Sunday, January 31, 2021

When did university book stores become T-shirt shops?

 I live about a mile from the Barne & Noble bookstore, the official bookstore for Louisiana State University. Yesterday, I walked over for a cup of hot chocolate at the bookstore's Starbucks coffee shop.

While the barista was constructing my cocoa (a laborious business), I contemplated the murals above the counter. Overhead, I saw some of the great English-language authors: Faulkner, Hardy, Joyce, Kipling, Melville, Nabakov, Shaw, Whitman, and others. 

I found myself wondering whether Barnes & Noble sold any books by the authors who are celebrated at Starbucks.  It is a college bookstore, after all.

So I went upstairs to the store's tiny "fiction and literature" section and looked for works by these famous writers.  Most of them I couldn't find: no Kipling, no Nabakov, no Whitman. 

I did see some comic books, however, in a section titled "graphic novels."  And I saw a hell of a lot of  $20 LSU T-shirts, $70 LSU sweatshirts, and hundreds of LSU ballcaps, selling for $25 a pop.

I also saw $9 LSU wine glasses and $27 LSU waterbottles. And I saw a pile of stuffed animals depicting Mike, the LSU tiger mascot.

In fact, as I scanned both floors of LSU's bookstore, I realized that Barnes & Noble's campus address isn't a bookstore at all; it's a T-shirt shop.  Yes, it sells some textbooks in an obscure corner, but most of the space is dedicated to overpriced souvenirs. 

I am not saying LSU students should be reading the authors who are memorialized at the Starbooks coffee shop.  I've read some Faulkner, some George Bernard Shaw, some of Henry James's excruciatingly dull novels. In my opinion, students can skip all that.

But I find it unsettling to see LSU students swiping their credit cards to buy exorbitantly priced junk and $5 lattes. Why? Because I know many of these students are purchasing that stuff with their student-loan money. 

If these students graduate and can't find good jobs--and many of them won't--what will be their best option? For millions, it will be to sign up for a 25-year income-based repayment plan. That's a high price to pay for an LSU T-shirt.






Saturday, January 30, 2021

Preparing for an academic career? Better have Plan B in your back pocket

As reported by the Star Tribune a couple of weeks ago, the University of Minnesota will not accept new students into many of its liberal arts programs in the fall of 2021.

The university is stopping admission in twelve programs, including history, political science, theater arts, and gender studies. New enrollments will be limited in 15 other programs.  No program outside the university's college of liberal arts will be affected.

Universities across the nation are making similar decisions--cutting or reducing programs in languishing liberal arts disciplines.

Interest in the traditional fields of liberal arts has been declining for decades, and job opportunities in these disciplines have dwindled.

I recall sitting in Professor William Stott's graduate-level American Studies class at the University of Texas more than 30 years ago. Professor Stott handed out the vitae of about a dozen candidates for a history professor's job at UT. Every applicant had a Ph.D. from an Ivy League school: Harvard, Yale, Brown, etc.

Dr. Stott didn't have to say anything to make his point. How can you compete with a Harvard Ph.D. holder for a professor's position with your doctorate from a less prestigious public university?

I took the hint and went to law school. And I have never been sorry.

Without question, there will be fewer faculty positions for liberal arts professors in the years to come.  Many of these positions are in second- and third-tier liberal arts colleges that are experiencing enrollment declines--especially those located in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic states.  

If you take out student loans to get a Ph.D. in history or political science, you will find yourself in serious trouble if you can't find a position in your chosen field.

You may think a Ph.D. will get you an excellent job of some kind, even if you can't find one in academia. But you may be wrong. Employers may be reluctant to hire an employee with a doctorate in medieval history, thinking that such a person is overqualified or will be unhappy working in a mundane bureaucratic job.

Paul Campos, writing about the job market for lawyers in his brilliant little book Don't Go to Law School (Unless), advised law students with mediocre grades at bottom-tier law schools to consider cutting their losses dropping out before graduating:

 [G]iven the state of the legal market, most people at most law schools who find themselves in the bottom half of their class after the first year would be better off dropping out.

As bad as it would be to have student loans and no degree, he pointed out, it might be worse to take out more loans to get a J.D. and then be unable to find a job.

These are volatile and unstable times for American higher education--especially graduate education. Don't be lured into an expensive master's program or doctoral program with a vague sense that another university degree will somehow improve your job prospects.

You could be wrong--terribly wrong. And if you wind up with a graduate degree, no job, and six-figure student-loan debt, you will have doomed your financial future and perhaps the future of your family. 


A cushy professor's job: You probably won't get one.








Thursday, January 28, 2021

SUNY chancellor Jim Malatras chirps cheerily while college enrollment applications plunge 20 percent

 College enrollment applications plunged 20 percent at the State University of New York, an enormous college system with 64 campuses. The coronavirus pandemic bears most of the blame.

But SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras is upbeat.  The coronavirus "invites us how we can do better," he assured the public a few days ago.

 "Let's ride the wave," he chortled. After all, SUNY is "on the cutting edge of the new student-focused approach." 

Of course, Chancellor Malatras can afford to be upbeat. He makes $450,000 a year and gets a $60,000 annual housing allowance. 

Where did this bozo come from? Did SUNY do a national search before it hired Mr. Malatras?

No, it did not.  According to Nicolas Tampio, writing in USA Today, Malatras is a crony of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Newspaper headlines referred to him as "Cuomo loyalist Malatras," and "Cuomo aid Malatras," Tampico observed. Malatras was formerly Cuomo's director of operations and one of the governor's advisors on New York's COVID response.

I feel so much better. After all, Cuomo's administration did a great job managing the coronavirus pandemic--especially at the nursing homes, where COVID deaths were underreported by 50 percent.

Merryl Tisch, SUNY's board chairwoman, stoutly maintains her board acted wisely when it hired Malatras without a national search. Why?  

[Because the board] felt it was imperative to act now in a reasonable and deliberate and socially aware moment to protect the SUNY system across the full array of challenges and help produce a model for sustainability in a post-COVID world.

What the hell does that mean? Did chairwoman Tisch pull that sentence out of her butt? Or did some hack in SUNY's public relations office pump out that swill?

