Showing posts with label for-profit colleges. Show all posts
Showing posts with label for-profit colleges. Show all posts

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Dear taxpayers: I hope you approve of New York University's lavish compensation policy because you are paying for it

American Enterprise Institute's report on graduate schools with low rates of graduate-student repayment included a list of 20 universities where graduate students had above average non-repayment rates ranked by the amount of student loans graduate students took out. New York University is at the top of the list.

According to AEI's analysis, the 2009 cohort of NYU graduate- and professional-school students had amassed $1.135 billion in student loans. That's right: billion with a B. Five years later, more than a third of those students (34 percent) had not paid down their student loans by one dime.

New York University, you may recall, has been criticized for its lavish compensation packages for senior executives.  NYU won't disclose how much it is paying Andrew Hamilton, its current president. But John Sexton, Hamilton's showy predecessor, made $1.5 million in 2012-2013.  He retired with $800,000 in annual retirement income and a "length-of-service" bonus of $2.5 million.

Surely Hamilton is making as least as much as Sexton did. And NYU graciously updated Hamilton's penthouse apartment in Greenwich Village. How much did that cost? NYU won't say.

How does NYU manage to pay its executives so much? Does it have a large endowment? Not particularly.  NYU's total endowment funds amount to only $4.1 billion, about one ninth the size of Harvard's ($35.6 billion).

NYU gets a lot of its revenue from federal student loans. As just noted, graduate students in the 2009 cohort borrowed over $1 billion. That would be OK with taxpayers if NYU's graduate students paid back what they owe. But a lot of them are not.

AEI's list of universities with below average repayment rates for graduate students reveals that the top 15 schools with high levels of student-loan debt and below average rates of repayment are all private universities. Here's the list, along with the percentage of graduate students in the 2009 cohort who had not reduced the principal of their loans by even a dollar after 5 years.

New York University (34%)
University of Phoenix (36%)
Nova Southeastern University (33%)
Walden University (33%)
Capella University (34%)
Argosy University (37%)
Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science (51%)
Keller Graduate School of Management (DeVry) (34%)
Midwestern University (22%)
Webster University (34%)
Grand Canyon University (28%)
National University--La Jolla (26%)
Strayer University (49%)
Thomas M. Cooley Law School (29%)
Touro College-Main Campus Midtown (22%)

What is the annual compensation for the senior executives at these institutions? Who knows? As private institutions, these universities are not required to disclose their compensation packages. But you can bet it is in the high six figures at all 15 universities.

So, Mr. and Ms. Taxpayer, I hope you approve of the federal government's student-loan program, which is shoveling money to private universities, because you are paying for a lot of lavish spending. Graduate students in particular are borrowing extraordinary amounts of money, and a high percentage of them have not paid any of it back five years into the repayment phase of their loans.


NYU president Andrew Hamilton:
Thanks, America! I love my swell penthouse apartment!

References

Jason Delisle. Graduate Schools with the Lowest Rates of Student Loan Repayment. American Enterprise Institute, June 2018.

Abby Ohlheiser. John Sexton will officially leave NYU in 2016. Atlantic, August 14, 2013.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Barbara Erkson v. U.S. Department of Education: A 64-year-old woman, struggling to make ends meet, discharges $107,000 in student loans in bankruptcy

Barbara Erkson, an unmarried 64-year-old woman, filed an adversary proceeding in a Maine bankruptcy court  in an attempt to discharge $107,000 in student loans in bankruptcy. The U.S. Department of Education and Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC) vigorously objected, but Judge Peter Carey rejected their heartless arguments and granted Ms. Erkson a full discharge.

This is Ms. Erkson's story as told by Judge Carey. In 1998, when she was in her forties, Erkson enrolled at Vermont College of Norwich University to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies. She took out student loans to finance her studies and graduated in 2002 with considerable debt.

After graduating, Erkson worked at various community agencies in order to obtain the conditional licenses necessary to work as a licensed counselor. From 2002 through 2008, she worked at a private counseling service, but her job was terminated due to funding constraints. At some point she defaulted on her undergraduate loans.

Erkson then entered graduate school at Salve Regina University, and she obtained a master of arts degree in Holistic Counseling in 2011. Thereafter she held a series of counseling jobs and maintained a private practice, but she did not make enough money to sustain herself and pay back her student loans.

The U.S. Department of Education and ECMC objected furiously to releasing Erkson from her student debt. She had not shown good faith, they said, because she had not agreed to enter a long-term income-based repayment plan.  They also objected to some of Erkson's expenses. She should not have hired a dog walker, they contended. Nor should she be leasing an automobile. They even criticized her for going to graduate school since her master's degree did not improve her income level.

Fortunately for Barbara Erkson, Judge Carey is a compassionate man; and he waved aside all her creditors' cold-hearted objections.
Plaintiff impresses the Court as a hard-working woman who chose an area of study which, due to changes in federal laws and regulations, proved less profitable than she anticipated. If the Court applied such stringent standards to all student loan challenges, anyone who failed to correctly read the tea leaves of the future and incurred student debt in an area that technology, societal preferences, or legislation later made obsolete would be ineligible for a discharge. The [Bankruptcy] Code simply does not go so far. 
Judge Carey rejected the creditors' argument that Erkson handled her loans in bad faith. They pointed out that her loans were almost always in deferment, forbearance or in default and thus she had made relatively few loan payments. Nevertheless, Judge Carey wrote, "neither DOE nor ECMC challenged [Erkson's] testimony that she struggled to find full time work until 2002 or that, from 2002 until 2008, she did not generate sufficient income to maintain a minimal standard of living and repay her student loans." In Judge Carey's opinion, Erkson's failure to make any meaningful loan payments was "the result of her meager income and not evidence of bad faith."

Interestingly, Erkson argued that she suffered from a hearing impairment that hindered her efforts to find and keep a good job. Judge Carey accepted Erkson's testimony on that point, but he made clear his decision did not turn on Erkson's health situation. Her current financial condition and future economic prospects entitled Erkson to a bankruptcy discharge of her student loans, the judge ruled, without considering her hearing impairment.

What are we to make of the Erkson decision?

First, DOE and ECMC are bullies. Both agencies almost always oppose undue-hardship discharges for distressed student-loan debtors, regardless of individual circumstances.  They always argue that debtors handled their student loans in bad faith and that they should be denied a discharge if they fail to sign up for a 25-year repayment plan. They always quibble about a debtor's routine expenses and pore over a debtor's every expenditure in humiliating detail.

Second, the Erkson decision is a good one for millions of people who took out student loans to pursue careers that did not work out like they planned. How many people have enrolled in chicken-shit for-profit colleges, third-tier law schools, or overpriced professional programs only to learn their educational investments would never pay off?

