Showing posts with label Senator Elizabeth Warren. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Senator Elizabeth Warren. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Brookings Institution researcher criticizes federal student-loan program: "It is an outrage"

Last month, Adam Looney of the Brookings Institution released a paper that is chock full of ideas for fixing the federal student-loan program. Looney began his paper with a withering condemnation of the program in its present form, which he accurately described as an outrage. I am quoting his critique verbatim, just putting his words into a bullet-style format:
  • "It is an outrage that the federal government offers loans to students at low-quality institutions even when we know those schools don't boost their earnings and that those borrowers won't be able to repay their loans."
  • It is an outrage that we make parent PLUS loans to the poorest families when we know they almost surely will default and have their wages and social security benefits garnished and their tax refunds confiscated . . ."
  • "It is an outrage that we saddled several million students with loans to enroll in untested online programs, that seem to have offered no labor market value."
  • It is an outrage that our lending programs encourage schools like USC to charge $107,484 . . . for a master's degree in social work (220 percent more than the equivalent course at UCLA) in a field where the median wage is $47,980."
All these failures, Looney charges, "are entirely the result of federal government policies." 

Nevertheless, for all its faults, Looney thinks the federal student loan program is worth fixing, and he makes several interesting reform proposals:

First, Looney recommends a cap on loans to graduate students. Currently, graduate students in the Grad PLUS program can take out student loans to pay the entire cost of their studies, no matter what the cost, which is nuts. 

This "sky is the limit" loan policy has led to the escalating cost of getting an MBA or law degree. In fact, the American Bar Association estimates that the average student at a private law school takes out  $122,000 in student loans. 

Second, Looney recommends applying an "ability-to-pay" standard to parent loans or eliminating them altogether. In my view, the Parent PLUS program should be shut down. It is insane to lure parents into financing their children's college education by taking on massive student-loan debt--debt which is almost impossible to discharge in bankruptcy.

Third, Looney recommends the REPAYE program as the default student-loan repayment plan for all students. Unless a student opts out, all student-loan borrowers would be automatically enrolled in the REPAYE program when they begin repaying their student loans.

REPAYE, introduced by the Obama administration, allows student debtors to pay 10 percent of the discretionary income (income minus 150 percent of the poverty level) for 20 years rather than attempt to pay off their loans in the standard 10-year repayment plan.

In conjunction with automatic REPAY enrollment, Looney calls for voiding all fees, capitalized interest, and collection costs on current borrowers--costs and fees they wouldn't have suffered if they had been automatically enrolled in REPAYE. In addition, he proposes to cancel all student-loan debt that is 20 years old or older--without regard to the status of these loans.

Finally, Looney calls for a halt in wage and Social Security garnishment, and an end to the Treasury Offset program--the program that allows the government to capture defaulted borrowers' tax refunds.

These are all good proposals, but I have reservations. First, is it good public policy to automatically enroll all student-loan debtors in REPAYE--a 20-year income-based repayment plan? If we go that route, we will be creating a massive class of indentured servants who will be paying a percentage of their income to the government for a majority of their working lives.

Moreover, most people in those plans will never pay back the principle on their loans and could wind up with huge amounts of forgiven debt after 20 years, which would be taxable to them as income.

Secondly, Looney's proposals--all good, as I have said--are complicated, and the Department of Education has a dismal record managing just about every aspect of the student-loan program. For example, individuals enrolled in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program have been applying for debt relief, and the Department of Education has rejected 99 percent of all claims.

So these are my revisions to Mr. Looney's proposals:
  • Amend the Bankruptcy Code to allow distressed student-loan debtors to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy like any other consumer debt.
  • Shut down the Parent PLUS program immediately, and allow parents who took out Parent PLUS loans or cosigned private loans for their children to discharge those loans in bankruptcy.
  • Finally (and this is basically Mr. Looney's proposal) wipe out all penalties, fees, and capitalized interest for all 45 million student-loan borrowers and stop garnishing wages, tax refunds, and Social Security checks of student debtors in default.
My proposals, Mr. Looney's proposals, and for that matter, Senator Warren's debt-forgiveness proposal are shockingly expensive. Any policy that grants student-loan forgiveness to the millions of people who deserve it will cost billions--a quarter of a trillion dollars perhaps or even more.

But let's face facts. Millions of student borrowers are not paying back their loans under the present system. Indeed, Secretary of education Betsy DeVos acknowledged last November that only one debtor out of four is paying down principle and interest on student loans.

Let's admit that the student-loan program is a catastrophe, grant relief to its victims, and design a system of higher education that is not so hideously expensive.

Image credit: Quora.com


References

Adam Looney. A better way to provide relief to student loan borrowers. Brookings Institution, April 30, 2019.






Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Senator Elizabeth's Student-Loan Forgiveness Plan Isn't Radical: The Feds are Already Forgiving Billions of Dollars in Student Debt

Adam Levitin, writing for Credit Slip, made a profound observation about Senator Elizabeth Warren's proposal to forgive massive amounts of student-loan debt.  Her harsh critics, Levitin, writes, moan and grown about the morality of contracts, the unfairness of allowing some student borrowers to escape their legal obligations, and the enormous cost of forgiving billions of dollars of accumulated student-loan debt.

In Levitin's view, these critics are only demonstrating that they don't know anything about how the federal student-loan program works. If they did, Levitin explains, they would know that "we crossed the debt forgiveness Rubicon long, long ago." In fact, enormous debt forgiveness is already "baked into the federal student loan program."

Levitin is absolutely right. Far less than half of student borrowers who have entered into repayment are paying down the principal of their loans. Millions of student-loan debtors have their loans in deferment, which means they aren't paying anything on their debt. Another 7.5 million borrowers are in income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) with their repayment schedules set so low that their monthly payments don't even cover accruing interest on their loan balances.

And then we have the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), which allows qualified public-service workers to make income-based payments for 10 years, after which their loan balances are forgiven. How many people are in the PSLF  program (or think they are in it)? We don't really know, but well over a million student borrowers have applied to become PSLF eligible.

Even Betsy DeVos, Trump's Secretary of Education, publicly admitted that the student loan program is a mess. As DeVos revealed last November, only one borrower out of four are paying down both principal and interest on their student-loan debt.  Almost one out of five borrowers are delinquent on their loans or in default. And 43 percent of student loans, by DeVos's calculation, are currently "in distress."

As Mr. Levitin succinctly put it:
The only real difference between Senator Warren's proposal and the existing forgiveness  feature in the student loan program is whether the forgiveness comes in a fell swoop or is dribbled out over time. Given the federal government's infinite time horizon, the difference is really just an accounting matter. 
In other words, to baldly state the point, millions of student-loan debtors aren't paying back their loans and never will. Probably half of the $1.56 trillion in outstanding student loans will never be paid back.

Levitin argues that all student borrowers should be enrolled in income-based repayment plans by default when they finish their studies.  But I disagree. Putting every college graduate into a 20- or 25-year repayment plan is basically making these degree recipients indentured servants for the government--bound to pay a percentage of their wages to the Department of Education for a majority of their working lives.  If we do that, we will have basically created a permanent underclass of 21st century sharecroppers.