But perhaps I'm too hard on Chancellor Malatras. After all, SUNY pays him half a million bucks a year to be a cheerleader--not Debbie Downer.

But here is some advice to New Yorkers about their college choices. Make up your own mind about your post-secondary education, and don't take out too many student loans to pay for it. Don't just listen to some clown blather on about his university's "student-focused approach" for spending your borrowed money.


Don't borrow too much money to "ride the wave" with Chancellor Malatras.



The Parent Plus Program was a policy blunder that hurts low-income and African American families: Shut It down

Our government's Parent PLUS Program is an insidious scheme to lure low-income parents into taking out student loans so their kids can go to colleges they can't afford.

 Insider Higher Ed's Kery Murakami tells the story of Ewan Johnson, whose mother owes $150,000 in Parent PLUS loans--money she borrowed so her son could get a degree from Temple University in strategic communications and political science.

As Johnson related, he comes from "a low economic background." Will his mother will ever pay off her Parent PLUS loans? I doubt it.

Johnson's mother is one of 3.6 million parents who collectively owe more than $96 billion in Parent PLUS loans. For the most part, parents aren't taking out these loans so their kids can attend elite
private schools like Harvard. 
"Rather," as Wall Street Journal reporters Andrea Fuller and Josh Mitchell observed, "they include art schools, historically Black colleges and private colleges where parents are borrowing nearly six-figure amounts to fulfill their children's college dreams . . "

Indeed, African American parents are hurt the most by the Parent PLUS Program. The WSJ reported that 20 percent of African American parents who took out Parent PLUS program in 2003-2004 defaulted on their loans by 2015.  

Default rates for some colleges are exceptionally high. A New America study found that 30 percent of Parent PLUS borrowers at 15 institutions default within two years!

Should all this debt--nearly $100 billion--be forgiven? President Biden proposes to knock $10,000 off of every federal student loan, but it is unclear with his plan includes people with Parent PLUS loans. 

Policymakers worry that forgiving all Parent PLUS debt will unfairly benefit wealthy families who have the resources to pay back their loans.  Sandy Baum, a student-loan expert, said that forgiving all Parent PLUS debt would be "outrageous."

Hardly anyone suggests that we just eliminate this dodgy government boondoggle that exploits low-income and minority families.  

So why don't we just make one straightforward reform? Let's allow parents who wrecked their financial futures so their kids could attend the wrong college to discharge their Parent PLUS loans in bankruptcy




Wednesday, January 27, 2021

College professors are burned out by the coronavirus pandemic: Hey, join the friggin' club!

 College professors are burned out by the coronavirus epidemic. According to Liz McMillen, Executive Editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Faculty members are stressed, sometimes extremely so; they're tired and anxious about a required return to campus; they say they are neglecting their research and publishing. They aren't sure that their institutions have their safety as their top priority.

In short, as the cover of The Chronicle's special issue proclaims: "The Pandemic is Dragging on. And Professors Are Burning Out."

I'm not surprised. Professor Gary Dworkin, the leading researcher on teacher burnout, has linked the phenomenon to feelings of hopelessness, meaninglessness, and isolation.

Professors have certainly been isolated during the pandemic. Almost all face-to-face learning shut down last spring, and instructors were forced to teach their classes online--whether or not they wanted to or were trained for teaching with computers. Not fun.

And many professors have good reasons for feeling hopeless. University budgets are being cut, programs slashed, instructors laid off.  Two of my colleagues at prestigious private universities had their retirement benefits slashed--not a good sign for the future.

Finally, some faculty members are probably feeling that their work is meaningless. Many universities adopted pass/fail grading policies during the pandemic, which tends to erode the rigor of teaching and learning. If students believe they will pass a course with only a minimum amount of work, most will slack off; and if a professor is required to assign 100 grades under a pass-fail policy, that professor will likely pass every student who has a pulse.

But hey, things are tough all over. Minimum-wage workers, people in the hospitality industry, small-business owners are all suffering.  Parents with small children are stressed to the max as they try to juggle their jobs with daycare. Many of these folks do not have health insurance.

Professors, after all, have paid health care and retirement benefits. If they are tenured, they have rock-solid job protection. And most of them have flexible work schedules.  I don’t think there is one tenured professor out of ten who goes to the office on Friday or shows up at work before 10 AM on a Monday morning.

As for all that neglected research and publishing that Editor McMillen mentioned, I'm not buying it. 

First of all, a lot of stuff gets published that is totally worthless except as a stepping stone to tenure. We could save thousands of trees if the professors published less--especially the professors in education and the soft-science fields.

In any event, I'm not convinced that the pandemic has slowed down productive research that much.  Admittedly, some researchers must do their work in laboratories or the field. The coronavirus probably impedes their progress.

But what prevents a professor from going to work on the book that's perpetually described as "in progress"? After all, a lot of profs are teaching at home in their pajamas. Maybe there's a little time for writing during the day instead of watching The View. Whoopi's not going to help you write that bestseller.

In short, esteemed scholars, stop your whining. 

Despite what you might think from reading The Chronicle of Higher Education’s special issue on professor burnout—it’s not all about you.




Monday, January 25, 2021

Neal v. Navient Solutions: A simple student-loan dispute ends up in 12 years of litigation

 Trey Neal took out a private student loan with JP Morgan Chase Bank in 2008.  Neal and Chase signed a promissory note agreeing that interest on the loan would be governed by Ohio law. 

Later, Neal concluded that he was being charged interest at a higher rate than Ohio allowed.  So he sued Chase for damages.

Mr. Neal ran into two problems in getting this dispute resolved. First, he had difficulty determining the proper party to sue.

Chase sold Neal's loan to Jamestown Funding Trust, which assumed Chase's interest in the loan. Jamestown is "related" to Navient Credit Finance, an affiliate of Navient Solutions. Navient Solutions then became Neal's loan servicer. Apparently, Neal was uncertain about who owned the loan because he dropped Chase from the lawsuit and added four Navient entities as defendants to his suit.

Neal's lawsuit had a second problem: he had agreed to arbitrate any dispute over his student loan rather than litigate.