In the eyes of the U.S. Department of Education and ECMC, DOE's corporate hit man, such people are losers; and their inability to pay back their student loans is prima facie evidence of bad faith.

But Judge Carey disagreed. People who make a sincere effort to find a good job and wind up unable to pay back their student loans while maintaining a minimal standard of living are entitled to bankruptcy relief: period. It's time DOE and ECMC get that message.

The Department of Education and ECMC are bullies.


References

Erkson v. U.S. Department of Education, 582 B.R. 542 (Bankr. D. Me. 2018).



Saturday, June 16, 2018

The New York Times lambasts Republicans and Betsy DeVos for catering to for-profit colleges: The Gray Lady overlooks culpable Democrats

In an editorial last month, The New York Times lambasted Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration and congressional Republicans for protecting the greasy for-profit college industry. "Try as they might," the Times observed, "the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress cannot disguise that they continue to do the bidding of the for-profit industry, which has saddled working-class students--including veterans--with crushing debt while providing useless degrees, or no degrees at all."

Indeed, the Times grumbled, the Department of Education, under DeVos, "has undermined investigations of the [for-profit college] industry by marginalizing or reassigning lawyers and investigators . . ." Major investigations, the Times reported, have been abandoned, including investigations into the activities of DeVry Education Group, Bridgepoint Education and Career Education Corporation.

The Times is right of course. Betsy DeVos is the shameless lapdog of the for-profit college crowd, which continues to prey on unsophisticated Americans seeking to get a worthwhile education.  The Times predicts that DeVos' behavior may come back to bite the Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections, and perhaps there will be repercussions at the ballot box.

But to be fair, servile obsequiousness to the for-profit colleges is bipartisan. Both Democrats and Republicans have taken campaign contributions from these bandits and both parties have succumbed to the blandishments of the for-profit lobbyists.

In fact, The Nation reported nearly five years ago that two Democratic congressmen were leading an effort to protect for-profit colleges from meaningful regulation.  According to The Nation's reporter Lee Fang, Representative Rob Andrews from New Jersey and Florida congressman Alcee Hastings had taken thousands of dollars from for-profit college executives and for-profit backed political committees.

Andrews is no longer in Congress, but Alcee Hastings is still in office. This is the same Hastings, by the way, who, while sitting as a federal district judge, was charged with bribery, perjury and falsifying documents.  The U.S. Senate impeached him and removed him from his judicial post in 1989.

If the Democrats want to distinguish themselves from their Republican colleagues, they need to speak out forthrightly about the for-profit-college scandal. In my view, the for-profit racketeers cannot be tamed through tougher regulations. The only way to stop these predators from stalking unsuspecting and naive young Americans is to shut the industry down. But the Democrats don't have the courage to speak out against the for-profit mobsters. They seem to hope Americans will overlook their silence about the the for-profit college industry and pin all the blame on the Republicans.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Florida): Friend of the for-profit college industry


References

Editorial. Predatory Colleges, Freed to Fleece Students. New York Times, May 22, 2018.

Lee Fang. Two House Democrats Lead Effort to Protect For-Profit Colleges, Betraying Students and Vets. The Nation, December 13, 2013.

United States Senate.  The Impeachment Trial of Alcee L. Hastings (1989) U.S. District Judge, Florida.


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Parent PLUS loans: African American families are being exploited by HBCUs

Rachel Fishman wrote a report for New America titled "The Wealth Gap PLUS Debt: How Federal Loans Exacerbate Inequality for Black Families."   But a better titled would have been this: "The Parent PLUS student-loan program screws African American families."

Parent PLUS is a federal student loan program that allows parents to take out student loans for their children's postsecondary education. Parents can borrow up to the student's total cost of attending the college of their choice--there is no dollar cap on the amount that parents can borrow.

Originally, the Parent PLUS program had very low eligibility criteria, and the Department of Education was making loans to parents who had a history of bad debts. DOE tightened the criteria in 2011, which raised an outcry from HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities).

HBCUs favor Parent PLUS loans because DOE does not report default rates on these loans and does not penalizes colleges for high Parent PLUS default rates.  As Fishman explained, "Parent PLUS loans are not included in CDR [cohort default rate] calculations, rendering them a no-strings-attached revenue source for colleges and universities" (P. 9). Indeed, for many colleges, "Parent PLUS loans are like grants; they get money from the federal government and the parent is on the hook to repay."

In response to strenuous protests from HBCUs, the Obama administration backed off on its efforts to make borrowing standards more rigorous, and the amount of money parents borrow under the program has increased.  According to Fishman, the percent of Parent PLUS borrowers with debt over $50,000 increased from 3 percent in 2000 to 13 percent in 2014 (p. 19).

Basically, the Department of Education is toadying to the HBCUs by loaning money recklessly to African American families that probably can't pay it back. In fact, Fishman reported that one third of African American parents taking out PLUS loans had incomes so low they were able to make zero estimated family contributions (EFC) to their children's college costs.

As Fishman points out, Parent PLUS loans adds to  a family's total debt for putting a child through college. Black families with zero EFC accumulate an average of $33,721 in "intergenerational indebtedness," which includes an average of $11,000 in PLUS loans in addition to the amount borrowed by the students themselves.

Fishman's report adds to a growing body of evidence showing that African Americans are getting screwed by the federal student loan program. Ben Miller, writing for the Center for American Progress (as reported by Fishman) "found that 12 years after entering college, the median Black borrower owed more than the original amount borrowed."  And default rates for African American college graduates is almost triple the rate for white graduates: 25 percent for black graduates and only 9 percent for white graduates.

A Brookings Institution report also calculates high default rates for black student borrowers. Judith Scott's Brookings report estimates that 70 percent of African American borrowers in the  2003-2004 cohort will ultimately default.

And the student-loan default rate for African Americans who drop out of for-profit schools without graduating is catastrophic.  Three out of four black students who borrow money to attend a for-profit institution and drop out before graduating default on their student loans.

But who gives a damn if the federal student loan program screws African American students and their families? HBCUs like the Parent PLUS program, because the Parent PLUS default rate doesn't penalize the colleges.  Parent PLUS money is essentially "free money" to a HBCU although one third of African American families who take out these loans show zero ability to repay.

References

Rachel Fishman. The Wealth Gap PLUS. How Federal Loans Exacerbate Inequality of Black Families. New America.org, May 2018.

Andrew Kreighbaum. How Parent Plus Worsens the Racial Wealth Gap. Inside Higher Ed, May 15, 2018.










Saturday, May 5, 2018

Fail State, Alexander Shebanow's Documentary about For-Profit Colleges, is an excellent movie. Go see it.