Moreover, as Levitin correctly points out, there is an enormous psychological benefit to Senator Warren's plan, which grants immediate debt forgiveness rather than dribbling it over over two decades or more in income-based repayment plans. "Consumers feel weighed down by the stock of their debt, even if they won't actually have to repay a large chunk of it." Indeed, it is well established that student-loan debt is preventing Americans from buying homes, having children, or saving for their retirement.

And then there is a rarely discussed problem with  the current debt-forgiveness system: tax liability. People whose loans are forgiven after a quarter century of making income-based payments will get tax bills for the amount of their forgiven debt because the IRS considers forgiven loans as taxable income.  Of course that problem could be easily fixed if Congress would enact legislation making forgiven student-loan debt nontaxable.

But Congress hasn't done that. Why? Because our politicians want to pretend that the federal student loan program isn't broken. It's like that old explanation of the Russian economy during the days of the Soviet Union. "The government pretends to pay us," a proletarian explained, "and we pretend to work."

Student-loan debtors: The new sharecroppers



Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Senator Elizabeth Warren's Proposal to Cancel Student Debt: A Great Idea (Just Needs a Little Tweaking)

Earlier this week, Senator Elizabeth Warren astonished the higher education community (and me in particular) by announcing three bold proposals: 1) free undergraduate education at public universities; 2) massive student-loan forgiveness, and 3) a ban on federal funding for for-profit colleges.

Student-loan debtors all over America should stand up and applaud Senator Warren. She is the first national political figure to call for an end to federal aid for the for-profit colleges. This sleazy racket gets about 90 percent of its revenues from federal student-aid money. If Congress shut off that spigot as Warren proposes, most of them would close in less than 30 days.

The for-profit college industry, with its armies of lawyers and lobbyists, has Congress in its back pocket. They surely understand that Senator Warren's proposal is an existential threat. Watch how this sleazy racket starts shifting resources to sabotage Warren's presidential bid.

On the other hand, Warren's call for free college education is not original. Senator Bernie Sanders promised free college during his 2016 presidential run and Senator Kamala Harris has put free college on her campaign platform. Nevertheless, it's a good idea.

It's Warren's third proposal, however, that is the real stunner. She's calling for massive student-loan debt forgiveness for 95 percent of student borrowers.

Senator Warren's student-loan forgiveness plan is a little complicated and has some limitations. she wants to forgive up to $50,000 in student-loan debt but would reduce this benefit for high-income families.  But her basic idea is sound. Why?

First of all, millions of Americans will never pay back their student loans whether Warren's proposal is implemented or not, so we might as well forgive the debt. Almost 8 million people are in income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) that allow them to make monthly payments based on their income and not how much they owe.  For most of these people (almost all of them actually), their loan payments are so small that they don't cover accruing interest.  For people in IBRPs, their debt grows larger each month as interest accrues. They will never pay back the amount they borrowed.

Several million more student-loan borrowers have their loans in deferment while the interest accrues and capitalizes on their original debt. Most of those folks will never repay their loans.

Finally, there is a good argument that forgiving all this student debt--$1.56 trillion--would boost the economy. Unburdened by debt they will never repay, millions of Americans will be able to rejoin the middle class--buy houses and cars, have children, save for retirement.  Indeed, a study by researchers at Bard College's Levy Institute makes that very argument.

Conservatives recoiled in horror at Warren's proposal to forgive student debt, spewing a lot of blather about the sacred nature of contract obligations, the unfairness to people who paid off their student loans, etc.

But in my view, Warren's student-loan forgiveness proposal does not go far enough. Millions of student-loan debtors are entitled to student-loan forgiveness with no $50,000 cap. And millions of parents have co-signed student loans or taken out Parent PLUS loans, and they also are entitled to relief.

So I propose a few tweaks to Senator Warren's brave proposal:

First, all Parent Plus loans should be forgiven immediately for any family with household income under $200,000. And all parents and relatives who cosigned private student loans should be relieved of any legal obligation to repay that debt.

Secondly, instead of instituting a loan-forgiveness plan, I propose that distressed student-debtors be allowed to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy as proposed in Representative John Katko's recently filed bill. People who took out student loans to go to law school and then got rich as corporate lawyers should pay back their loans. But people who otherwise qualify for bankruptcy relief should be able to discharge their student loans like any other consumer debt.

But let's not quibble about the details. Senator Warren's call for free college and student-loan forgiveness are basically good ideas. And her call for shutting off federal aid to the for-profit colleges is stunningly brave.

In my view, it is time to stop heckling Senator Warren about Cherokee-Gate. She is a serious presidential candidate who has made bold and thoughtful policy proposals. Americans should listen to what she has to say about the student-loan crisis because--let's face reality--a lot of student-loan debt will never be paid back.

References

Elizabeth Warren. I'm calling for something truly transformational: Universal free public college and cancellation of student loan debt. Medium, April 22, 2019.

Scott Fullwiler, Stephanie Kelton, Catherine Ruetschlin, and Marshall Steinbaum. The Macroeconomic Effects of Student Debt Cancellation. Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, February 2018.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Senator Elizabeth Warren can survive Cherokee-Gate if she focuses on student-loan crisis

To my surprise, Senator Elizabeth Warren officially announced she is running for President, her head "bloodied but unbowed" by the scandal about her ethnic heritage, which I will call Cherokee-Gate.

Warren is a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, which is remarkably tolerant of screw ups. Senator Ted Kennedy's political career survived Chappaquiddick (although Mary Jo Kopechne did not). Congressman Barney Frank continued serving in Congress after he admitted hiring a male prostitute as a personal aide. Representative Gerry Studds was elected to Congress six more times after he was censored by the House of Representatives for having a sexual relationship with a 17-year old page (the vote was 420 to 3). In fact, Studds' constituents on Martha's Vineyard gave him a standing ovation after his sex scandal broke.

So Liz came take comfort from the fact that Massachusetts probably doesn't give a damn whether she advanced her career by calling herself an American Indian. The Bay State likes to send moral reprobates to Washington DC.

But playing footsie with one's race to get ahead in the Ivy League won't play well in the Rust Belt, where the children of unemployed steel workers lack the temerity to call themselves Chippewas in order to get a college scholarship.

Thus, if Warren's presidential bid is to have legs, she needs to develop a substantive campaign platform to distract potential voters--and she needs to do it fast. How about focusing on the student-loan crisis?

Senator Kamala Harris stole a march on Warren when she came out for free college, so Liz has got to think of something sexier regarding the student-loan fiasco.  Here are some suggestions, which I hope she will embrace:

1) Legislation barring the federal government from garnishing Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters, a proposal that Senator Warren and Senator Claire McCaskill proposed a few years ago.  That's a no-brainer, in my view.

2) Amending federal law to stop the IRS from treating forgiven student-loans as taxable income. Who could argue against that?

3) Capping accrued interest, penalties and refinancing fees on student loans to no more than 50 percent of the original amount borrowed. Currently, we see college borrowers whose student-loan balances have ballooned to three or four times the original loan amount. Surely that' a reasonable proposal.

4) Revising the Bankruptcy Code to allow distressed student-loan debtors to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy like any other unsecured consumer debt. Or if that lift is too heavy, at least let borrowers discharge their private student loans in bankruptcy.