The Navient entities asked a federal court to order Neal to arbitrate his claim under Neal's credit agreement with Chase. A federal district court rejected Navient's request, concluding Navient did not have the legal right to enforce the arbitration clause.

But Navient appealed that decision to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court's decision.  The appellate court ruled that Navient did have the right to compel arbitration under Ohio law. So Neal must submit his interest-rate complaint to an arbitrator, and Neal will probably be required to pay half the arbitrator's fees to get the matter resolved. 

A couple of points. First, Neal's complaint about the interest he was charged on his loan is a simple dispute, but it wound up before a federal appellate court that did not rule until 12 years after Neal took out his loan.

Second, Neal's private student loan became ensnared in a web of entities: 1) Chase Bank, 2) Jamestown Funding Trust, 3) Navient Solutions, 4) Navient Corporation, and 5) Navient Credit Finance Corporation, and Navient Private Loan Trust. No wonder Neal had trouble figuring out whom he was dealing with.

So Mr. Neal must submit his complaint to arbitration. 

One thing seems sure. Whether Mr. Neal wins or loses, his transaction costs will likely be far greater than the sum of money at stake. 

Thus, Neal v. Navient Solution teaches us all this message: Don't mess with the student-loan industry because it won't be worth your while.

References

Neal v. Navient Solutions, LLC, 978 F.3d 572 (8th Cir. 2020).



Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is a bureaucratic nightmare, and litigation hasn't helped

In 2007, Congress enacted the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program to give student-loan debt relief to people who took on burdensome student loans and went to work in relatively low-paying public service jobs: first responders, medical professionals, school teachers, etc.

Under the terms of the PSLF program, individuals employed in qualified public service jobs who made 120 loan payments in an approved income-based repayment plan would have the balance of their debt forgiven. Furthermore, the forgiven debt would not be considered taxable income.

Pretty straightforward, right?  

To administer this program, the U.S. Department of Education appointed Fedloan Servicing to determine if PSLF applicants worked for qualified public service employers. Fedloan Servicing then became the loan servicer for those individuals. 

Still pretty straightforward.

Apparently, however, policymakers underestimated the cost of PSLF.  First of all, student borrowers who enrolled in the program had higher debt levels than other borrowers, which Congress probably did not anticipate. 

As Jason Delisle pointed out in a Brookings paper, PSLF actually allows many people to get graduate degrees for free.  College graduates who already have student debt can borrow more money for graduate school without increasing their monthly loan payments. 

Additionally, Congress unintentionally increased the cost of PSLF when it rolled out the GRAD Plus program, allowing individuals to borrow the full cost of attending graduate school, no matter how high that cost might be. Law school graduates, for example, borrow an average of $100,000 to get their JD degrees.  

Thus, PSLF and GRAD Plus acted together to create a perverse incentive for people to go to graduate school and borrow the maximum amount possible. 

At some point, during the last years of the Obama administration, the  Department of Education realized that the cost of the PSLF program would be enormous. As Delisle described the program, PSLF had become a "bonanza" for graduate students and needed to be scaled back.

The Department of Education, realizing belatedly that PSLF was a giant money pit, adopted regulations to limit the number of people who are eligible for PSLF relief. 

Thus, in the first year of processing PSLF relief applications, DOE approved only about 1 percent of the claims even though the vast majority of claimants had been certified by Fedloan Servicing as working in approved public service jobs.

The American Bar Association sued DOE on behalf of itself and four of its employees, claiming that DOE had applied its PSLF rules arbitrarily and capriciously in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

In a 2019 decision, Judge Timothy Kelly ruled in favor of three of the four ABA employees, finding that DOE had, in fact, acted arbitrarily and capriciously.

Congrees, dimly aware that something had gone wrong with the PSLF program, approved $350 million specifically to benefit PSLF applicants. But this legislation did not straighten out the mess that the PSLF program had become.

In July 2019, the American Federation of Teachers filed suit on behalf of five teachers who had been denied PSLF relief. AFT and the teachers charged DOE with acting arbitrarily and capriciously n violation of the Administrative Procedure Act and in violation of the teachers' constitutional right to due process. 

In June 2020, Judge Dabney Friedrich issued an opinion in the AFT lawsuit.  Judge Friedrich ruled that the individual teachers had not stated a valid claim for violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. But the judge ruled that the teachers had stated a claim for breach of due process, and he allowed that claim to go forward.

Did these two lawsuits straighten out the PSLF program? No, they did not.  In June 2020, about the time of Judge Friedrich's decision in the AFT case, the state of California sued DOE, also claiming that DeVos's bureaucracy had screwed up the PSLF program. That litigation is ongoing.

To summarize, PSLF is a fiasco. Congress's $350 million cash infusion did not fix it, DOE's regulations did not fix it, and litigation in the federal courts didn't straighten it out. 

Betsy DeVos's DOE wanted to scrap the program, and Delisle recommended that the program be shut down and "letting a standalone IBR program do what PSLF [was] meant to accomplish."

Politically, however, the PSLF program may be impossible to repair.  Almost four years after the first program participants were scheduled to get debt relief, few have received it. Thus, a program intended to assist Americans working in public service jobs has turned into a bureaucratic nightmare.



References

American Bar Association v. U.S. Department of Education, 370 F. Supp. 1 (D.D.C. 2019).

Stacy Cowley. 28,000 Public Servants Sought Student Loan Forgiveness. 96 Got ItNew York Times, September 27, 2018.

Stacy Cowley. Student Loan Forgiveness Program Approval Letters May Be InvalidNew York Times, March 30, 2017. 

 Jason Delisle. The coming Public Service Loan Forgiveness BonanzaBrookings Institution Report, Vol 2(2), September 22, 2016.

Richard Fossey & Tara Twomey, American Bar Association v. U.S. Department of Education: Federal Judge Rules That DOE Acted Capriciously in Denying Public Service Loan Forgiveness  to Three Public Service Lawyers, 366 Education Law Reporter 596 (August 8, 2019). 

Lauren Hirsch & Annie Nova. California sues Education Secretary DeVos, saying she has failed to implement student loan forgiveness program. CNBC News (June 3, 2020).

Weingarten v. DeVos, 468 F. Supp. 3d 322 (D.D.C 2020).