A few nights ago, I watched Fail State, Alexander Shebanow's documentary movie about the seedy for-profit college industry.  Director Shebanow did a masterful job of explaining how for-profit colleges have used deceptive recruiting techniques, strategic campaign contributions, and congressional lobbyists to rip off vulnerable Americans: minorities, the poor, and first generation college students. Over the years, the for-profits have sucked up billions of dollars in federal student-aid money while offering shoddy education programs that left their students with enormous student-loan debt and no work skills.

Shebanow's movie has two broad themes. First, the director shows the for-profit college industry for what it is: a quasi-criminal enterprise that undermines the integrity of higher education. Second, Shebanow's story showcases community colleges as the proper institutions for offering inexpensive but useful postsecondary training.

The student-loan crisis is a long, sad saga of corruption and deceit, and no 90-minute movie can cover the whole story. Nevertheless, I wish Fail State had touched on some of the reforms that could offer student-loan victims relief from crushing debt.

About 20 million people are burdened by student loans they can't pay back. This number includes students who attended for-profit colleges, private nonprofit schools, and state universities.  The Federal Reserve Bank of New York has documented that this huge level of indebtedness is undermining the national economy. In my view, the only sensible thing to do is open up the bankruptcy courts to theses sufferers and give them an opportunity for a fresh start, freed from debs they cannot pay.

Moreover, although Shebanow's indictment of the for-profit colleges is damning and irrefutable, I wish the movie had more clearly stated that this industry needs to be completely shut down. Trying to clean up this gangster industry by enacting tougher regulations will be about as effective as trying evangelize a crocodile.

In a sense, Fail State is much like The Big Short, the star-studded movie about the subprime mortgage meltdown. Both stories are sagas about greed, corruption, and governmental indifference. Shebanow directed a fine movie, and everyone thinking about enrolling at a for-profit college should be required to see it before signing on the dotted line.


References

Zachary Bleemer, et al. Echoes of Rising Tuition in Students' Borrowing, Educational Attainment, and Homeownership in Post-Recession America. Federal Reserve Bank of New York Staff Report No. 820, July 2017.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Attention, Student-Loan Debtors: You Are Being Evicted from the Middle Class

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City tells the story of how greed and the nation's legal system have driven poor Americans to the brink of homelessness.  Author Matthew Desmond follows the lives of eight Milwaukee residents who scramble from day to day to avoid being evicted from their homes and thrown into the street. It is a good read, and I highly recommend it.

As I read Desmond's book, I was struck by the similarity between the low-income housing crisis and the student-loan crisis.  As Martin Luther King observed, "Every condition exists simply because someone profits by its existence." Slumlords profit from renting substandard housing to the poor; stockholders and hedge fund owners profit from for-profit colleges.

And slumlords and for-profit colleges both rely on the government to help them exploit the poor. Slumlords can call on the local sheriff to evict tenants for nonpayment; and for-profit colleges rely on Betsy DeVos's Department of Education to protect their venal interests. Landlord-tenant laws favor the landlords, and the Bankruptcy Code protects the banks, which loan money to students at exorbitant interest rates, knowing that student debtors will find it almost impossible to discharge their onerous debts in the bankruptcy courts.

As Desmond wrote in Evicted, "The United States was founded on the noble idea that people have 'certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."  Indeed, the nation's founders considered these rights to be God-given and "essential to the American character."

Desmond argues that "the ideal of liberty has always incorporated not only religious and civil freedoms but also the right to flourish." In twenty-first century America, people need decent housing to flourish and they also need freely accessible education.

But our federal student-loan program is designed to extinguish the American right to pursue happiness and to flourish. The federal government allows corrupt for-profit colleges to lure vulnerable people into enrolling in education programs that are far too expensive and often worthless. The victims are forced to take out student loans. And the federal government stands by to be every student's sugar daddy--distributing about $150 billion a year in various forms of student aid.

The for-profit colleges get more than their fair share of federal money. In fact, many of them receive from 80 to 90 percent of their entire operating budgets from federal student loans and federal Pell grants.

Then when student-loan victims are unable to find well-paying jobs to service their debt, our once generous government becomes a tyrant. The Department of Education opposes bankruptcy relief for nearly everyone--even a quadriplegic (Myhre v. U.S. Department of Education, 2013) and people on the edge of homelessness (Abney v. U.S. Department of Education, 2015).

America will not begin solving the student-loan crisis until our nation's leaders acknowledge that the federal student-loan program is a massive human rights violation that is evicting millions of people from the middle class. Students who took out loans to attend for-profit colleges have been especially hard hit; almost half the students who took out loans to attend a for-profit college default on their loans within five years.

Student debtors are defaulting at the rate of 3,000 people a day, which ruins their credit and leaves them vulnerable to having their wages garnished. The government can even seize part of an elderly defaulter's Social Security check.

How can higher education return to decency and sanity? First, we must remove Betsy DeVos from her post as Secretary of Education. DeVos is about as qualified to run the Department of Education as the late Charlie Manson. And then we must revise the Bankruptcy Code to allow honest but unfortunate student debtors to discharge their loans in bankruptcy court. And finally, we must shut down the for-profit college industry, which DeVos so assiduously protects.

Student-loan debtors: Evicted from the middle class
References

Abney v. U.S. Department of Education, 540 B.R. 681 (Bankr. W.D. Mo. 2015).

Matthew Desmond. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. New York: Broadway Books, 2016.

Myhre v. U.S. Department of Education, 503 B.R. 698 (W.D. Wis. 2013).

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



Friday, January 12, 2018

Betsy DeVos is trying to nullify a federal law intended to give defrauded students relief from student loans: Our government is shielding crooks

Betsy DeVos is in bed with the corrupt for-profit college industry. Her slavish pandering to the for-profit-college racketeers is truly shocking. Now she is trying to nullify a law that gives relief to students who were defrauded by for-profit colleges.

In 1994, Congress passed a law giving students an avenue for getting their student loans discharged if they were defrauded by the college they attended.  The law was not used much until Corinthian Colleges--a for-profit college group--collapsed and filed for bankruptcy. At the time of its demise, Corinthian had over 300,000 students or former students; and several thousand filed so-called borrower defense applications seeking to get their student loans discharged on the grounds they were defrauded by Corinthian.

The Obama administration adopted regulations for implementing the borrower-defense rule, which provided a regulatory avenue for reviewing fraud claims. But Betsy DeVos nullified those regulations. DeVos said the Obama regulations would allow students to wrongly obtain "free money" at the expense of for-profit colleges.

DeVos launched a new round of administrative review, and DOE said the new regulations would probably not be implemented until 2019. The DeVos DOE's new borrower-defense rules are very different from what the Obama administration had fashioned. In fact, the DeVos regulations, if implemented, will basically invalidate the federal borrower-defense statute altogether.

David Halperin, writing in Huffington Post, observed that "the DeVos-Trump draft borrower defense rules . . . essentially nullify the 1994 law that gives former students who are ripped off by their colleges . . . the right to seek cancellation of their student loans."