5) Allowing parents to discharge their Parent Plus loans in bankruptcy if they run into financial trouble and can't pay off the loans they took out for their children's college education.

I admit I hold a grudge against Senator Warren for her Cherokee scam. After all, I grew up in Anadarko, Oklahoma; and it never occurred to me to call myself a a Nadarko Indian. Just like Liz, I've got a law degree; and Liz's eyes are bluer than mine.  If I'd played my cards right, I too might have become a Harvard law professor.  I might have been Harvard Law School's first cisgendered person of color!

But all will be forgiven as far as I'm concerned if Senator Warren will only endorse some of the proposals I've listed. And if she would do that, I think she might do very well in the Iowa caucuses.



Thursday, February 7, 2019

The great national shakedown: Student loans are dragging down both young and old

According to New York Times writer David Leonhardt, the Millennial generation is being "fleeced" by an economic system that favors the old over the young. For Millennials, Leonhardt points out, incomes are stagnant, and the wealth gap between Baby Boomers and younger Americans is growing.

"Given these trends," Leonhardt writes, "you'd think the government would be trying to help the young." But it is not doing that, Leonhardt argues. Instead government policy is making it harder for younger Americans to climb the economic ladder.

The biggest example of this myopic governmental policy, according to Leonhardt, is higher education. "Over the past decade, states have cut college funding by an average of 16 percent per student," Leonhardt writes, forcing students to borrow more and more money.

Of course Leonhardt is right. Burdensome student loans are making it more and more difficult for young Americans to buy homes and start families. Literally millions of Americans are not able to service their student-loan obligations and are being forced into long-term income-based repayment plans that can stretch out for two decades or even longer.

But we should be careful about characterizing the student-debt crisis as an outcome of inter-generational injustice because in fact Americans of all ages are being dragged down economically by student-loan debt. As a zerohedge.com writer observed recently:
Though millennials catch the most flack for taking out hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans to pay for worthless college degrees that do little to improve their financial prospects in the "real world," for older Americans who take out loans to finance their education later in life, the repercussions can be ten times worse.
On average, the writer reported, student borrowers in their 60s owed almost $34,000 in student loans in 2017, up 44 percent in just seven years. About 200,000 people age 50 or older are having Social Security checks or other government payments garnished due to student-loan defaults. Total student-loan indebtedness by people in their 60s and older more than doubled in just seven years--from $33 billion in 2010 to $86 billion in 2017.

Most elderly college-loan borrowers accumulated debt to finance their own postsecondary studies but thousands of parents took out Parent Plus loans to finance their children's college education. According to Josh Mitchell of the Wall Street Journal, 330,00 Americans, representing 11 percent of Parent Plus borrowers, had gone at least a year without making a payment on their Parent Plus loans as of September 2015.

Insolvent older Americans have filed bankruptcy to discharge their massive student-loan debt, but the Department of Education and its contracted debt collectors almost always oppose bankruptcy relief. In a Kansas bankruptcy action, Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC) fought bankruptcy relief for Vicky Jo Metz, a 59-year-old woman who had borrowed about $17,000 to attend community college in the early 1990s and had seen her total debt quadruple in size due to accruing interest.

Put Ms. Metz in an income-based repayment plan (IDR), ECMC demanded. But a Kansas bankruptcy court disagreed.  If Metz entered into a 25-year IDR plan, the court observed, she would be 84 years old before her repayment obligations came to an end. Moreover, her debt would continue to grow even if she faithfully made her monthly loan payments for a quarter of a century. The judge sensibly forgave all the accumulated interest on Ms. Metz's debt, requiring her only to pay back the principal.

We should be careful about framing the student-loan crisis as a burden that falls mainly on the young. People of all ages are burdened by staggering levels of student-loan debt.  And it is the elderly who most merit relief.

Our government could implement some modest reforms to help relieve the suffering of older student-loan debtors. For example, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Clair McCaskill supported legislation to stop the garnishment of Social Security checks due to student-loan default.  And the Department of Education could stop opposing bankruptcy relief for older student-loan debtors like Ms. Metz.

As for me, I will support any candidate for the presidency who endorses substantive relief for the millions of Americans of all ages who have been fleeced by the federal student-loan program. In my view, free college in the future, which Senator Kamala Harris proposes, does not go nearly far enough toward reforming the federal student loan program--now totally out of control.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is a train wreck, and $350 million won't fix it.

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF), created by Congress in 2007, allows people in public service jobs to make income-based student-loan payments for ten years. If they make 120 payments, their loan balances will be forgiven and the amount of the forgiven debt isn't taxable to them.

Such a deal!

Thousands of student debtors relied on PSLF to manage huge debt burdens. In fact, as Paul Campos correctly noted in his book Don't Go to Law School (Unless), people who graduate from bottom-tier law schools with six-figure student debt have only one option for paying off their student loans: the PSLF program.

Last fall, the first wave of PSLF participants became eligible to have their loan balances forgiven, but Betsy DeVos' Department of Education put impediments in the way and told some student debtors they were not eligible. The American Bar Association sued DOE after it declined to honor an application by ABA employees for public-service loan forgiveness.

Prompted by Democratic legislators--notably Senator Elizabeth Warren--Congress set aside $350 million to pay off student loans owed by people who failed to qualify for PSLF through no fault of their own.

That's a good first step, but $350 million won't fix this problem. As Jason Delisle explained in a 2016 report for the Brookings Institution, the PSLF program has problems DOE didn't anticipate, and those problems will be expensive to fix.

First of all, public service employment as Congress defined it includes anyone who works for federal, state, or local government and anyone who works for a 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity. As Delisle pointed out  (p. 3), that definition encompasses about one quarter of the American workforce.

In fact, nearly all the doctoral students I've taught over the last 25 years work in public sector jobs; and most of them have student-loan debt, which they expect to shed through the PSLF program. For example, one of my recent doctoral graduates accumulated $140,000 in student-loan debt on her journey to obtaining an Ed.D. degree. PSLF is her only escape hatch for shedding this enormous debt.

Without any question, the PSLF program was poorly designed. The category of eligible participants was defined far too broadly.  Although program defenders say PSLF is intended to aid firefighters, police officers, and teachers, it also benefits public-service lawyers, lobbyists, and accountants.

Furthermore, Congress placed no cap on the amount of student debt that can be forgiven under PSLF. At roughly the same time Congress enacted the PSLF program, it approved the Grad PLUS program, which allows graduate students to borrow the entire cost of their graduate or professional education with no dollar limit.

Apparently DOE was surprised by the enormous debt loads carried by people seeking to shed their student loans through PSLF.  But it should have been obvious to everyone that law-school and business-school graduates with $200,000 in student-loan debt and no prospect of a well-paying private-sector job would look to PSLF to manage their debt.

In short, DOE underestimated the number of people eligible for PSLF and the amount of money they owe. Taxpayers are going to spend a lot more on PSLF than DOE anticipated.

So what to do?

In my view, the Department of Education should forgive student-loan debt for everyone who has accumulated 10 years of public service since the PSLF program was enacted in 2007--regardless of whether the PSLF applicant filled out the proper paperwork. And it should allow everyone currently working in  a public service job to participate in the PSLF program and receive loan forgiveness after they've made 120 payments.