Jordan Weissmann. Betsy DeVos Wants to Kill a Major Student Loan Forgiveness ProgramSlate, May 17, 2017.

U.S. Government Accountability Office. Federal Student Loans: Education Could Do More to Help Ensure Borrowers Are Aware of Repayment and Forgiveness Options. GAO-15-663 (August 2016). 








Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Immigrant obtains medical degree, can't find MD job. Bankruptcy judge discharges $400,000 in student-loan debt

Seth Koeut was born in Cambodia and came to the United States as a child. Like many immigrants, he applied himself energetically to obtain a better life. He graduated 6th in his high school class and went on to earn two bachelor's degrees from Duke University.

Mr. Koeut then went to medical school and received an MD from Ponce School of Medicine in Puerto Rico. Somewhere along the way, he learned to speak English, Cambodian, Spanish, French, and Italian.

Although he passed his Medical Board exams, Koeut could not obtain a residency, which is a prerequisite to obtaining a medical license. After applying for residencies for five years, he gave up hope of becoming a licensed physician in the United States.

Over the years, Koeut held various jobs, including sales clerk at Banana Republic, a dishwasher at a Mexican restaurant, and parking lot signaler.

Finally, Koeut filed for bankruptcy and asked Bankruptcy Juge Margaret Mann to discharge his student-loan debt, which totaled $440,000. A vocational evaluation expert assessed Koeut's job prospects and said Koeut would need additional training to meet his employment potential.

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) opposed Koeut's application for a student-loan discharge and argued that he should be put in a long-term, income-based repayment plan (IBR). DOE also said Koeut failed to reach his employment potential because of a lack of initiative.

But Judge Mann disagreed. "A medical school graduate who works as a parking attendant and dishwasher cannot be described as lazy," she observed. She approved of Koeut's decision not to sign up for an IBR, which he rejected "because he could not carry the burden of his student debt without harming his opportunities for advancement."

In the end, Judge Mann discharged almost all of Koeut's student debt, finding that his current income and expenses did not permit him to maintain a minimum standard of living--even without making loan payments.

The Koeut case may be a sign that the bankruptcy judges are weary of DOE's incessant demands to put distressed student-loan debtors into IBRs. And perhaps they have grown tired of DOE's insistence that every bankrupt debtor's financial distress is entirely the debtor's fault.

Indeed, one cannot read Judge Mann's opinion without concluding that Seth Koeut had done everything possible to improve his standard of living and had handled his massive student-loan debt in good faith. Let us hope for more bankruptcy court decisions like Koeut v. U.S. Department of Education.


References

Koeut v. U.S. Department of Education, 622 B.R. 72 (Bankr. S.D. Cal. 2020).




Sunday, January 17, 2021

Surprise! Betsy DeVos's Department of Education rejects Grand Canyon University's application for non-profit status

 Even a blind acorn finds a pig occasionally, and Betsy DeVos's Department of Education finally found a piggy: Grand Canyon University (GCU), which operated as a for-profit institution until 2018.

Last year, DOE rejected GCU's application for non-profit status. This surprised most people because Betsy DeVos is famous for coddling the for-profit college industry.

Not surprisingly, Grand Canyon is suing DOE to overturn the ruling. That's what for-profit colleges do when they don't get their way.

Why did DOE reject Grand Canyon's bid for non-profit status? After all, the university's accreditor and the IRS gave their approval. 

DOE said its decision was based in part on the fact that Grand Canyon University still maintains close financial ties with Grand Canyon Education (GCE), a publicly-traded for-profit corporation. (GCU stock is currently worth about $89 a share.) 

Although GCE sold its university assets to Gazelle University (which operates as Grand Canyon University), GCE still has financial ties to the university from which it profits. 

As DOE explained in an 18-page letter, Grand Canyon's new non-profit owner signed a Master Service Agreement (MSA) with GCE whereby the for-profit entity gets a majority of the revenue from university operations. Specifically:

Despite GCE only taking on the responsibilities of 48% of the operating costs, 60% of the gross adjusted revenue will be paid to GCE under the MSA.  When payments on the Senior Secured Note are included in the analysis, GCE will be receiving approximately 95% of Gazelle's revenue.

DOE also pointed out "that most of [Grand Canyon University's] key management personnel work for GCE, not Gazelle/GCU . . ." Thus, DOE concluded, "as a practical matter, Gazelle is not the entity actually operating the Institution . . . ."

Now you may be asking yourself why Grand Canyon Education, a publicly-traded Delaware corporation, went to the trouble of constructing a deal that would make Grand Canyon University a non-profit.

Undoubtedly, GCE was motivated partly by the desire to make Grand Canyon University seem less venal.  As a non-profit institution, it can claim to be more like traditional non-profit private universities like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.

And there are regulatory advantages as well. DOE has regulations for the for-profit college industry that don't apply to traditional non-profit universities.

Bud DOE said no, and that was the right decision. A publicly-traded corporation should not be allowed to profit from a university that calls itself a nonprofit while shoveling its revenues to stockholders who are primarily interested in making money.



 


Friday, January 15, 2021

Teaching wild hogs to dance: Brookings says for-profit college system is broken and thinks it know how to fix it

 The Brookings Institution published a report this week calling attention to the for-profit college system's enormous abuses. "For-profit colleges have a long history of engaging in manipulative behavior to preserve the flow of [federal money] to their schools while providing their students with a poor education," authorsAirel Gelrud Shiro and Richard Reeves wrote.

In this report (and in an earlier paper released last November), Brookings researchers ticked off a litany of problems in the for-profit college industry:

  • The for-profits only enroll 10 percent of postsecondary students, "but they account for half of all student-loan defaults."
  • For profit-schools are about four times more expensive than community colleges.
  • Black and Latino are overrepresented in this expensive college sector. Although they make up less than a third of all college students, "they represent nearly half of all who attend for-profit colleges."
  • Black students who take out student loans to attend a for-profit have very high default rates. "Almost 60 percent of Black students who took on student debt to attend a for-profit school in 2004 defaulted on their loans by 2016 . . ."
  • Research suggests a for-profit college education may be no better than no college at all. "Students may even incur net losses from for-profit attendance when debt is factored in."
OK, I'm convinced--the for-profit colleges are bad boys.  In fact, I was convinced back in  2012, when Senator Tom Harkin's committee released a scathing report on the for-profit college industry. 