As Halperin explained, the DeVos rules erect "numerous and redundant barriers to students getting the benefit of that law." The DeVos draft rules are so draconian that a representative of the for-profit college industry admitted that the new rules "feels a little stacked against the student."

For example, under the rules DeVos proposes, students will have to prove their fraud claims by "clear and convincing evidence." This is a very high legal barrier, especially when you consider that the colleges--not the complaining students--have access to the evidence of fraud.

Of course, state attorneys general have been suing the for-profits for fraud.  Surely a former student could present a judgment for fraud against a for-profit college as evidence that the student herself is a fraud victim. No, DeVos' new regulations will not permit a fraud victim to present a judgment against a for-profit college as part of the student's own fraud claim. As Steve Rhode wrote recently:
The proposed forgiveness plan is to eliminate any successful judgment against a school by an Attorney General as proof of deception. Instead, the individual student would have to obtain an individual judgment against the school. This would require a legal action that nearly all students would never be able to afford to file.
If the DeVos rules go into effect, fraud victims will rarely if ever obtain relief from their student loans. Abbey Shafroth, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, said this: "I really think [the DeVos rules] would effectively do away with borrowers' ability to get relief in almost all circumstances."

The DeVos Department of Education's proposed borrower-defense rules demonstrate that it has abandoned all pretense of fairness and decency toward student-loan debtors. DeVos herself is nothing more than obsequious book licker for the for-profit college industry, and Congress seems unable or unwilling to rein her in.

Last July, Eighteen Democratic state Attorneys General sued DeVos and the Department of Education, seeking to force the Department to implement the Obama-era borrower defense rules. I hope they are successful because what DeVos is essentially trying to do is eviscerate a 1994 statute passed by Congress for the express purpose of  providing student fraud victims with well deserved relief from their student loans.




References

David Halperin. Backing DeVos Repeal of Obama Rules, For-Profit Colleges Vilify Students. Huffington Post, January 9, 2018.

Andrew Kreighbaum. Few Details on Tougher Borrower-Relief Standards. Inside Higher Ed, January 9, 2018.

Andrew Kreighbaum. Devos: Borrower-Defense Rule Offered 'Free Money'Inside Higher Ed, September 26, 2017.

Steve Rhode. Dept of Ed Puts Fraud First Over Students and Common Sense. Getoutofdebtguy.org (blog), January 3, 2018.

Editorial: Scamming for-profit schools roar back under Betsy DeVos. Chicago Sun-Times, December 25, 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













Monday, November 6, 2017

Hawaii Supreme Court strikes down a school's arbitration agreement as unconscionable: For-profit colleges take notice

The Hawai'i Supreme Court strikes down a school's arbitration agreement as unconscionable

Arbitration agreements have long been favored by the courts, which traditionally have seen arbitration as an inexpensive alternative to lengthy, costly litigation. For years, courts have routinely upheld the enforceability of arbitration agreements and they have been exceedingly reluctant to overturn an arbitrator's decision.

But in recent years, courts in some states have become increasingly willing to invalidate an arbitration agreement when it is clear that the agreement contains terms that are unfair.  Recently, the Hawai'i Supreme Court, in the case of Gabriel v. Island Pacific Academy, ruled that an arbitration agreement that blocked a teacher from suing her former employer was unconscionable.

Laura Gabriel filed suit in a Hawai'i state court, charging that Island Pacific Academy had retaliated against her for filing a sex discrimination complaint by refusing to hire her for the 2014-2015 school year. Gabriel had signed an arbitration agreement promising to settle disputes with her employer through arbitration, and Island Pacific asked the trial court to dismiss Gabriel's complaint and to force Gabriel to pursue her claims against the school through arbitration.

The trial court ruled that the arbitration agreement was enforceable except for one provision. The agreement required Gabriel to deposit one half of the estimated arbitration costs as a precondition to arbitration. This fee amounted to $10,200, which equaled one-third to one-fourth of Gabriel's annual salary.  The trial judge ruled that this provision was unconscionable and ordered Island Pacific to pay all arbitration costs when Gabriel's claims were arbitrated.

Gabriel appealed, and the Hawai'i Supreme Court reversed. The supreme court agreed with the lower court that the arbitration agreement's fee-splitting provision was unconscionable but concluded that
unconscionable terms pervaded the whole agreement and thus the agreement should be invalidated in its entirety.

In addition to the fee-splitting provision, the Hawai'i Supreme Court identified another uunfair provision. The agreement required Gabriel to pay Island Pacific's total "damages, costs, expenses and attorney's fees" if she challenged the arbitration agreement in court even if she won her lawsuit. "This provision is plainly substantively unconscionable," Hawai'i's highest court ruled, "and must be stricken as well."

After the fee-splitting provision and the cost-shifting provision were struck from the agreement, the court pointed, the agreement only contained one sentence. Therefore, it was appropriate to invalidate the whole agreement and allow Gabriel to sue the school in court.

For-profit colleges force their students to agree not to sue them as a condition of enrollment

Although the Island Pacific lawsuit did not involve a postsecondary student, it may be relevant to college students who attend for-profit colleges. Many of these students signed arbitration agreements as a condition of enrollment and then discovered that they had been defrauded.

These students might be able to get those arbitration agreements invalidated in a state court on the grounds that the agreements are unconscionable. No doubt many of these agreements have cost-shifting and fee-splitting provisions like the Island Pacific agreement.

Last year, a California appellate court invalidated an arbitration agreement forced on students attending a for-profit program on the grounds of basic unfairness. Among other things, the agreement required California students to arbitrate their claims in Indiana.

Likewise, the New Jersey Supreme Court struck down an arbitration provision in a for-profit school's student-enrollment agreement simply because the clause was printed in very small type and was phrased in such murky language that students might not know they were giving up legal rights by signing the agreement.

Congress and the Department of Education are shielding fraudulent for-profit colleges from being sued

Although state courts seem increasingly inclined to strike down arbitration agreements that disfavor vulnerable parties, Congress and the Department of Education have acted counter to this judicial impulse.

For example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently tried to stop corporate entities from using arbitration agreements to block lawsuits against them. The CFPB adopted a rule that would have barred financial services institutions from requiring their customers to sign arbitration agreements.

But Congress--acting in the interest of corporations and not consumers--passed a law overturning the CFPB rule.  In the Senate, the vote was tied at 50 to 50. Not a single Democratic senator voted for the bill and two Republican senators (Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and Louisiana's John Kennedy) voted against it. Vice President Mike Pence broke the tie by joining with Republican colleagues to trash the CFPB rule.

Likewise, the Obama administration's Department of Education drafted regulations that would have prevented for-profit colleges from forcing students to sign arbitration agreements. Obama's DOE was motivated by the conviction that arbitration agreements disfavored students in favor of for-profit colleges and prevented them from banding together to file class action suits.

