Tuesday, April 13, 2021

College students: Don't take out student loans to get a degree in an easy discipline

"Easy money lays light in the hand," Solzhenitsyn observed, "and doesn't give you the feeling you've earned it."

We can say the same thing about easy college courses and easy academic majors. 

It is quite feasible for a student to get an easy college degree. Universities have ditched rigorous admission standards so that anyone can get into college, and grade inflation has made it possible to pass through a university without studying and without learning anything. 

Every university has a few academic majors that are known not to be challenging. And every college has a few professors who are too lazy to engage in rigorous grading.  

Twenty years ago, when I was teaching at the University of Houston, a professor in my department taught multiple sections of a general education course--a course that students from across the university could count toward their degree requirements. Semester after semester, his classes were packed because he did not grade any assignments, and he gave every student an A. 

Young people may think they are playing it smart by choosing nonchallenging classes and easy academic majors. Why enroll in a class taught by a brilliant professor if the prof is a hard grader?  Why not sign up for classes taught by an indolent professor who gives out puffball assignments and then doesn't grade them?

I confess that I am not speaking from the pinnacle of academic rigor. I majored in sociology--the painful enumeration of the obvious. I made straight As my last semester without even buying textbooks.  And I learned absolutely nothing.

Then I went to law school, where the professors graded on a strict curve. Only 5 percent of first-year students received As, 10 percent got Bs, and 75 percent had to settle for a C (or worse).

To my surprise, I excelled in this rigorous environment, and I graduated with honors from the University of Texas School of Law. Forty years later, this is still my proudest professional accomplishment.

Please take my advice and don't choose the easy path while in college, especially if you are taking out student loans. After four, or five, or six years of study, you will wind up with a vacuous degree and no job skills.  

You may then decide to get a master's degree and select a graduate program with low admission requirements. That choice will lead to a second worthless degree.

Then where will you be?  You will find yourself buried under a mountain of debt you cannot pay off. Those mindless courses and that easy major will embarrass you, and you will feel like a fool. 

As Solzhenitsyn put it, "There [is] truth in the old saying: pay short money and get short value."



Friday, April 9, 2021

Tingling v. ECMC: 52-year old student-loan debtor with multiple degrees loses her case before Second Circuit Court of Appeals

Bankruptcy is intended to give honest but unfortunate debtors a fresh start in life. People who mismanage their finances, spend money improvidently or go broke through their own stupidity can shed their debts in a bankruptcy court.

That is a good thing. 

But the Bankruptcy Code contains an exception for insolvent student-loan borrowers. Unless they can show "undue hardship," they can't get free of their college loans. 

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals defined undue hardship in its Brunner decision, rendered in 1987.  To qualify for a discharge of their student loans, debtors must make three showings: 

1) They cannot pay off their loans and maintain a minimum standard of living.  

2) Their financial condition is unlikely to improve over the terms of the loans.

3) They handled their student loans in good faith.  

Some commentators (including me) hope the Second Circuit will reconsider the harsh Brunner test and perhaps overrule it or at least interpret it more humanely.

Unfortunately, Tingling v. ECMCdecided about a month ago, is a signal that the Second Circuit is not willing to abandon Brunner.

Janet Tingling, age 52, tried to discharge student debt accumulated to obtain multiple degrees (a B.S. and M.S. in biology, an M.B.A., and a Doctorate in Business Administration). Her adjusted gross income was about $50,000 before filing bankruptcy. Her total student-loan debt (including principal, interest, fees, and costs) was $59,000.

Tingling was initially represented by a lawyer in her bankruptcy proceedings, but she released her attorney and pursued her adversary action alone.

Bankruptcy Judge Alan S. Trust denied Ms. Tingling's application to shed her student loans, finding that she failed all three parts of the Brunner test. She appealed to U.S. District Court Judge Joanna Seybert, and she upheld Judge Trust's ruling.

Last month, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (Judges Cabranes, Raggi, and Sullivan) upheld Judge Trust's bankruptcy opinion, ruling that he had applied the Brunner test correctly. The panel expressed no interest in modifying or overruling the Brunner standard.

I am not unduly disheartened by the Second Circuit's Tingling decision.  After all, Janet Tingling's situation was not as compelling as that of other more hard-pressed debtors who have wound up in a bankruptcy court. 

The Second Circuit pointed out that she "is of relatively young age (52 years old), in good health, possesses two graduate degrees in healthcare administration, lacks dependents, and, by all indications, is able to maintain her current level of income" (Tingling v. ECMC, 990 F.3d at 309).

I hope another debtor--someone in more desperate circumstances--takes her case to the Second Circuit and challenges the Brunner test.

 And I hope that person is represented by a competent and energetic lawyer.  Ms. Tingling was handicapped, no doubt, by the fact that she fought her case into the appellate courts on her own, without legal counsel to advise and assist her. 



References

Tingling v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 900 F.3d 304 (2d Cir. 2021).











Friday, April 2, 2021

President Biden ponders $50,000 student-loan cancelation: That doesn't go nearly far enough

 President Biden has asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to prepare a memo on the president's legal authority to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt.  

If he did that, the experts tell us, President Biden would forgive all college-loan debt for 36 million people--about 80 percent of all borrowers. 

Is that a good idea? 

Sort of. Anything the federal government does to provide relief to distressed student-loan debtors is good, so I support a massive cancelation of student debt.