But what are we going to do about it? 

Brookings researchers recommend more effective federal regulations. For example, Brookings wants to reinstate the "gainful employment" rule that the Obama administration introduced. Colleges whose students don't reach a certain debt-to-employment ratio would lose federal funds. And it wants a more transparent "College Scoreboard" for reporting the for-profits' student outcomes. 

But let's face facts.  Trying to reform the for-profit college industry is like trying to teach wild hogs to dance.  It ain't happening.

Postsecondary education should be inexpensive, and it should lead to good jobs.  Under that standard of measurement, the for-profits have failed.

So why doesn't Congress just shut them down?

Or failing that, why doesn't Congress at least allow the naive people who took out student loans to attend overpriced for-profit colleges and didn't benefit to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy?

How could anyone object to such a simple avenue of relief for the countless victims of the for-profit college scandal?

References

U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. For-Profit Higher Education: The Failure to Safeguard the Federal Investment and Ensure Student Success. 112 Congress, 2d Session, July 30, 2012. 

Let's do the "Gainful Employment" dance!






Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Woman enrolls in low-ranked law school, accumulates massive debt, and is academically dismissed only three credit hours from getting her degree: Is that fair?

 Jill Stevenson enrolled at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 2002. She completed 87 credit hours toward completing her degree, but she was "academically dismissed" because her GPA dropped in her last year of study.

Stevenson took out student loans to pay for her legal education and entered an income-based repayment plan (IBRP) in 2006. This plan required her to make monthly payments on her student debt for 25 years. She made her payments faithfully for 14 years--a remarkable achievement. But her loan balance grew larger with each passing month because of accruing interest.

By the time she filed for bankruptcy and tried to get her student loans discharged, she owed the U.S. Department of Education $116,000, and the debt would continue growing until she finished her IBRP in 1931.  At that time, her student loans would be forgiven, but the forgiven amount is considered taxable income. Thus, when she is in her sixties, Miss Stevenson will face a huge tax bill.

This is a sad outcome, made sadder perhaps because Thomas M. Cooley has been ranked as one of the worst law schools in the United States.  Don't take my word for it.

Garrett Parker, writing for Money Inc., ranked Cooley as one of the 20 worst law schools in the United States in 2019. Parker said Cooley made the worst-law-school list "with flying colors."

Staci Zaretsky, writing for Above the Law (a terrific blog site) in 2018, listed Cooley as one of the ten worst law schools in the nation. In 2018, Zaretsky reported, Cooley admitted 86 percent of its applicants, including 135 students who scored in the bottom 12 percent on their LSAT tests. Cooley was the 2017 defending champion for worst law school, Zaretsky noted drily.

You want another take? David Frakt, "who serve[d] as chair of the National Advisory Council for Law School Transparency, [wrote] that 2017 defending champion Western Michigan University Thomas Cooley Law School repeats for 2018, claiming the number 1 spot on the list of bottom 10 schools."

My point is not to knock Cooley Law School--other people are doing an excellent job of that without my help. But let's think about Jill Stevenson.

Even if she graduated from Cooley, her prospects in the legal field would not have been bright. She made a smart decision to take a job as a paralegal. 

Nevertheless, Cooley dismissed her when she was three credit hours short of graduation. And all that student-loan money Stevenson paid the law school--Cooley kept that money.

And then the U.S. Department of Education shows up to fight her plea for bankruptcy relief, claiming she shouldn't have her student loans forgiven because she smokes cigarettes and cares for a disabled grandson.

This is the way Great Britain treated debtors in Charles Dickens's time. I thought America was better than that.

*****

Note: According to Inside Higher Ed, Thomas M. Cooley Law School affiliated with Western Michigan University in 2013 and changed its name to "Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. In November 2020, Western Michigan University's board of trustees voted to end its affiliation with the Cooley Law School. The disassociation will take three years to finalize. 






Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Attention Student Loan Debtors: The Department of Education may want a piece of your inheritance!

Jill Stevenson enrolled at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 2002, but she never graduated. Although she completed 87 of the 90 credit hours she needed to get a law degree, she was academically dismissed because of her low GPA. Subsequently, Stevenson obtained work as a paralegal in New Mexico.

Stevenson borrowed $90,000 to fund her law studies. In 2006, she enrolled in an income-based repayment plan (IBRP), and she made regular payments under that plan for 14 years. Nevertheless, due to accruing interest, her loan balance grew to $116,000.

In 2019, Stevenson filed an adversary proceeding to discharge her student loans in bankruptcy. At the time of filing, her monthly payment under the IBRP was $259.

Educational Credit Management (ECMC) opposed Stevenson’s plea for bankruptcy relief. ECMC sent Stevenson a formal request for admission asking her to admit that she could make her IBRP monthly payments and still maintain a minimal standard of living.

 Initially, Stevenson admitted that she could maintain a minimal standard of living while making monthly payments of $259. She argued, however, that her loan balance was growing and she would face a substantial tax burden when her IBRP obligations ended 11 years in the future because the forgiven debt would be taxable to her as income.

She maintained this tax liability constituted an undue hardship in itself and entitled her to discharge her student debt in bankruptcy.

Later, Stevenson moved to revise her answer to ECMC’s request for admission to state that her expenses exceeded her income even if she was relieved of her student-loan debt.

ECMC asked Bankruptcy Judge David Thuma to dismiss Stevenson's case based on her admission that she could make her IBRP payments and still maintain a minimum standard of living. ECMC also objected to Stevenson’s attempt to amend her answer to its request for admission.

This is how Judge Thuma ruled. First, he said Stevenson was entitled to change her answer to ECMC’s request for admission. Second, he ruled that there was a factual dispute about whether Stevenson would suffer undue hardship if forced to repay her loans.

However, Judge Thuma ruled that Stevenson was not entitled to discharge her student loans in bankruptcy simply because she could face tax consequences when she completed her IBRP. “If  borrowers can pay some amount each month," Judge Thuma reasoned, "it would shortchange the government to discharge the debt before the end of the IBRP.”