And then Congress needs to amend the program to put a cap on the amount of student-loan debt that can be forgiven under PSLF, and it should limit future participation to people working in hard-to-fill public sector jobs--police officers, fire fighters, teachers, etc.

No doubt about it--PSLF is a colossal train wreck; and it will cost the federal government billions of dollars to fulfill the promises Congress made eleven years ago. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that PSLF and income-based repayment programs together will cost taxpayers $12 billion over the next ten years (as reported by Jason Delisle). The $350 million Congress appropriated last March is but a small down payment.

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is a Train Wreck.

References

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

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

Andrew Kreighbaum. New Fix for Public Service Loans. Insider Higher Ed, May 24, 2018.

Andrew Kreighbaum. Senate Democrats want Public Service Loan Forgiveness Fix in budget agreement. Inside Higher Ed, February 16, 2018.

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

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Forget the Russians: Democrats should focus their energy on removing Betsy DeVos from Trump's Cabinet

Almost 44 million Americans are student-loan debtors, and every single one of them should see Betsy DeVos as their mortal enemy. Since President Trump appointed her as Secretary of Education, DeVos has done nothing to ease the suffering of college borrowers. On the contrary, she has done everything she can to prop up the venal and corrupt for-profit college industry, which has preyed on vulnerable and naive students, many of them minority members or just plain poor.

We have known for years that the for-profit college racket is a cancer. Senator Tom Harkin's 2012 report on the for-profits made that fact absolutely clear. And we know that a high percentage of people who take out student loans to attend these shyster colleges default on their loans. Nearly half of a recent cohort of borrowers who attended for-profit colleges defaulted within five years. It was recently reported that more than half of the students who took out student loans to attend 1,000 colleges and schools had not paid down one dime of their student loans seven years into repayment. Most of those 1,000 institutions are for-profits.

Minorities have been especially injured by the for-profit colleges. Three quarters of African Americans who take out loans to study at a for-profit college and then drop out eventually default.

In my view, the Obama administration did not do a great job of reining in the for-profit racketeers, but it did make an effort. The combined efforts of the Obama Department of Education and several state attorney generals brought down two bad actors: Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech. These two organizations had a total of a half million students and former students at the time they closed and filed for bankruptcy.

And the Obama administration put regulations in place to process students' fraud claims--claims against Corinthian in particular. But Betsy DeVos derailed those regulations and appears intent on protecting the for-profits from fraud claims. She's cooked up a bogus formula for resolving fraud claims, awarding only partial compensation to victims.

As Steve Rhode noted in a recent essay, the DeVos DOE has not provided relief to a single student borrower who was defrauded by a for-profit college, although it has approved around 13,000 claims by former Corinthian students (while rejecting 8,600 pending  claims).

DeVos also nullified an Obama-era regulation that would prohibit the for-profits from forcing their students to sign covenants not to sue as a condition of enrollment.  In addition, DeVos is slow rolling the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), which provides debt relief to people who devote ten years to public service. Indeed, the Trump administration proposes to do away with the PSLF program.

And if that weren't enough, the Republicans sent a bill out of the House Education Committee that would do away with student-loan forgiveness altogether. DeVos has not formally endorsed this bill, but she called it a "starting point."  The bill, if it becomes law, would give student borrowers only two options--pay off their loans in ten years or go into a perpetual income-based program that would not end until the loans are paid off or the student borrower dies. Oh yes, and the bill would eliminate the authority of state attorney generals to police the student loan industry.

And what have the Democrats done in response to DeVos' shockingly obsequious behavior toward the for-profit college racketeers? Not a friggin' thing. Senator Elizabeth Warren--self-proclaimed consumer advocate, writes stern letters to DeVos and other government bureaucrats, but she can't point to a single accomplishment in terms of student-loan relief.

I give the Democrats grudging credit for at least introducing legislation that addresses the student-loan crisis. The Delaney-Katko bill (co-sponsored by 25 Democrats and one Republican) would open the bankruptcy courts to deserving student borrowers, which is really the only comprehensive solution to the crisis. But that bill will never make through a Republican dominated Congress that is totally beholden to the financial industry.

In my mind, the litmus test for Congress in terms of student-loan relief is the Warren-McCaskill bill that would bar the federal government from garnishing the Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters. Passing this bill would at least alleviate the suffering of the 114,000 older Americans who are seeing their Social Security income reduced due to unpaid student loans.

 It is not enough for Senators Warren and McCaskill to simply file this bill; they need to get it to a vote. What Republican would vote against that bill? Can't Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Pelosi walk across the aisle and get Warren-McCaskill bill signed into law with bipartisan support?

Frankly, if there is not enough good will between Republicans and Democrats to enact the Warren-McCaskill Social Security relief bill, which only provides puny student-debt relief, then student debtors should say the hell with both parties and form a third political party.

In the meantime, Democrats should focus on getting Betsy DeVos out of Trump's cabinet. I don't know if her slavish catering to the for-profit-college gang amounts to high crimes and misdemeanors for impeachment purposes, but this I know: Betsy has got to go.

Image credit: GQ Magazine


References

Douglas Belkin, Josh Mitchell, & Melissa Korn. House GOP to Propose Sweeping Changes to Higher EducationWall Street Journal, November 29, 2017.

Jillian Berman. House Republicans seek to roll back state laws protecting student loan borrowers. Marketwatch.com, December 7, 2017.

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. GOP higher ed plan would end student loan forgiveness in repayment program, overhaul federal financial aidWashington Post, December 1, 2017.

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. Dems raise concern about possible links betwen DeVos and student debt collection agencyWashington Post, January 17, 2017.


Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. Elizabeth Warren wants the Education Dept.'s use of earnings data investigated. Washington Post, January 2, 2018.

Paul Fain. Half of black student loan borrowers default, new federal data showInside Higher Ed, October 17, 2017.

Andrea Fuller. Student Debt Payback Far Worse Than BelievedWall Street Journal, January 18, 2017. 

Andrew Kreighbaum. DeVos on Higher Education Act Rewrite. Inside Higher Ed, December 15, 2017.

Jack Moore. Betsy DeVos may be Gearing Up to Screw Over Public Service Workers Who Expect Student Loan Forgiveness. GQ.com, August 3, 2017.

Representative John Delaney press releaseDelaney and Katko File Legislation to Help Americans Struggling with Student Loan Debt, May 5, 2017.

Senator Claire McCaskill Press Release, December 20, 2016. McCaskill-Warren GAO Report Shows Shocking Increase in Student Loan Debt Among Seniors.

Senator Elizabeth Warren Press Release, December 20, 2016. McCaskill-Warren GAO Report Shows Shocking Increase in Student Loan Debt Among Seniors

Steve Rhode. Dept of Ed Puts Fraud First Over Students and Common Sense. Getoutofdebtguy.com, January 3, 2017.

United States Government Accountability Office. Social Security Offsets: Improvement to Program Design Could Better Assist Older Student Borrowers with Obtaining Permitted Relief. Washington DC: Author, December 2016).

