are required to teach their classes and hold office hours, but you may be able to do that work remotely.

Colleges have no dress codes, so you can show up on campus dressed in "business casual," a jogging outfit, or even your pajamas.  The pay is not great, but the benefits may be pretty good: health insurance and a decent retirement plan.

But before you pursue an academic career, ask yourself these questions:

What are the opportunity costs?

Almost all professors have advanced degrees, and it can take a long time to get your doctorate. When I was at Harvard, Professor John Willett told my cohort that the median time for completion of our doctoral program was seven years.

Seven years! Seven years of being out of the workforce! Seven years living off of student loans! Seven years hanging out in the squalid town of Cambridge, Massachusetts!

I will be forever grateful to Professor Willett for his warning. I managed to get my doctorate in four years and be back in the workforce after three and a half years. 

But my starting salary as a professor was one-third what I made practicing law. My opportunity costs were high.

What will you teach?

It is a tight job market for academics, especially in social sciences, education, and the liberal arts. You may write your doctoral dissertation on Balkan nationalism during the Habsburg era and discover that you can't get a job.

On the other hand, the job market is better in business schools and the hard sciences.  And the colleges need more and more administrators--especially in the fields of student services and diversity.

Don't pursue an advanced degree in a field with dismal job prospects. You will end up taking out student loans that you can't pay back.

Where will you teach?

When you are out on the job market, consider where you want to live. Do you want to work at a major research university in a big city--somewhere like the University of Texas or the University of Chicago? Do you have the chops for that?

Or does a small liberal arts college in rural New England look more appealing? 

When making that decision, be aware that the small, liberal arts colleges are under severe stress due to declining enrollments and dwindling revenues. Many will close in the next few years. Don't start your career at an institution that is on the verge of shutting down.  That misstep will be difficult to recover from.

Also, look closely into an institution's benefits plan before taking a job. My first job was at Louisiana State University, which has one of the worst retirement programs in the United States. And Louisiana public employees do not participate in Social Security.

If you make your career in Louisiana, you will be a lot poorer when you retire than if you retire from a Texas or a California university. That may not mean much to you when you are young, but it will mean a lot to you when you are 70.

Conclusion

After reading this, you might conclude that I regret my decision to become a university professor. Actually, I don't. Practicing law--my former profession--was a lot more challenging than teaching, but it was stressful. Being a professor is not stressful--especially if you don't take your job too seriously.

I met a wonderful woman in Louisiana, married into a terrific family, and emersed myself in the riches of South Louisiana culture--its music, its cuisine, and even its 100-proof Catholicism. I've had a good life.

But if you decide to be a college professor, go forward with your eyes open.  It can be a more difficult life choice than you anticipated.

So you want a job like this guy has?


You can now follow my blog on follow.it: Thanks to my faithful readers

Many of my readers follow my blog on FeedBurner, but that service is being eliminated this month.  I am now signed up with follow.it, an alternative to Feedburner.  If you would like to know more about this service, here is the link: https://follow.it 

I generally post about once or twice a week, and if you are a FeedBurner subscriber, you've already been switched to follow.itMy new format also has an easy-to-see and easy-to-access button at the top of my blog page, which you can use to become a subscriber.

I have been writing on the student-loan crisis for more than 20 years. I have been blogging about it on condemnedtodebt.org for about 10 years. Over the years, I've posted more than 850 essays, and so far, only one person has threatened to kill me. (That turned out to be a misunderstanding).

Unfortunately, the federal student loan program has not been reformed in any substantive way since it was created in 1965.  As I have tirelessly argued, Bankruptcy relief is the only straightforward remedy for the abuse; and that reform is not on the political horizon.

I have recently begun shifting my focus to giving practical advice about how to avoid falling into the student-loan trap. Once students have crossed the line into excessive student debt, they become like saber-toothed tigers who stumble into the La Brea tar pits.  They can never get out. 



Tuesday, July 6, 2021

U.S. Army abandons Bagram Airfield at night--doesn't tell local commander: Good luck, guys! Don't forget to write!

 Afghanistan soldiers guarding Bagram Airfield woke up Tuesday morning to discover that the U.S. Army had sneaked out in the night without telling its ally.  

But the Army left some going-away gifts to soften the blow: several hundred armored vehicles, small arms, and tons of ammunition.

Good luck, guys! Don't forget to write!

Retired General Jack King, a television news analyst, said the Americans made a mistake. We should have left enough troops to support the Afghan army--particularly air support. Otherwise, the Taliban--America's sworn enemy--will retake the county in a matter of weeks or months.

And the Taliban will retaliate against the local people who worked for the United States as translators, security guards, and informants.  Those people will have to leave their native country or be killed.

King is being proven right. Aljazeera News reports that the Taliban now controls about a third of the country, and Afghan soldiers are fleeing across the border into the old Soviet-era Asian republics.

 Remember those hapless Vietnamese people scrambling onto retreating American helicopters? Yes, we've seen this movie before.

On the other hand, America's twenty-year war in Afghanistan--like a bad marriage--had to end sometime.  The British were in Afghanistan in the nineteenth century and got their clock cleaned. If you want to read a fictional account of that disaster, check out George McDonald Fraser's humorous novel Flashman and the Great Game

Then the Russians invaded Afghanistan and got their Slavic butts kicked.  Wanna see a movie about that? Watch Charlie Wilson's War, starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Amy Adams.

Would America have been better off spending trillions of dollars on infrastructure rather than blowing it in Asia? What if we had built a high-speed train system like the Europeans or stabilized our eroding coastline instead of hauling gasoline into Afghanistan over the Khyber Pass?

But I do not claim to be a foreign-policy expert. Maybe our government did the right thing by invading Afghanistan after 9/11. I simply don't know.

When I face a philosophical quandary, I often consult the archives of country music, which ponders the cosmic issues. The Afghan army may be listening to Willy Nelson this morning as it tours the abandoned American military bases:

[T]he last thing I needed
The first thing this morning
Was to have you walk out on me

But Willie knew the end was coming when his girlfriend stayed out all night and came home drunk. And the Afghanis surely knew the U.S. would be feckless in the end.

But America better not pull out on Israel the way it pulled out on Afghanistan.  Because if we do, the consequences will be dire not just for the Israelis but for our children and grandchildren.