Nevertheless, Judge Thuma added, the tax bill that Stevenson potentially faced in 11 years could be considered when determining whether it would be an undue burden to require Stevenson to repay her student loans.

Stevenson v. ECMC is significant for two reasons. First, the case demonstrates ECMC’s chief litigation strategy in student-loan bankruptcy cases.  ECMC almost always argues that it is never an undue hardship for a student borrower to make monthly payments under an IBRP.  In other words, from ECMC’s perspective, no one is entitled to discharge student loans in bankruptcy because income-based payments never constitute an undue hardship.

Second, and more disturbing, Judge Thuma took note of the fact that Stevenson’s elderly parents own valuable real estate—a strip mall. “If [Stevenson’s] financial situation changes (e.g., if she receives an inheritance), she might be able to repay her student loans."

Ms. Stevenson is 53 years old, and her parents are in their 80s. Unless her loans are discharged in Judge Thuma’s bankruptcy court, she will be required to make IBRP payments for 11 more years only to see her loan balance get larger.

Suppose Stevenson's parents die, and she receives an inheritance before paying off her student loans. In that case, Stevenson might find the Department of Education standing at her parents’ graveside (figuratively speaking), demanding to be paid. 

Does that seem fair to you? It does not seem fair to me.

References

Stevenson v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Adv. No. 19-1085, 2020 WL 6122749 (Bankr. D.N.M. Oct. 16, 2020).


Thomas M. Cooley Law School




Saturday, January 9, 2021

Jamie Mudd v. U.S. Department of Education: A Nebraska bankruptcy court discharges a grandmother's student loans

 Between 2006 and 2015, Jamie Mudd took out 41 student loans to attend Heald College, a for-profit institution, and San Joaquin Delta College, a public institution. In 2015, she rolled these loans into two consolidated federal loans, totally about $72,000. 

Mudd put her student loans into an income-based repayment plan (IBRP) that established her monthly payments at zero due to her low income.  Under this plan, she was obligated to certify her income on an annual basis. Evidently, she forgot to do this because the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) removed her from the IBRP and reset her monthly payments at almost $800 per month. 

Mudd was readmitted into an IBRP, but she again failed to certify her income, and DOE set her new monthly payment at $963.

According to Bankruptcy Judge Shon Hastings, Mudd never earned more than $13 an hour, and she often worked two jobs to make ends meet. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment and incurred regular expenses caring for a grandson with disabilities. She also suffered from significant health problems.

Ms. Mudd filed an adversary proceeding, hoping to discharge her student loans, but DOE objected. First, DOE said Mudd's financial circumstances would probably improve, enabling her to make modest payments in an IBRP.  Second, Mudd was a smoker, and DOE said she should save her cigarette money and use it to pay down her student loans. DOE also claimed that Mudd's expenses for her grandson's video streaming were unnecessary.  Indeed, DOE disapproved of any money Mudd spent on her grandson.

Fortunately, Bankruptcy Judge Shon Hastings was considerably more compassionate than DOE. In a decision issued last month, Judge Hastings discharged all of Mudd's student-loan debt.

In ruling in Mudd's favor, Judge Hastings applied the "totality of circumstances" test approved by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. This is a summary of his reasoning:

Mudd has made a good faith effort to maximize her income. Mudd works approximately 53 hours per week at two jobs. . . . Overall, Mudd's expenses are necessary and reasonable and consistent with a minimal standard of living. . . . She has no savings, owns no assets of significant value (except her used car in which she holds no equity), lives in a one-bedroom apartment and obtains food and toiletries from local nonprofit organizations to make ends met. Her medical expenses are higher than budgeted, and she anticipates that her health care costs will continue to rise due to her high cholesterol and diabetes.  

In short, Judge Hastings concluded, Mudd did not have sufficient disposable income to pay on her student loans. Thus, the judge discharged all of this debt.

Judge Hastings specifically rejected DOE's suggestion that Mudd should not be credited for the expenses she incurred for her grandson. "[T]he Court finds it entirely inappropriate to find or suggest that Mudd should not care for her grandson or to weigh undue burden factors against her for doing so." 

Judge Hasting's ruling should not surprise us. Clearly, Jamie Mudd was in dire financial straits and entitled to discharge her student loans in bankruptcy.

What is shocking is the fact that DOE objected. Mudd v. U.S. Department of Education is just one more example of the federal government's heartlessness toward college-loan debtors, heartlessness that borders on viciousness

References

Mudd v. U.S. Department of Education, Adversary No. 19-04048, 2020 WL 7330054 (Bank. D. Neb. Dec. 9, 2020).



Friday, January 8, 2021

Leary v. Great Lakes Educational Loan Services: New York Bankruptcy judge slaps student-loan servicer with a $378,000 contempt sanction

In September 2020, Bankruptcy Judge Martin Glen slapped a huge contempt penalty on Great Lakes Educational Loan Servicers--$378,629.62! Why? Because Great Lakes repeatedly refused to comply with Judge Glen's directives in a student-loan bankruptcy case.

Leary v. Great Lakes Educational Loan Servicers: The facts

In 2015, Sheldon Leary filed an adversary action in a New York bankruptcy court, seeking to discharge over $350,000 in student-loan debt. He amassed this debt to pay for his three children's college education.

Mr. Leary represented himself and properly served Great Lakes, his student-loan servicer. He didn't know, however, that he needed to sue the U.S. Department of Education as well. Great Lakes passed Mr. Leary's complaint on to DOE, but neither DOE nor Great Lakes answered Mr. Leary's lawsuit. In fact, Great Lakes forwarded fifteen pleadings to DOE, but neither DOE nor Great Lakes made an appearance in Judge Martin's court for quite some time.

In 2016, Mr. Leary obtained a default judgment against Great Lakes for failing to respond to his lawsuit, and Judge Glen discharged Leary's student-loan debt. DOE ignored this judgment and sent Mr. Leary two letters threatening to garnish his wages.

More than four years after filing his lawsuit, Leary moved to reopen his adversary proceeding and asked Judge Glen to find Great Lakes in contempt. Great Lakes still did not respond, and on April 29, 2020, Judge Glen held the loan servicer in contempt and assessed sanctions against it for $123,000.