United States Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee. For Profit Higher Education: The Failure to Safeguard the Federal Investment and Ensure Student Success. July 2012. Accessible at: http://www.help.senate.gov/imo/media/for_profit_report/PartI.pdf













Saturday, December 2, 2017

Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and John Kennedy (R-LA): Can these two lead a bipartisan effort for student-loan reform?

Congress is more divided along partisan lines than any time since Representative Preston Brooks caned Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate back in 1856.  No major legislation gets passed with bipartisan support, and Republicans and Democrats seem content to be obstructionists rather than try to do something useful.

Is there no public issue on which Republicans and Democrats can agree? I think there is.

More than 40 million Americans have outstanding student loans, and at least 20 million  can't pay them back.  Last year, 1.1 million college borrowers defaulted on their loans--that's an average rate of 3,000 people a day. People who borrowed to attend for-profit colleges have suffered the most. Nearly half of these hapless souls default within five years of beginning repayment. Among African Americans, the pain is even worse. Three fourths of African Americans who took out student loans to attend for-profit schools eventually default.

Big problems require big solutions. As I have said before, the student loan crisis will not abate until for-profit colleges are kicked out of the federal student-loan program and distressed student debtors are allowed to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy.  But these two fixes are politically impossible right now.

But Congress could approve smaller measures of relief  if our elected representatives would just work together. For example:
  • Congress could pass a law barring the federal government from garnishing Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Claire McCaskill introduced a bill along these lines but it has gotten nowhere.
  • All student loans should be refinanced at current, low interest rates, something Hillary Clinton endorsed during the 2016 presidential campaign. 
  • Our tax code needs to be amended to make clear that people who complete income-based repayment programs are not taxed when the remaining balance on their loans is forgiven. Representatives Mark Pocan and Frederica Wilson (both Democrats) introduced a bill to accomplish this reform but it has not become law. 
Who in Congress--Republican or Democrat--could disagree with these reforms? Even our most Neanderthal representatives could not look their constituents in the eye if they voted against any of these proposals.

If this is so, how can Congress kick-start bipartisan student-loan relief?  Here is a feasible scenario: Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, could contact Senators Warren and McCaskill and offer to co-sponsor their bill to stop the government from garnishing Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters.

Why do I nominate Senator Kennedy for this bipartisan overture? Because Kennedy has shown a commendable reluctance to follow the Republican party line on important policy issues. For example, he was one of only two Senate Republicans to vote against a law that allows financial institutions to force their customers to sign mandatory arbitration agreements.

If Senator Kennedy were to come on board for the Warren-McCaskill bill, other Republican Senators might also signal their support.  Once this bill received some publicity, I predict the Warren-McCaskill-Kennedy bill would be adopted into law without a single dissenting vote in either the House or the Senate.

After this small victory, Republicans and Democrats could join together to provide further relief to suffering college borrowers: lowering interest rates on current student loans, imposing restraints on the government's rapacious debt collectors, revising the tax laws so that participants in income-driven repayment plans aren't taxed on forgiven loan balances.

All these reforms are feasible; indeed they might all pass through Congress with little or no opposition. Some broad-minded legislator just needs to reach across the aisle to get the ball rolling.  Senator Kennedy,  please make that call to Senator Warren and assure her you will support the Warren-McCaskill bill.


Representative Preston Brooks canes Senator Charles Sumner, May 22, 1856
References

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. The disturbing trend of people losing Social Security benefits to student debt. Washington Post, December 20, 2016.

James Gill. John Kennedy is quickly becoming 'Senator No' when facing Donald Trump.
Baton Rouge Advocate, December 3, 2017.

Anne Gearan and Abby Phillip. Clinton to propose 3-month hiatus for repayment of  student loansWashington Post, July 5, 2016.

Melanie Lockert. Surprise! Here's When You'll Owe Taxes on Student Loan Forgiveness (and When You Won't). studentloanhero.com (blog), February 27, 2017.

The Wrong Move on Student LoansNew York Times, April 6, 2017.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Trump and DeVos give aid and comfort to For-Profit Colleges: The Democrats should hold hearings on this sleazy industry

As Senator Dick Durbin once observed, the for-profit colleges "own every lobbyist in town." And indeed they do. David Halperin, in a terrific article for The Nation, explained how the for-profit colleges have effectively used lobbyists and lawyers to fight off federal efforts to regulate their sleazy industry.

And now the for-profits don't even have to pay their lobbyists and attorneys. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos pays them directly!

As the New York Times reported, DOE hired two for-profit insiders to help shape DOE's policy toward the for-profit industry. Robert Eitel is taking an unpaid leave of absence from his job as vice president for regulatory legal services at Bridgepoint Education, Inc.  to take a paid job on the Department's "beachhead team." Bridgepoint, a for-profit education provider, is currently being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Former Senator Tom Harkin, a longtime critic of the for-profit college industry, called Bridgepoint a "a scam, an absolute scam."

And DOE also hired Taylor Hansen, a former for-profit lobbyist, to be a consultant. At least Hansen had the decency to resign his DOE position after a public outcry was raised.

These hires, along with DOE's decision to delay compliance deadlines for for-profit colleges to meet DOE's "gainful employment" regulations, are a strong indication that the Trump administration will not vigorously regulate this bandit industry.

Senate Democrats could put enormous pressure on Trump and DeVos if they would hold hearings on the for-profit colleges. I would like to see Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders question some of the so-called educators who run these diploma mills.  Nearly half of the students who took out federal loans to attend for-profit colleges default on their loans within five years of beginning repayment.

And Senate Democrats also need to examine the student-loan debt collectors who slap huge fees on student-loan defaulters and engage in high-pressure collection tactics.  Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC), for example, was hit with punitive damages last year for repeatedly garnishing the wages of a bankrupt student-loan debtor in violation of the Bankruptcy Code's automatic stay provisions.

Senator Warren might ask Janice Hines, ECMC's CEO, to disclose her compensation package--surely well over $1 million a year. And Senator Sanders might ask Hines how ECMC amassed $1 billion in assets.

Great political theater! So why don't the Democrats get busy and schedule those hearings? I tell you why. Too many politicians--Republicans and Democrats alike--are in bed with the for-profit college industry.  Read David Halperin's article in The Nation for details.

Janice Hines: How much money do you make running ECMC?

References

Patricia Cohen. Betsy DeVos's Hiring of For-Profit College Official Raises Impartiality Issues, New York Time, March 17, 2017.

Patricia Cohen. For-Profit Schools, an Obama Target, See New Day Under Trump. New York Times, February 20, 2017.

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. Trump administration rolls back protections in default on student loans. Washington Post, March 17, 2017.

David Halperin. The Perfect Lobby: How One Industry Captured Washington, DC. The Nation, April 3, 2014.

 Shahien Nasiripour. , Betsy DeVos Hands Victory to Loan Firm Tied to Advisor Who Just Quit. Bloomberg News, March 20, 2017.
  
Predator Colleges May Thrive Again (editorial). New York Times, March 23, 2017, p. A 24.