Unfortunately, Betsy DeVos blocked those regulations, allowing sleazy for-profits to continue forcing students to sign arbitration agreements.

In the current political climate, it does not seem likely that Congress or the Department of Education will come to the aid of students who are being ripped off by for-profit colleges.  It could be that state courts  are more sympathetic to students who were forced to waive their right to sue. Students can challenge unfair arbitration agreements in court. Unfortunately, to do so, students will need good lawyers.



References

Donna Borak and Ted Barrett.Senate kills rule that made it easier to sue banks. CNN.com, October 25, 2017.

Richard Fossey. Why students need better protection from loan fraud. Chicago Tribune, August 25, 2017.

Gabriel v. Island Pacific Academy, Inc., 400 P.3d 526 (Hawai'i 2017).

Andrew Kreighbaum. Few Solutions for Defrauded Borrowers. Inside Higher Ed, June 26, 2017.

Magno v. The College Network, Inc.. (Cal. Ct. App. 2016). Accessible at http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ca-court-of-appeal/1741812.html

Morgan v. Sanford Brown Institute, 137 A.3d 1168 (N.J. 2016).

U.S. Department of Education. U.S. Department of Education Takes Further Steps to Protect Students from Predatory Higher Education Institutions. March 11, 2016. Accessible at http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-takes-further-steps-protect-students-predatory-higher-education-institutions?


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Betsy DeVos sabotages Obama's borrower-defense rule for processing student borrowers' fraud claims: She fears students will get "free money"

The collapse of Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech shined a light on the seedy for-profit college industry.  Both for-profit college companies filed for bankruptcy under a cloud of accusations of fraud and misrepresentation.

Together, Corinthian and ITT Tech had more than half a million former students. Thousands of them filed so-called "borrower defense" claims, petitioning the Department of Education to forgive their student loans because they were defrauded by the institutions they attended. About 65,000 borrower-defense claims are now pending.

What to do? The Obama Administration prepared borrower-defense regulations that were scheduled to take effect on July 1, 2017; but Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos blocked their implementation, saying the rules would be rewritten through the "negotiated rule making" process. DeVos' decision will allow the for-profit industry a voice in reshaping the rules to their liking.

Why did DeVos block the Obama-era regulations? She said the regulations drafted by the Obama administration would allow students to get "free money" by having their loans forgiven.  In other words, DeVos apparently assumes students who file fraud victims are themselves engaging in fraud by seeking debt relief.

This latest caper from DeVos' Department of Education tells us all we need to know about President Trump's least qualified cabinet appointee . Time and time again, DeVos has made decisions to benefit the for-profit colleges at the expense of students; and she has hired consultants who have worked in that sleazy industry.

Millions of people have borrowed money to attend overly expensive for-profit colleges only to receive educational experiences that are virtually worthless. Some were defrauded, some obtained degrees that did not lead to good jobs, and some just paid too much for substandard postsecondary programs. Unless these people obtain relief from their student-loan debt, they will never get on their feet financially.

The Obama administration's borrower-defense regulations were drafted to determine which for-profit students are fraud victims entitled to student-loan debt relief. In my mind, however, it is impossible to efficiently decide on a case-by-case basis which student borrowers are entitled to debt relief due to fraud. That would require hundreds of thousands of individual due-process hearings.

No, the only way to give worthy student-loan debtors a fresh start is through bankruptcy. Congress must amend the Bankruptcy Code to treat student loans like any other consumer debt.

If insolvent student-loan debtors were given reasonable access to bankruptcy, millions of cases would be filed and at least half a trillion dollars in debt would be wiped out.

A half trillion dollars in student-loan debt relief would be a big hit to the U.S. treasury, but let's face it. Millions of student loans will never be paid back. It would be far better for the overall national economy if student borrowers were given a fresh start rather than be forced into 20- and 25-year repayment plans in which borrowers make token monthly payments that don't even cover accruing interest.

DeVos either doesn't understand the magnitude of the student-loan debt crisis or she doesn't  care. Either way, she is a disaster who needs to be cashiered.

Betsy DeVos: Having a good laugh at college students' expense

References

James Briggs. Former ITT Tech students got promise of help, then silence. USA Today, May 22, 2017.

Corinthian Colleges Students Eligible For Loan Discharge. National Bankruptcy Forum, June 22, 2017.

Andrew Kreighbaum. Devos: Borrower-Defense Rule Offered 'Free Money'. Inside Higher ED, September 26, 2017.

Chad Miller.  Understanding 'Borrower Defense to Repayment": A New Yellow Brick Road to Federal Student Loan Forgiveness. American Action Forum, November 1, 2016.

Michael Stratford. More Debt Relief for Corinthian Students. Inside Higher Ed, March 28, 2016.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Opioid Epidemic and The Student Loan Crisis: Is there a link?

James Howard Kunstler wrote one of his best essays recently about America's opioid epidemic, and he began with this observation:
 While the news waves groan with stories about "America's Opioid Epidemic," you may discern that there is little effort to actually understand what's behind it, namely the fact that life in the United States has become unspeakably depressing, empty, and purposeless for a large class of citizens.
Kunstler went on to describe life in small towns and rural America: the empty store fronts, abandoned houses, neglected fields, and "the parasitical national chain stores like tumors at the edge of every town."

Kunstler also commented on people's physical appearance in backwater America: "prematurely old, fattened and sickened by bad food made to look and taste irresistible to con those sick in despair." And he described how many people living in the forgotten America spend their time: "trash television, addictive computer games, and their own family melodramas concocted to give some narrative meaning to lives otherwise bereft of event or effort."

There are no jobs in flyover America. No wonder opioid addiction has become epidemic in the old American heartland. No wonder death rates are going up for working-class white Americans--spiked by suicide, alcohol and drug addiction.

I myself come from the desperate heartland Kunstler described. Anadarko, Oklahoma, county seat of Caddo County, made the news awhile back due to four youth suicides in quick succession--all accomplished with guns. Caddo County, shaped liked the state of Utah, can easily be spotted on the New York Times map showing where drug deaths are highest in the United States. Appalachia, eastern Oklahoma, the upper Rio Grande Valley, and yes--Caddo County have the nation's highest death rates caused by drugs.

Why? Kunstler puts his finger on it: "These are the people who have suffered their economic and social roles in life to be stolen from them. They do not work at things that matter.They have no prospect for a better life . . . ."

Now here is the point I wish to make. These Americans, who now live in despair, once hoped for a better life. There was a spark of buoyancy and optimism in these people when they were young. They believed then--and were incessantly encouraged to believe--that education would improve their economic situation. If they just obtained a degree from an overpriced, dodgy for-profit college or a technical certificate from a mediocre trade school, or maybe a bachelor's degree from the obscure liberal arts college down the road--they would spring into the middle class.