Great Lakes did not pay this assessment, and Judge Glen held a second contempt hearing last August. At this hearing, Great Lakes made several arguments to avoid sanctions. First, it argued that it could not be held in contempt because it had not acted in bad faith. Judge Glen rejected this defense. Whether or not Great Lakes had acted in bad faith, the judge reasoned, it had ignored "clear and unambiguous" court orders and had not diligently tried to comply with them.

Great Lakes also argued that it transferred its loan processing job to another collection agent after Mr. Leary's lawsuit was filed, thus relieving itself of the obligation to respond to court pleadings. But that fact, the judge ruled, did not excuse Great Lakes from its duty to comply with court orders in Mr. Leary's lawsuit.

Finally, Great Lakes argued that sanctions were not warranted because Great Lake’s noncompliance had no impact on Leary’s litigation costs or his indebtedness. 

But Judge Glen didn't buy that argument either. In fact, he pointed out, Great Lakes' inaction had significantly injured Mr. Leary by causing him to suffer "aggravation, pain and suffering, negative credit ratings, loss of sleep, worry and marital strain."

Judge Glen:  Great Lakes was "grossly negligent"

In short, Judge Glen ruled, Great Lakes' inaction had been "grossly negligent" and "really much worse." As for Great Lakes' claim that its legal department was unaware that it was a named party in Mr. Leary's lawsuit, the judge found this argument "unbelievabl[e]."

The judge ordered Great Lakes to pay most of its sanction to DOE, in an amount sufficient to pay off Mr. Leary's student-loan obligations. Thus, in the end, Leary got the relief he sought in 2015.

Judge Glen did not find it necessary to hold DOE in contempt, but he did not find the agency blameless. As he noted in a footnote:

It should not be lost on anyone . . . that DOE's inaction with respect to Mr. Leary--especially when DOE had knowledge at multiple steps along the way that Great Lakes was ignoring its obligations to Mr. Leary as a named defendant in the adversary proceeding--is disappointing to say the least.

Judge Glen finds DOE’s conduct “highly questionable”

Judge Glen's decision fingered Great Lakes as the bad guy in the Leary case, but he found DOE's conduct to be "highly questionable." Obviously, DOE's lawyers knew what Great Lakes was doing and made no objection. It is hard to escape the conclusion that DOE deliberately allowed Great Lakes to flout Judge Glen's orders in order to sabotage Mr. Leary's attempt to discharge his student loans in bankruptcy.

References

Leary v. Great Lakes Educational Loan Services, 620 B.R. 39 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y 2020).



Thursday, January 7, 2021

Pro quarterback Tom Brady gets $1 million in PPE money plus tax break, but no tax breaks for distressed student loan debtors

 According to CNBC, Tom Brady, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' highly-paid quarterback, got a check for $960,00 from the Smal Business Administration's Payroll Protection Plan. Why? Because, besides playing football, Mr. Brady owns a sports and nutrition company.

Does Mr. Brady need the money? Earlier this year, he signed a $50 million two-year deal to play football for the Buccaneers.

And Mr. Brady gets a tax break that goes with that $960,000 check.  Brady and everyone who received a PPP check can deduct their business expenses for the year, even if they paid those expenses with the federal government's free money.

Is this a great country or what!

Meanwhile, nine million student-loan debtors who are enrolled in long-term income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) have enormous tax bills hanging over their heads.  

IBRPs allow college-loan borrowers to make monthly payments on their loans based on their income. If they make regular payments for 20 or 25 years, the balance on their loans is forgiven. However, the amount of forgiveness is considered taxable income by the IRS.

I do not quarrel with Congress's COVID-relief legislation. Perhaps it is good public policy to give Tom Brady a million bucks while my relatives get a lousy $600.

I just hope my children and grandchildren will become rich enough someday to qualify for government handouts.





Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Every Person in Debt Deserves to Be Treated With Dignity, essay by Steve Rhode

 Written by Steve Rhode

 Originally published at Get Out of Debt Guy


We assume that it is wrong not to treat others with kindness in all corners of life. For example, in the U.S., we no longer have separate entrances based on your skin color. Buildings make allowances for physical limitations, and a recent news story said that more people had developed a tolerance for others’ religion.

But we could make some advances in learning to treat people in debt with dignity. I’d have to say that currently, society treats debtors as losers and if debtors were on a ledge getting ready to leap, a crowd below would be yelling “Jump!”

The majority of people without financial problems love a little debtor voyeurism and witness others’ financial misery. It’s like watching the train wreck through cracks in your fingers as you hold your hand over your eyes. You don’t want to watch, but you do.

Imagine if suicide was like debt, and when you were contemplating killing yourself, your creditors kept calling you and say things like “you are a loser” or “just do it and good riddance”? That’s some pretty cruel mojo. Maybe we should call the overweight kid that is depressed and yell, “fatty, fatty” into the phone. Now that is some intense and insensitive cruelty.

Why is it when people are in financial trouble that we can’t wrap our arms around them and treat them with care, compassion, and respect? We should. We all should.

If you’ve never been deep in debt and afraid, unable to sleep, on the verge of an anxiety attack, and depressed, it might be hard for you to imagine what life is like during those dark days of debt. While some might put on a mask, most people are ashamed, unhappy, and afraid inside.

Being in debt is modern-day leprosy.

When you can’t spend money as you used to, and people don’t seem to be around as much, your life changes in a way that you perceive to be for the worse and when you’ve got to move because you can’t afford the rent, it’s like being hustled off to the leper colony. You’re now isolated for all the wrong reasons.

I can’t think of any time that I’ve ever seen someone post a sign in their front yard that says, “Hi Y’all, we’re so broke we can’t afford to live here anymore, and we are getting kicked out.” Actually, what I’ve seen more of are foreclosed homes with everything left behind, including wedding pictures and the belongings of evicted people left by the side of the road for passerby’s to pick through. Ashamed people flee.

Debtors deserve dignity. I’m not saying that we need to give anyone a free ride in life. I’m just saying that people in debt are wounded and deserve to be treated as you would anyone in a difficult time or a fragile moment.