Monday, February 20, 2017

Hillary Clinton had a good idea for addressing the student loan crisis: The Trump administration should implement her plan

Although many people have forgotten, Hillary Clinton introduced a sensible plan for addressing the student loan crisis while she was campaigning for the Presidency. She proposed a 90-day moratorium on student-loan payments to give college debtors an opportunity to refinance their loans at a lower interest rate.

This is a good idea. Forty-three million people have outstanding student loans, and many borrowed at high interest rates--much higher than today's rates.

For example, in the Murray bankruptcy case, decided last year, a married couple in their late forties consolidated their student loans at an interest rate of 9 percent.  At the time of consolidation, the Murrays owed $77,000; and they paid back 70 percent of that amount. Nevertheless, there were periods when the Murrays did not make payments due to financial stress; and they now owe $311,000, with the growth largely due to their loan's high interest rate.

Likewise, Brenda Butler, whose bankruptcy case was also decided last year, borrowed $14,000 and paid back $15,000. Like the Murrays, Ms. Butler's loans were in deferment from time to time. By the time she entered bankruptcy--almost 20 years after graduating from college--she owed $33,000, more than double what she borrowed. Again, the growing loan balance was largely due to accrued interest.

As Senator Elizabeth Warren has pointed out, millions of student-loan debtors took out student loans at interest rates far above the federal government's current cost of borrowing money.  Therefore, if these people were permitted to refinance their loans at a lower interest rate, as Hillary Clinton proposed last year, their student-loan debt would be a lot easier to manage.

As I said, Hillary Clinton's idea is a good one, but I would like to propose an amendment.  In addition to allowing college borrowers to refinance their loans at lower interest rates, the government should forgive all the default penalties that have been assessed against student-loan  defaulters.

Currently there are 8 million people in default on their student loans, and most of them had a 25 percent penalty attached to the amount they borrowed plus accumulated interest. I have a friend whose daughter borrowed $5,000 to attend college, made loan payments for awhile and then defaulted. How much does she owe now? $12,000!

Are there any downsides to Hillary Clinton's proposal as I have amended it? Yes, the student-loan collectors who have gotten rich chasing down student-loan defaulters would make less money.

But there are no downsides for the government. Why? Because millions of student-loan defaulters and millions more in income-driven repayment plans will never pay off their student loans.  The income-driven repayment plans are nothing more than a fraud on the public that allows the government to claim that people in these plans are not in default.

But in actuality they are in default. Educational Credit Management Corporation, for example, wanted to put the Murrays into an income-drive repayment plan that would cost them around $900 a month. The bankruptcy judge, to his credit, rejected that idea, pointing out that the Murrays' debt was accruing interest at the rate of $2,000 a month. Even if the Murrays made regular payments for 25 years, their debt would balloon from $311,000 to about half a million dollars.

So here's my suggestion. Senator Elizabeth Warren should dust off Hillary Clinton's moratorium idea and propose it to the Trump administration, adding a proviso that default penalties would also be waived.

Donald Trump is not everyone's cup of tea, but I believe he comprehends the world of finance.  He will understand that the government is running a shell game, telling the public that the student loan program is under control when in fact it is a train wreck.

If Republicans, Democrats, and President Trump would adopt Hillary Clinton's amended plan, they would provide immense relief to millions of Americans who are being buried alive by their student loans.

Wouldn't that be a lovely outcome?



References

Butler v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, No. 14-71585, Adv. No. 14-07069 (Bankr. C.D. Ill. Jan. 27, 2016).

Anne Gearan and Abby Phillip. Clinton to propose 3-month hiatus for repayment of  student loansWashington Post, July 5, 2016. Accessible at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/07/05/clinton-to-propose-3-month-hiatus-for-repayment-of-student-loans/?

Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 14-22253, ADV. No. 15-6099, 2016 Banrk. LEXIS 4229 (Bankr. D. Kansas, December 8, 2016).

Ruth Tam. Warren: Profits from student loans are 'obscene.' Washington Post, July 17, 2013.




Saturday, February 18, 2017

Louisiana man gets 10 years in prison for stealing a toolbox from a church: A plea for bipartisan cooperation to promote justice

Michael Duplessis, age 34, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing a toolbox from Holy Rosary Catholic Church in St. Amant, Louisiana. Duplessis was sentenced after he agreed to a plea deal to avoid the possibility of  a life sentence.

A life sentence for stealing a toolbox! How could that be?

Michael Duplessis: Sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing a toolbox from Holy Rosary Church

Apparently, Duplessis is a repeat offender. He had previously been convicted of stealing a cellphone charger from a residence and later a boat battery. Under Louisiana's habitual offender law, Duplessis is a three-time loser and could have been sentenced to life in prison for lifting that toolbox. I imagine the plea bargain looked pretty good to him.

Obviously a law that can send a man to prison for the rest of his life for stealing a cellphone charger, a battery and a toolbox is unjust and inhumane. In fact, Pope Francis has said that life sentences are essentially death sentences.

Surely, reasonable people can work together to repeal such a barbaric statute.

So why aren't Republicans and Democrats working together to do that? In fact there are dozens of unjust laws that could be repealed. As I wrote awhile back, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Claire McCaskill introduced a bill to stop the federal government from garnishing the Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters. Who in Congress could oppose such a bill?

Unfortunately, our elected representatives at the state and national level are so caught up in political warfare that nothing gets done. And the mainstream press has become so obsessed with criticizing President Trump that it has abandoned its traditional role of advocating for justice.

Just today, in my local newspaper, Richard Cohen, a syndicated columnist, published an essay that was nothing more than warmed over criticism of President Trump. In case the public had forgotten, Cohen reminded us that Trump unfairly criticized Senator John McCain and the Hispanic judge who presided over the Trump University litigation. Isn't there something more timely and important that Cohen can write about?

Enough already. Republicans and Democrats should look for problems they can solve together, and the press should resume its traditional roll of publicizing injustices like the one perpetuated on poor Mr. Duplessis. This is how democracy works after all, or how it used to work, before everyone in public life began behaving like children.

References

Richard Cohen. Can't anybody play this game? The Advocate (Baton Rouge), February 17, 2017, p. 5B.

David J. Mitchell. Man gets 10 years in burglary of church. The Advocate (Baton Rouge), February 17, 2016.

Kathy Schiffer, Pope Francis Opposes Capital Punishment; Calls Life Sentences for Violent Criminals "A Hidden Death Penalty." Seasons of Grace blog site, October 23, 2014.











Friday, February 10, 2017

President Trump and the Democrats: Washington DC has become a kindergarten

A few moments ago, I watched a video showing protesters blocking Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos from entering a public school--a school where she was scheduled to attend a meeting with educators. The video clip wasn't long but I saw one guy shouting at her and I saw someone trying to block Secretary DeVos's vehicle as she was being driven away.  You should watch this video.

In only a matter of weeks, Washington DC has turned into a giant kindergarten. I suppose President Trump bears part of the blame. He has a distressing tendency to lash out at his detractors with tweet messages that only give his most unreasonable critics publicity and credibility. I wish he would take the high road and simply ignore his hysterical attackers.

But I blame the Democrats for plunging political discourse to the level of a playschool.  The Democrats behaved like children during the nomination process for President Trump's cabinet choices. Why did they do that, knowing that the President had the votes to get them all confirmed?