Postsecondary education, these pathetic fools believed, would deliver them into ranch-style homes, perhaps with a swimming pool in the backyard; into better automobiles, into intact and healthy families that would put their children into good schools.

And so these suckers took out student loans to pay for bogus educational experiences, often not knowing the interest rate on the money they borrowed or the payment terms. Without realizing it, they signed covenants not to sue--covenants written in type so small and expressed in language so obscure they did not realize they were signing away their right to sue for fraud even as they were being defrauded.

And a great many people who embarked on these quixotic educational adventures did not finish the educational programs they started, or they finished them and found the degrees or certificates they acquired did not lead to good jobs. So they stopped paying on their loans and were put into default.

And then the loan collectors arrived--reptilian agencies like Educational Credit Management Corporation or Navient Solutions.  The debt collectors add interest and penalties to the amount the poor saps borrowed, and all of a sudden, they owe twice what they borrowed, or maybe three times what they borrowed. Or maybe even four times what they borrowed.

Does this scenario--repeated millions of time across America over the last 25 years--drive people to despair? Does it drive them to drug addiction, to alcoholism, to suicide?

Of course not.

And even if it does, who the hell cares?


Drug Deaths in 2014


References


James Howard Kunstler. The National Blues. Clusterfuck Nation, April 28, 2017.

Sarah Kaplan.'It has brought us to our knees': Small Okla. town reeling from suicide epidemicWashington Post, January 25, 2016.

Natalie Kitroeff. Loan Monitor is Accused of Ruthless Tactics on Student Debt. New York Times, January 1, 2014

Gina Kolata and Sarah Cohen. Drug Overdoses Propel Rise in Mortality Rates of Young Whites. New York Times, January 16, 2016.

Robert Shireman and Tariq Habash. Have Student Loan Guaranty Agencies Lost Their Way? The Century Foundation, September 29, 2016. 

Haeyoun Park and Matthew Bloch. How the Epidemic of Drug Overdose Deaths Ripples Across AmericaNew York Times, January 19, 2017.






Wednesday, February 15, 2017

"Debt and Introspection Are More Related Than You Think": Essay by Steve Rhode

This excellent essay by Steve Rhode originally appeared on the Personal Finance Syndication Network, PFSyncom.  Mr. Rhode also maintains a web site titled Get Out of Debt Guy that contains a variety of good advice and information about all manner of consumer debt problems, including student loans.  You can learn more about Steve Rodes here.

 **********

Debt and Introspection Are More Related 

Than You Think

by Steve Rhode

Steve Rhode
Why are people victims? Why are some people always the brunt of pranks, jokes, gaffes and catastrophes and others are not? Over the years of helping people with financial problems I’ve observed that many people experience not only a financial disaster event but also difficulties in other areas of their life. Is this a coincidence or are there underlying issues that cause us to sabotage our ability to achieve happiness and financial success? Are some people just victims of affairs that involve credit, debt and money? They answer is yes, but why?

There has been little study of victim profiling and when we think of someone as a victim the first thoughts that are present are those of people who have suffered a terrible misfortune beyond their control at the hands of some external event. There are people who are victims of events and situations beyond their control.

For example, people who are randomly murdered, raped, abused, injured or harmed, physically or emotionally. Take disorganized killers for example, their victims are selected because of the opportunity to carryout their act rather than because of anything unusual about the victim themselves. A disorganized killer, as categorized by a serial killer profile, may simply walk up to the next door they come to, ring the bell and kill whoever answers the door. If your time is up, it’s up.

A rape victim may just have simply been the next target of opportunity. Sometimes there is no greater explanation or rationale for their misfortune other than “wrong place, wrong time.” And while we search for a deeper or greater meaning why their life was altered in such a fundamental way by grotesque violence, sometimes life is simply random and chaotic.

Victims of financial problems present similar rationales, Sometimes they were truly disadvantaged by people who duped them.

Recently, a furniture store went out of business, there was no indication that it was in trouble. Every outward sign indicated that the company was stable. Suddenly they go out of business and furniture that previous customers ordered will not be delivered and the status of the deposits left for those orders is undetermined. These folks are truly victim of the transaction. There is no doubt that sometimes events are random and can leave you in financially deficient position. Here is an example that almost everyone has experienced where we lose 100% of our money, vending machines. Sometime they just take your money and don’t deliver the goods. Some people attempt to deliver a couple of well placed smacks and move on. We just accept that it happens sometimes because it does.

In my work helping people with financial problems I’ve observed that while some people suffer from random financial misfortune, there truly is a pattern of financial victims who are often found to repeat the same or similar financial mistakes over and over again. Rather than learn from the situation, they can be seen waving the flag of entitlement and summoning up an army of excuses for this weeks episode of financial misfortune. Can’t you picture the commercial for next weeks show? Stay tuned for up scenes from next weeks show when Bob will lose his job and not have any savings to fall back on because he blew it all on day trading last week. What will Mary say when she finds out? Tune in Tuesday at 8 PM Eastern Time.
What is striking is the number and severity of poor financial decisions some people make. It’s too frequent to just be a random happenstance.

To what degree do we hold people accountable for their individual actions? Is the recipient of misfortune ever to be responsible for their misfortune? Early victim theory in the 1940s actually labeled the person to whom misfortune befouled as a hapless person who brought it on. Since then victim theory has swung to the opposite direction and essentially anyone who is the recipient of anything negative or unexpected is to be cuddled and cajoled and not accept any responsibility for their actions. But it that realistic or healthy? Whatever happened to personal responsibility?

I’ll be honest with you. I hate personal responsibility. I don’t mind accepting responsibility for my actions and the way things turn out. Certainly, life is not always rosy and we don’t always make the best decisions but cut me some slack.

Modern American life not only does not encourage you to be personally responsible, it makes you run from it. We live in such a litigious society that I’m wondering when toilet paper manufactures are going to get sued for excessive chafing. I’m sure they have been already. Maybe toilet paper made out of sawdust wasn’t such a good idea after all gentlemen. Not that I’m bitter about it but ouch, that’s all I’ve got to say on the subject.
My office overlooks the 18th hole on a golf course. I’ve seen all sorts of unusual things on that course. I’ve seen guys playing golf in the dark, near typhoon weather, wearing shorts in sub zero weather and there is even this woman who walks down the center of the fairway from the green to the tee during lunch. For some unexplained reason she has a golf ball, throws it up in the air and smacks it with her hand. She walks to where it lands, picks it up and continues towards the tee. I keep waiting for her to get hit with an oncoming golf ball one day. In my past life, when I was in ophthalmology, I had a patient who was stuck in the eye with a tee shot. It ruptured the eye and she was blind. This is why I never look back on the golf course or in life. I’d much rather get hit in the back with a ball than lose my sight.