Nevertheless, one-time debt forgiveness is the wrong approach. 

Wiping out student debt without reforming the student-loan program is like fixing a flat tire on a broken-down car and then putting it back on the highway with no brakes. Someone down the road is going to get hurt.

The whole damned, rotten student-loan system has to be torn down. Otherwise, the corrupt, venal, and incompetent American higher education system will continue ripping off the American people.

Obviously, massive reform can't be accomplished overnight.  But here is what we need to do for starters:

1) Congress must remove the "undue hardship" clause from the Bankruptcy Code and allow insolvent student-loan debtors to discharge their loans in bankruptcy. 

2) We've got to shut down the Parent Plus program.

3) The federal government has got to stop subsidizing the for-profit colleges, which have hurt so many young people--especially people of color and low-income people.

4) We've got to stop shoving student borrowers into 25-year, income-based repayment plans that are structured such that no one in these plans can ever pay off their loans.  There almost 9 million people in IBRPs now. 

5) The universities have got to start offering programs that help their graduates get a real job. Degrees in ethnic studies, diversity studies, LGBT studies, and gender studies only prepare people for jobs teaching ethnic studies, diversity studies, gender studies, and LGBT studies.

6) Finally, we must restore the integrity of the nation's law schools.  We've got too many mediocre law schools. California alone has more than 50 law schools, with only 18 accredited by the American Bar Association.   And the law schools need to go back to admitting students based on objective criteria--the LSAT score, in particular.

If we had fewer but better-trained lawyers, we'd have less litigation and fewer attorneys who see their job as being hired political hacks.

Will the Biden administration do any of the things I've outlined? I doubt it.

Higher education is in desperate need of reform. A college education is far too expensive, and much of what is taught at the universities is not useful.  Wiping out student debt will bring some relief to millions of college borrowers. But if the colleges don't change how they do business, the student-debt crisis will not be solved.








Thursday, April 1, 2021

Don't let college professors persuade you that learning to speak Standard English is optional

I've been to Georgia on a fast train honey,
I wudn't born no yesterday.
Got a good Christian raisin' and an eighth-grade education
Ain't no need in y'all a treatin' me this way.

Billy Joe Shaver 

A while back, I met an elderly man who told me he had grown up in the Texas Panhandle back in the 1950s.  As a child, he spoke with a strong West Texas accent. But then his family moved to Arizona, and no one could understand him at his new school.

Fortunately, the man recounted,  an Arizona teacher began tutoring him on a one-to-one basis and taught him to speak standard English without a Texas accent. "If it hadn't been for that teacher," he said, "I would never have made a success of my life."

This man's story made an impression on me because I grew up in western Oklahoma, where the people speak very much like the West Texans.  To this day, I have some range dust in my diction; and I think at least some of my classmates at Harvard wrote me off as hick when they first heard me speak.  

Now there is a movement to de-emphasize standard English because it disadvantages minorities--particularly African Americans.  For example, Professor Asao Inoue of Arizona State University argues that students should not be graded based on the quality of writing but "purely by the labor students complete . . ." 

Why should professors stop grading students on the quality of their writing? "Because, Professor Inoue maintains, "all grading and assessment exist within systems that uphold singular, dominant standards that are racist, and White supremacist."

 Rebecca Walkowitz, chair of the English Department at Rutgers University, is on Professor Inoue's wavelength. She sent an email recently, announcing an initiative to incorporate "critical grammar" into the department's pedagogy.

Critical grammar pedagogy, Professor Walkowitz's email stated, "challenges the familiar dogma that writing instruction should limit emphasis on grammar/sentence-level issues so as not to put students from multilingual, non-standard 'academic' English backgrounds at a disadvantage."

Professors Inuoue and Walkowitz's views on language are in harmony with the ebonics movement, which asserts that Black English should be regarded as a language in its own right and not a substandard dialect of proper English.

I sympathize with the academics who argue that we should show more respect for non-standard English. Indeed, some of America's greatest literature contain expressions in non-standard dialect. Huckleberry Finn, for example. And the lyrics of country music (which I love) are full of non-standard English phrases.

When Merle Haggard wrote Hungry Eyes, he penned, "us kids was too young to realize."  Should we give him a C- because he didn't write "we children were too young to realize"? And Elvis--should he have sung "You are nothing but a hound dog"?

Nevertheless, I believe all Americans should strive to master standard English in both their speech and their writing. After all, shouldn't we endeavor to build a common culture? And if that is so, isn't a common culture built on a common language?

I acknowledge that some Americans grew up in subcultures that did not value standard English. Those subcultures should not be denigrated.  I said "y'all" as a kid, and I still say "y'all." 

But standard English is not that hard to learn. I keep Strunk and White's Elements of Style on my desk, which I consult occasionally; and I subscribe to Grammarly, an online editing tool that checks my writing for spelling and grammar. All our commuters have a spell check function.

Besides, every young American must eventually leave academia, where grammar and spelling are being emphasized, and get a paying job. American employers may insist that their employees write and speak in standard English. Indeed, job candidates who misspell words on their job applications and converse in an obscure dialect may not get hired.

In my view, academics who want to deemphasize standard English grammar and diction are doing their students a disservice. Millions of young people are graduating from universities with crushing student loans. If they leave college speaking and writing no differently from when they entered, what was the point of all that education?