It would be hard to choose the chief tantrum thrower, but I give my vote to Senator Elizabeth Warren. She showed a shocking level of immaturity when she insinuated on the floor of the Senate that Jeff Sessions, one of her colleagues, is a racist.

A lot of people are upset about Donald Trump being our President. I understand that. But disappointment is no reason for political leaders to jettison civility in public discourse. What will that accomplish?

Furthermore, I believe there is bipartisan support around solving several important public policy problems. As I have already written, surely everyone from Senator Mitch McConnell to Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi can agree that the government should not be garnishing the Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulter.s  And if I'm right about that, why can't Republicans and Democrats unite around the McCaskill-Warren bill to stop that practice?

Over my lifetime, I have dealt with a lot of people who behaved boorishly toward me, tried to bully me, or behaved deceitfully toward me; and those people upset me. But I learned that I was always better off to retain my dignity and to respond to unprofessional behavior in a reasonable and straightforward manner.

Trump's detractors  seem to think that behaving like kindergarten children is the appropriate way to show their dissatisfaction with the 2016 election results. But they are wrong. If the Democrats don't pull themselves together and begin to behave like grownups, this nation is headed for real trouble--and I don't mean just political trouble.




Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Congressional Democrats should pressure DeVos to clean up the student-loan collection business

Democrats are critical of Betsy DeVos, President Trump's new Secretary of Education, but one concern is particularly valid, which is this: DeVos has business ties with a student-loan debt collector.

Those ties, which were explained in a Washington Post article are complicated. Here is what the Post said:
Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos and her husband have extensive financial holdings through their private investment and management firm, RDV Corporation. . . .

RDV is affiliated with LMF Portfolio, a limited liability corporation listed in regulatory filings as one of several firms involved in a $147 million loan to Performant Financial Corp., a debt collection agency in business with the Education Department.

Twenty-three percent of Performant's revenue is directly tied to its dealings with the Education Department, which had 14 contracts worth more than $20 million with the company in fiscal 2016.
According to the Post, Performant lost a recent contract bid with the Department of Education and is protesting DOE's decision with the Government Accountability Office.

DeVos's complicated ties with a student-loan debt college company is a legitimate worry to Democrats because as Secretary of Education, "DeVos would be in a position to influence the award of debt collection, servicing and recovery contracts, in addition to the oversight and monitoring of the contracts." In addition, the Post article points out, DeVos will also "have the authority to revise payments and fees to contractors for rehabilitating past-due debt--all of which has Senate Democrats concerned."

Senator Elizabeth Warren criticized DeVos because DeVos has no experience in higher education. "As Education Secretary," Warren charged, "Betsy DeVos would be in charge of running a $1 trillion student loan bank. She has no experience doing that." In fact, Warren correctly observed, "Betsy DeVos has no experience with student loans, Pell Grants, or public education at all."

Like Senator Warren, most Senate Democrats senators opposed DeVos to be Secretary of Education primarily on the ground that she has no experience in higher education, which is true. But I think a bigger concern is the fear that DeVos won't regulate the for-profit college industry aggressively and that she won't monitor the government's debt collectors, including the student loan guaranty agencies, which have a ruthless record of collection activities against distressed student loan debtors.

I confess I did not take DeVos's ties with a debt collection agency into consideration during the nomination process. I thought, perhaps naively, that DeVos's lack of experience in higher education might be a plus, since she could look at the student loan program with fresh eyes.

And perhaps she will. But the Democrats can smoke her out by moving aggressively for transparency and an accounting in the student-loan collection business and calling for a reduction in the collection fees and penalties the debt collectors are slapping on defaulted student loans.

Senator Warren could lead the charge by holding hearings on the activities of the student loan guaranty agencies: Educational Credit Management Corporation and the others. The Century Foundation reported that four of these agencies, which are nonprofit organizations, each hold $1 billion in assets.

If Secretary DeVos does not move aggressively to rein in the for-profits and clean up the debt collection business, then the Democrats will have a legitimate charge against her. The best way to see how DeVos will handle her new responsibilities is to hold hearings and introduce legislation to clean up the student loan industry.

If DeVos opposes legitimate calls for reforming the federal student loan program, then the Democrats are right about her.

References

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. Dems raise concern about links between DeVos and debt collection agency. Washington Post, January 17, 2017. 

Eugene Scott. Warren grills DeVos: 'I don't see how she can be the Secretary of Education.' CNN, January 18, 2017.

Robert Shireman and Tariq Habash. Have Student Loan Guaranty Agencies Lost Their Way? The Century Foundation, September 29, 2016. Accessible at https://tcf.org/content/report/student-loan-guaranty-agencies-lost-way/

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Betsy DeVos is the new Secretary of Education: How About Bipartisan Support for Senator Warren & Senator McCaskill's Bill to Stop Garnishing Social Security Checks of Elderly Student-Loan Defaulters?

Any excuse for a slumber party, right?

Yesterday, Democrats kept the Senate in session all night to register their opposition to Betsy DeVos as the  new Secretary of Education. But Vice President Pence broke the tie vote in the U.S. Senate this morning, and today Betsy DeVos is President Trump's new Secretary of Education.

Senate Democrats bitterly opposed DeVos's nomination, but that battle is over. Now is a good time for Democrats and Secretary DeVos to cooperate on a common objective--an objective that should attract broad bipartisan political support.

So here's what I suggest: relief for elderly student-loan debtors.

Senators Claire McCaskill and Elizabeth Warren supported a bill in 2015 that would stop the federal government from garnishing the Social Security checks of elderly and disabled people who defaulted on their student loans.  The bill got nowhere.

The Senators also asked the Government Accountability Office to prepare a report on elderly Americans with student loan debt, and GAO delivered that report last December. The report was widely covered by the media and contained some fascinating information.
  • First, "[t]here has been a 10-fold increase in the amount of student debt held by people age 65 or older--from $2 billion in 2005 to $22 billion" in 2015  (quoting the Washington Post).
  • The federal government has increased efforts to garnish Social Security check of student-loan defaulters. According to Senator McCaskill's office, "The number of Americans whose Social Security checks are being garnished by the government to recoup defaulted student loans has increased by 540 percent in the last decade to over 114,000 older borrowers."
  • In 2015, 173,000 Americans had their Social Security income offset due to defaulted student loans. This is a dramatic increase from 2002, when the government only applied offsets to 36,000 Social Security recipients (page 11 of GAO report).
  • Some Social Security recipients whose income was offset lived below the federal poverty guideline and others dropped below the poverty level after their Social Security checks were reduced (p. 27 of GAO report). In fact, as Senator Elizabeth Warren emphasized in a recent press release, "Since 2004, the number of seniors whose Social security benefits have been garnished below the poverty line increased from 8,300 to 67,300."
  • More than 7 million people age 50 and older still owe on student loans, and 870,000 people age 65 and older have student loan debtAmong student-loan borrowers age 65 and older, 37 percent are in default (figure 2, page 10 of GAO report).
  • The amount of money the government collects from Social Security offsets is a pittance compared to overall student debt. The government  only collected $171 million from Social Security offsets in 2015, about $1,000 per garnishee.
  • Most of the money collected from Social Security offsets went toward paying fees and accumulated interest.  "Of the approximately $1.1 billion collected through Social Security offsets from fiscal year 2001 through 2015 from borrowers of all ages, about 71 percent was applied to fees and interest" (p. 19 of GAO report).
Surely, Senators McCaskill and Warren can muster bipartisan support for legislation that will stop the federal government from garnishing the Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters. Perhaps they might ask for a couple of Senate Republicans to join as co-sponsors. I suggest Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. Both voted against Ms. Devos' confirmation.