When the weather is dangerous, like a big electrical storm, the course blows a siren to warn golfers to get off the course. Most golfers do, some don’t. Some just continue to play so let’s take the golfer who stands with his metal club (lightning rod) pointing skyward during a tremendous electrical storm. If he is struck by lightning, is he partially to blame or is the gold course going to get sued also? Other golfers sought appropriate shelter during the storm by this one places himself in a position of danger, greatly increasing his chances of getting struck and does. Can a victim contribute to the outcome and if so do we serve the victim by simply saying, “don’t worry” or “that’s OK”?

Wouldn’t we serve the victim more by consoling them in their time of need and help them to accept responsibility for their actions which allowed them to be harmed in the first place? Hopefully, they will learn from the error of their ways and not repeat the same mistake again in the future. We do this with children, why not adults?

Financial victims often cry foul because of the actions of others. In fact, they frequently contribute to their misfortune by simply not participating in their financial lives.

For many years I worked in an office. One day in the late 1980’s I decided to pursue my dream and left. I started a real estate company, The Great Virginia Land Company. I thought it would be really cool to work outside all day long. Walking through the country, enjoying nature and making money at the same time. I bought and sold country acreage. When my real estate company was going full force I wanted to make very sure that purchasers of property from me clearly understood the contract they were about to sign which included financing. At first, I would read the contract with them, explain every detail and be available to answer any questions they had. They typically glazed over by the third paragraph. That approach wasn’t working so I made myself available as they read the contract to answer any questions they had. Nobody asked questions and just wanted to know where to sign. I even asked them questions to make sure they had read the contract. Most were put off by my inquisition. Finally, they trained me to just hand them the contract. They would look up and before they could say anything I’d say “here” and point to the signature line. They would look up again and I’d say “here” and hand them a pen.

I used to get excited when I thought someone was going to ask a question about the financing, I wanted to explain it all to them but finally I was beaten into submission by the public’s lack of caring about the contract or financing. The prevailing question was never what the total cost would be, but “what will my monthly payment be?” They didn’t want to be bothered by actually reading or understanding the damn thing. They just wanted what they perceived to be the benefit once they signed the contract.

One day I sold fourteen pieces of property at one time. There were so many people wanting to purchase property from me that I passed out blank contracts, stood on the trunk of my car and as the purchasers all gathered around, like a concert in the park, I shouted out instructions on how to fill in the blanks. “In the first blank, put today’s date.” It was insane but I could not stop the frenzied action. If I had not done it this way, it is very possible that I could have been physically injured. People would get in such a tizzy if they could not sign the contract as quickly as possible. It was frightening at times. One day two people wanted to buy the same piece of property. One person decided to buy it first and the other said they were going to kill me and he had a gun in the back window of his truck. I decided it would be a good time to leave so I calmly walked to the car, jumped in and turned the ignition. Trust me, wrrr-wrrr-wrrr is not the kind of sound you want to hear at a moment like this, the car would not start, the battery was dead and I didn’t want to be. The guy in the pickup truck pulled up and said, “I kill city boys.” To which I could only respond, “Awesome but can I get a jumpstart first?” He gave me the jumpstart and I drove away.

So what did I learn from my experience. I learned people don’t like to see snakes in the grass when they are walking through the woods and they aren’t that interested in understanding consumer transactions.
Inevitably, if a problem ever latter arose from the transaction; the perception was always that they, the purchaser, were the victim, even when the exact and specific situation was clearly spelled out in the contract that they refused to read.

The same is true for almost all consumer credit transactions. People don’t read the agreements they sign and if they do read them they will not or do not ask questions and if they even ask a question and understand the answer, the vast majority of people will sign the agreement anyway as long as they want what they get when they do sign it. So, what level of responsibility do we have to adequately prepare for our financial lives?
Legislators and lawmakers think consumers are too stupid to accept responsibility for their situation. They feel that people don’t read the agreements they sign so we need to protect people from themselves. Is that really how we want to be treated, as stupid lemings?

Recently, I spoke to Richard. I’d had the opportunity to review his credit report before we spoke so it was clear to me that Richard had experienced two episodes of financial trouble in his life. The first about four years ago, the second about two years ago, but why? The debts were for unsecured credit cards, some utilities and local stores. Generally, that indicates someone moving into or out of a new area that is unprepared financially for the event. Clearly Richard’s credit report reflected an episodic history of financial trauma. After talking with Richard I learned that about four years ago he had relocated from Illinois to Iowa. He left behind some unpaid bills and had increased his debt load through the move to a point where he could not repay his bills. Once Richard found a job in Iowa he was able to stabilize his finances and repay most of his debts, he still had some old, very small debts outstanding. He also had some utility bills that were unpaid from his stay in Illinois. Richard said he forgot to change his address so the old bills did not follow him to his new address. In spite of Richards’s inability to notify his creditors, he feels it is unfair that they are hounding him and sent him to collections.

Richard said that he learned his lesson from that move and said he believed he would prepare better next time he relocated. Guess what, Richard did the exact same thing two years latter. He up and moves to California without prior planning. He leaves behind a wake of unpaid obligations and is again unable to find suitable employment in the area he has relocated to. Richard moves back to Iowa. Now, the first time Richard made the mistake of impulsively up and moving, you might say he was young, a few years out of college, and inexperienced in the ways of the world. How can we rationalize making the exact same financial mistakes again? Richard clearly knew what the results of his actions would be. He had lived through them once but yet he did not learn from his mistake and repeated it.
When I spoke to Richard he was clearly angry at his creditors for not being more reasonable when he fell behind on his bills. He was angry and belligerent and felt they should be more understanding.
When Richard moved from Iowa to California, he did not make any prior effort to find employment before he left. He just moved. When Richard arrives in California he is unable to find jobs that pay him even half of what was making before in Iowa. Big surprise. Bet you didn’t see that one coming did you? Now, not only does Richard have to pay for the cost of his move and getting started in a new area, he also has previous obligations he had not yet satisfied.

Soon Richard becomes dissatisfied with California, gives up and decides to move back to Iowa. During the course of his move out and back Richard accumulates approximately 25 thousand dollars of debt on credit cards. He financed his move with credit since he did not have any available cash. He stated “I had to use the cards to live on.” Again, Richard leaves and does not notify his creditors where he is going. Again, Richard ends up on the other end of a collection telephone calls and is sought after for unpaid bills. Is Richard really a victim of his creditors?
Richard has a responsible job but yet cannot exhibit responsible behavior in other parts of his life. Sadly, Richard will probably live through another couple of similar events until his financial situation becomes so fucked up that he files bankruptcy (aka financial cleansing) and possibly begins his cycle of debt over again.
I’ve even had one client who had 78 unsecured credit card accounts totaling a million dollars of outstanding credit card debt. This does not include his other outstanding indebtedness. Is he a financial victim or a credit predator? At what point does a reasonable person stop applying for additional credit?