Being in debt is a mathematical position with emotional manifestations. Being unable to pay your bills is not a casual reality for most debtors. People in debt want to pay their bills, they do, but they can’t see a way, or they are not emotionally ready to make those hard lifestyle changes to meet their new obligations.

Being unready or unprepared to make changes to get the numbers to line up does not make you a bad person. It just makes you someone that, for some reason, is unwilling to make some difficult choices right then.

Being in debt is about managing depression, despair, and loneliness. I’m not saying that all debtors feel that way, but most do. Being in debt is about a loss of self-esteem and self-confidence. It’s about being unable to make a plan, stick to it, and make it happen.

The emotional pain of being in debt robs us of our own dignity. The rest of society does almost nothing to help cradle the debtor with love and compassion to soften the blow and ease the journey.

Debtors are losers. Debtors are rejects. Debtors are liars. Debtors are a failure. And all of those statements are uttered every day by people, and none of them are true. Instead, they are like the insensitive bully’s schoolyard shouts that leave scars for life on fragile minds.

Debtors do have a duty to find a solution to make the pain and misery through change. But that can be like asking someone with a bad back to run a marathon.

Being in debt is a thing, but being a debtor is personal, and debtors deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion while helping towards a solution.

Doing something nice today, give a debtor a hug.


Steve Rhode is the Get Out of Debt Guy and has been helping good people with bad debt problems since 1994. You can learn more about Steve, here.  You can read this essay on Mr. Rhode's web site at https://getoutofdebt.org/21762/debt-with-dignity.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Say goodbye to your golden years: 100 million Americans have no retirement savings

According to the  National Insitute on Retirement Security, more than 100 million Americans have no retirement savings whatsoever. 

As Diane Oakley, NIRS executive director, observed:

The facts and data are clear. Retirement is in peril for most working-class Americans . . . When all working individuals are considered--not just the minority with retirement accounts--the typical working American has zero, zilch, nothing saved for retirement.

The NIRS partly blamed the 2007 recession for the bad news. But the report was issued in 2018--before the coronavirus put millions of people out of work.  Over the past year, Americans have dipped into their savings and their retirement accounts just to pay today's bills.

 A 2019 survey also reported bad news for American retirees. A GobankingRanks survey concluded that almost two out of three Americans (64 percent) will retire broke. And--shockingly--nearly half of the people surveyed said they'd didn't care!

Clearly, millions of Americans are not preparing for their retirement years. Many workers don't make enough money to fund a retirement account, and others are overwhelmed with consumer debt--home mortgages, car payments, and credit card bills.

And student-loan debt is a significant contributor to Americans' precarious financial status. More than 40 million people have outstanding student debt, and less than half that number are paying it off. Nine million student-loan debtors are in long-term income-based repayment plans, which means they will never pay down their loan balances.

What is going to happen to all these impecunious Americans when they reach retirement age?

A great many will just keep working until they die or become too incapacitated to be a Walmart greeter. Others will tap the equity in their homes or draw down their meager savings just to pay their utility bills. Some will move in with their kids--who will have their own financial troubles.

As a recent New Yorker article noted, there is a growing movement to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. I hope Congress does exactly that.

Nevertheless, even if the minimum wage is roughly doubled, elderly Americans who work full-time at Wendy's for $15 an hour will generate just enough income to keep them above the poverty line.

Working on their feet for eight hours a day will be difficult for people in their seventies.  Many will have to pop Chinese-manufactured Advils to keep their arthritis under control.  But it can be done.

But the days when Americans referred to retirement as the Golden Years are over.  For many Americans, their last years will not be golden. They will be difficult, bitter, and depressing.

photo credit: finance.yahoo.com



Friday, January 1, 2021

Post-Modern America is as vicious and dysfunctional as Victorian England, the Weimar Republic, and 17th century France

If you get your news from network television, you are being bombarded by commercials about prescription medicines and financial services. 

These ads typically show prosperous older Americans who look remarkably fit, live in lovely homes, and spend their days cooking gourmet meals, wind-surfing, and flyfishing with their adorable grandchildren.

These advertisements purport to show life in 21st century America--the best of all possible worlds where everyone is healthy, happy, and financially secure.

But I don't live in that America, and you don't either. Instead, most of us live in a society that is remarkably similar to dysfunctional regimes of bygone centuries.

Our government is printing money at a frightening pace to prop up the financial markets, much like the Weimar Republic did in the 1920s. And we know how that turned out. Germany experienced runaway inflation that set the stage for Adolph Hitler.

We may celebrate the fact that the United States abolished debtors' prisons, but 21st century America treats debtors much the way England treated them in the Victorian age. 

We don't deport debtors to Australia or put them in jail as England did in Charles Dickens' time, but we've created a virtual prison for student-loan borrowers, millions of whom are trapped in income-based repayment plans that last 25 years. Compounding student-debtors' misery, our supposedly benevolent Congress has made it almost impossible for insolvent student-loan debtors to get relief in the bankruptcy courts.

And the American tax system is remarkably like the tax regime in Louis XIV's France. W.H. Lewis, who wrote a masterful social history of seventeenth-century France, described the French tax structure this way;

[T]he whole fiscal system was in itself radically and incurably vicious; as a contemporary remarks, if he Devil himself had been given a free hand to plan the ruin of France, he could not have invented any scheme more likely to achieve that object than the system of taxation in vogue, a system which would seem to have been designed with the sole object of ensuring a minimum return to the King at a maximum price to his subjects, with the heaviest share falling on the poorest section of the population.

Doesn't that sound like the American tax system? Sure it does. As financial tycoon Warren Buffett has repeatedly observed, he pays federal taxes at a lower rate than his secretary.

And the COVID pandemic didn't change the system at all. Indeed, the latest coronavirus relief package includes 100 percent deductibility for the so-called "three-martini lunch." Think about it: wealthy Americans can write off extravagant meals that can cost more than $1,000, while the working stiff gets a $600 coronavirus-relief check.

 In short, although Americans may deceive themselves into believing that our society is evolving into a paradise based on the principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion, in fact, we live in a world not so very different from Victorian England, Weimar Germany, and 17th century France.

Louis XIV: Is everybody happy?