And I'll bet Senators McCaskill and Warren could get Betsy Devos and the Department of Education to endorse the bill. At least they could ask.

Who would oppose such a bill? I don't think anyone would.  What a wonderful message such a law would send to the American people: the message that our elected leaders--Congress and the Executive Branch--can work together to advance the common good.

On the other hand, if Congress and the U.S. Department of Education can't cooperate to get this wholly beneficial legislation adopted, then the political process is indeed broken.




References

Sandy Baum. Student Debt: Rhetoric and Realities of Higher Education Financingg. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2016.

Jordan Carney. Two GOP senators to vote no on Betsy DeVosThe Hill, February 7, 2017.

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. The disturbing trend of losing Social Security benefits to student debt. Wall Street Journal, December 20, 2016.

Senator Claire McCaskill Press Release, December 20, 2016. McCaskill-Warren GAO Report Shows Shocking Increase in Student Loan Debt Among Seniors.

Senator Elizabeth Warren Press Release, December 20, 2016. McCaskill-Warren GAO Report Shows Shocking Increase in Student Loan Debt Among Seniors

United States Government Accountability Office. Social Security Offsets: Improvement to Program Design Could Better Assist Older Student Borrowers with Obtaining Permitted Relief. Washington DC: Author, December 2016).

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Alan and Catherine Murray are Poster Children for the Student Loan Crisis: Income-Driven Repayment Plans for Distressed Student-Loan Debtors are Insane

In a recent post, I wrote about Alan and Catherine Murray, who won a partial discharge of their student-loan debt in a bankruptcy case decided in December 2016.  Educational Credit Management (ECMC), the creditor in their case, is appealing the decision. We should all hope ECMC loses the appeal, because the Murrays are the poster children for the student-loan crisis.

Alan and Catherine Murray: Poster Children for the Student-Loan Crisis

Alan and Catherine Murray, a married couple in their late forties, took out 31 federal student loans to get bachelor's degrees and master's degrees in the early 1990s. In all, they borrowed about $77,000, not an unreasonable amount, given the fact that they used the loans to get a total of four degrees.

In 1996, the Murrays consolidated all those loans, a sensible thing to do; and they began making payments on the consolidated loans at 9 percent interest.  Over the years they made payments totally $58,000--or 70 percent of what they borrowed.

Nevertheless, during some periods, the Murrays obtained economic hardship deferments on their loans, which allowed them to skip some payments. Interest continued to accrue, however; and by 2014, when the Murrays filed for bankruptcy, their $77,000 debt had ballooned to $311,000!

Fortunately for the Murrays, Judge Dale Somers, a Kansas bankruptcy judge, granted them a partial discharge of their massive debt. Judge Somers ruled that the Murrays had managed their student loans in good faith, but they would never be able to pay back the $311,000 they owed. Very sensibly, he reduced their debt to $77,000, which is the amount they borrowed, and canceled all the accumulated interest.

 Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC), the Murrays' student-loan creditor, appealed Judge Somers' ruling. The Murrays should have been placed in an income-driven repayment plan (IDR), ECMC argued, which would have required them to pay about $1,000 a month for a period of 20 years.

Obviously, ECMC's argument is insane. As Judge Somers pointed out, interest was accruing on the Murrays' debt at the rate of almost $2,000 a month. Thus ECMC's proposed payment schedule would have resulted in the Murrays' debt growing by a thousand dollars a month even if they faithfully made their loan payments. By the end of their 20-year payment term, their total debt would have grown to at least two thirds of a million dollars.

The Murrays' case is not atypical: Billions of dollars in student loans are negatively amortizing

You might think the Murray case is an anomaly, but it is not. Millions of people took out student loans, made payments in good faith, and wound up owing two, three, or even four times what they borrowed. In other words, millions of student loans are negatively amortizing--they are growing larger, not smaller, during the repayment period.

For example, Brenda Butler, whose bankruptcy case was decided last year, borrowed $14,000 to get a bachelor's degree in English from Chapman University, which she obtained in 1995. Like the Murrays, she made good faith efforts to pay off her loans, but she was unemployed from time to time and could not always make her loan payments.

By the time Butler filed for bankruptcy in 2014, her debt had doubled to $32,000, even though she had made payments totally $15,000--a little more than the amount she borrowed.

Unfortunately for Ms. Butler, her bankruptcy judge was not as compassionate as the Murrays' judge. The judge ruled that Butler should stay on a 25-year repayment plant, which would terminate in 2037, 42 years after she graduated from Chapman University.

Here is sad reality. Millions of people are seeing their total student-loan indebtedness go up--not down--after they begin repayment. According to the Brookings Institution,  more than half of the 2012 cohort of student-loan borrowers saw their total indebtedness go up two years after beginning the repayment phase.  Among students who attended for-profit colleges, three out of four saw their loan balances grow larger two years into repayment.

An analysis by Inside Higher Ed concluded that less that half of college borrowers (47 percent) had made any progress on paying off their student loans 5 years into repayment. In the for-profit sector, only about a third (35 percent) had paid anything down on their student loans  over a 5-year period.

And the Wall Street Journal reported recently that half the students at more than a thousand colleges and schools had not reduced their loan balances by one dime seven years after their repayment obligations began.

The Federal Student Loan Program is a Train Wreck

Awhile back, Senator Elizabeth Warren accused the federal government of making "obscene" profits on student loans because the interest rates were higher than the government's cost of borrowing money. Warren's charge might have been true if people were paying back their loans, but they are not.

Eight million people are in default and millions more are seeing their student-loan balances grow larger with each passing month.  The Murrays are the poster children for this tragedy because they handled their loans in good faith and still wound up owing four times what they borrowed.

In short, the federal student loan program is a train wreck. Judge Somers' solution for the Murrays was to wipe out the accrued interest on their debt and to simply require them to pay back the principle. This is the only sensible way to deal with the massive problem of negative amortization.



References

Butler v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, No. 14-71585, Adv. No. 14-07069 (Bankr. C.D. Ill. Jan. 27, 2016).

Paul Fain. Feds' data error inflated loan repayment rates on the College Scoreboard. Inside Higher Ed, January 16, 2017.

Andrea Fuller. Student Debt Payback Far Worse Than BelievedWall Street Journal, January 18, 2017.

Adam Looney & Constantine Yannelis, A crisis in student loans? How changes in the characteristics of borrowers and in the institutions they attended contributed to rising default ratesWashington, DC: Brookings Institution (2015).

Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 14-22253, ADV. No. 15-6099, 2016 Banrk. LEXIS 4229 (Bankr. D. Kansas, December 8, 2016).

Ruth Tam. Warren: Profits from student loans are 'obscene.' Washington Post, July 17, 2013.