Consider the following story from Carla who contacted me recently. “My car was repossessed on the 31st of January, on Monday I spoke with the bill collector from the car lender, I informed him of my job, the location, everything down to what I did. He demanded that I Western Union him $126 to him within the hour, even though I told him I get paid on the 1st of Feb. (which was only 5 days from that point) he told me this before just as I have twice promised a payment by Western Union and did not comply. I understand that the bank must repossess the car and I’ve heard horror stories of individuals losing personal items kept in the car at the time of repossession. To the repo man himself or whomever else may like that “pink sweater” for their neighbor. I had piles of clothes in my backseat, a satchel, a stethoscope, a sweater of the utmost sentimental value, a gun, college books, and a CD player that I’m sure they plan on selling to make the money while the factory stereo is in the trunk. (also a gift from a friend.) I will be 21 years old this month and am already in a bad situation, forced to live with a man twice my age, which in the beginning was and I suppose still is by my choice. I recently got a job and had thought things were beginning to look up for me, now I don’t even know where my car is, which impound lot or where I mail payments to? My makeup bag was also in there with around $200.00 worth of makeup not to mention documentation and things of that nature I had in a backpack.”

As an impartial third party, you’ve have to marvel at the dysfunction in this persons financial life. I think the most startling statement is the admission of previous failed promises to pay. Can you really be surprised that the collector ordered the repossession of the vehicle after Carla clearly had make promises to pay and then did not honor them. Several other facts in her email are telling also.

Broken promises are going to come back to bite you in this situation. Did she not understand that when she made payment arrangements with the creditor and failed to meet them that it had a higher probability of not turning out well?

She kept personal items in the car in spite of knowing that a number of payments had been missed and repossession was a definite possibility and imminent.

She keeps a gun in the car. Is she feeling vulnerable and unprotected?

Carla mentions living with a man twice her age and that in the beginning it was her choice. Is she a victim of her relationship? It truly sounds like a relationship of convenience. Carla seems to indicate that she is a victim of the relationship since she is “forced” to live with him. She has created a situation where she has no other place to go so she lives with someone she does not care for simply because he took her in. She admits it was and is her choice to be there, so is she forced?

She got a job and thought things were beginning to look up. This is irrational optimism when it comes to the vehicle situation. Things will only look up when either the missed payments are brought current or an agreed repayment plan is in place. Just because she secures employment she feels the lender should back off. A good example of fantasy thinking.

Carla appears to be helpless in the situation. Does not know where to send payments and has not thought to contact the lender to ask.

She has also been damaged by the loss of stuff in the car. How about the damage caused to the lender by the loss of payments not received? This is not a consideration or point of view of Carla’s.

People commonly refer to “being forced” to do things in their financial lives. Certainly “being forced” is an example of victim thinking. “I was forced to hand him the money.” Generally, people who are forced are not operating under their free will and are under duress.




 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Has higher education become a criminal enterprise? "It's a cheating situation"

 I am not a doomsayer or a survivalist, and I try to stay away from apocalyptic bloggers. But James Howard Kunstler, whose blog site goes by the name of Clusterfuck Nation, is making persuasive arguments that our postmodern economy, hopped up on cheap energy and enormous debt levels, is unsustainable. In fact, he predicts an economic  meltdown sometime this spring.

Kunstler's focus is on broader economic issues than student loans, but he made a trenchant observation about higher education in his latest blog essay, which struck a nerve with me.  Pervasive accounting fraud in the national economy, Kunstler writes,"bleeds a criminal ethic into formerly legitimate enterprises like medicine and higher education, which become mere rackets, extracting maximum profits while skimping on delivery of the goods."

And of course Kunstler is right. The Department of Education shovels $150 billion a year in federal student aid to prop up the higher education industry, which is becoming nothing more than a racket. Higher education apologists stress the value of a college education, but 45 percent of recent college graduates are in jobs that do not require a college degree. 

No wonder 8 million college borrowers are in default and millions more are not paying down their student loans.  DOE knows the score but it continues to deceptively downplay the student-loan default rate, stuffing debtors into economic hardship deferments and income-driven repayment plans that hide the fact that a large percentage of student borrowers will never be free of their loans. 

Meanwhile, the for-profit college sector, which might fairly be labeled a criminal culture, rips off poor and minority Americans and gives them educational credentials that are damned near worthless. Now they are beginning to shut down and go bankrupt, leaving their former students with mountains of debt. 

The public universities, bloated and lazy, limp along by raising student tuition as state subsidies dry up.  Public university leaders are motivated solely by politics, terrified by the possibility they might inadvertently do or say something politically incorrect.

State higher education leaders refuse to reorganize public colleges to be more efficient. In my own state of Louisiana, we have regional public colleges with declining enrollment in every corner of the state, but no one has the political courage to close any of them. Many Southern states support historic black colleges at public expense, although there is absolutely no need for university systems that cater to only one race. Louisiana even has a black law school, which operates in a substandard way just a few miles away from the state's flagship school of law. 

As for the nonprofit public institutions, they now fall into two camps. The ultra elite institutions--Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc.--have brand names so strong they can charge what ever tuition rate they want. They also have fat endowments that insulate them from economic forces. 

On the other hand, small, obscure liberal arts colleges are under severe financial stress, and quite a few will close within the next five years. Parents are refusing to pay $50,000 a year for their offspring to attended a nondescript private school.  The little colleges have been forced to offer huge discounts--approaching 50 percent--to lure new students through the door. 

In short, every sector of higher education has been living in a fools paradise, but the data are now coming in, and they are alarming.

Nearly half the people who took out student loans to attend for-profit colleges default within five years. Millions of college borrowers whose loans are in repayment are seeing their student-loan balances grow larger, not smaller, due to negative amortization. Their token monthly payments keep borrowers out of default but are so small they don't cover accruing interest.

Nationwide, more than half of student borrowers owe more than they borrowed just two years into repayment. And, as the Wall Street Journal reported just a few weeks ago, half the students who took out student loans to attend more than 1000 schools and colleges have not paid down even one dollar on their loans seven years after their repayment obligations kicked in.

Kunstler is right. Evasiveness, almost criminal in its proportions, pervades almost every sector of higher education. As a classic country-and western-song might put it, "there's no use in pretending there'll be  a happy ending." Colleges and universities are in a cheating situation, refusing to recognize that the golden age of American higher education is coming to an end.



References

Andrea Fuller. Student Debt Payback Far Worse Than BelievedWall Street Journal, January 18, 2020.

James Howard Kunstler. Made for Each Other. Clusterfuck Nation, February 13, 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).