Showing posts with label undue hardship. Show all posts
Showing posts with label undue hardship. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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


Thomas M. Cooley Law School




Saturday, January 9, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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



Friday, December 18, 2020

Mosley v. Educational Credit Management Corporation: "It's not personal. It's just business."

The U.S. Department of Education and Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC), DOE's ruthless sidekick, don't want anyone to get bankruptcy relief.  This has been DOE's policy for many years.

Let's take a look at Mosley v. Educational  Credit Management Corporation, decided by the Eleventh Circuit back in 2007. As we will see, Mosley was clearly entitled to discharge his student loans in bankruptcy under the undue hardship standard, but ECMC fought him all the way into the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Keldric Mosley attended Alcorn State University, an HBCU, from 1989 to 1994, but he never got a degree. While a student, he was enrolled in Army ROTC, and he injured his back and hip when he fell from a tank during summer ROTC exercises.

Mosley left Alcorn State in 1994 to help his mother, whose health was deteriorating. He lived with his mother from 1994 until 1999. He held numerous jobs during that time but was unable to keep any of them due to depression, heavy drinking, and physical limitations due to his ROTC injury. (p. 1323)

In 2000, Mosley's mother committed him to a state-supported mental health facility, where he was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. He sought treatment for his physical and mental disabilities from the Department of Veterans' Affairs, which placed him on prescription medications. These medications left him groggy. The combination of medicines and his physical disabilities made it difficult for Mosley to find stable employment. (p. 1323)

As noted by the Eleventh Circuit, Mosley was homeless from 2000 until his adversary proceeding in bankruptcy court, and he lived off of food stamps and small disability checks. He had no car and frequently slept at his aunt's house. (p. 1323)

Mosley represented himself in his adversary proceeding and sought to get evidence of his medical disabilities before the bankruptcy court. ECMC showed up to oppose bankruptcy relief and objected to the admission of some of Mosley's medical evidence. 

Although Judge Mullins reluctantly declined to accept some of his medical evidence, he discharged Mosely's student loans without that evidence. Judge Mullins reasoned that Mosley's testimony was sufficient to show that "he was in a vicious cycle of illness and homelessness that prevented him from working" and that repaying his student loans would constitute an undue hardship. (p. 1324)

After a trial, Judge Mullins discharged Mosley's student loans in bankruptcy.  ECMC appealed, but U.S. District Court Judge Robert Vining affirmed Judge Mullins' decision.

ECMC then appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.  It argued that Judge Mullins erred in admitting Mosley's own testimony about his health. ECMC also argued that Mosley's evidence did not support Judge Mullins' conclusion that Mosley's financial situation was unlikely to improve or his ruling that Mosely handled his student loans in good faith.

But the Eleventh Circuit rejected all of ECMC's arguments and affirmed Judge Mullins' decision to discharge Mosley's student loans.  The appellate court ruled that Judge Mullins properly considered Mosley's testimony about his medical health. The court cited the Sixth Circuit's decision in Barrett v. ECMC, in which that court ruled that requiring an indigent debtor to obtain expensive expert testimony or documentation "imposes an unnecessary and undue burden on the debtor in establishing his burden of proof." (p. 1325)

Regarding the good faith requirement, ECMC argued that Mosley had not managed his student loans in good faith because he had not made a payment on his loans since 1996 and had not enrolled in an income-based repayment plan. 

But the Eleventh Circuit rejected those arguments. 

 [F]ailure to make a payment, standing alone, does not establish a lack of good faith. Good faith is measured by the debtor's efforts to obtain employment, maximize income, and minimize expenses; his default should result, not from his choices, but from factors beyond his reasonable control. (p. 1327)

Nor is a debtor always obligated to sign up for an income-based repayment plan to establish good faith:

While a debtor's effort to negotiate a repayment plan certainly demonstrates good faith, courts have rejected a per se rule that a debtor cannot show good faith where he or she has not enrolled in the Income Contingent Repayment Program. (p. 1327).

In short, Keldric Mosley--who clearly met the undue hardship standard for discharging his student loans in bankruptcy--had to fight for that remedy all the way to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Although Mosley had a record of homelessness and chronic health problems, ECMC refused to allow him bankruptcy relief until three levels of federal judges ruled in his favor. 

It was not personal with ECMC. It was just business.

Congress needs to remove the "undue hardship" language from the Bankruptcy Code, and perhaps someday it will. 

But until that day comes, the U.S. Department of Education and ECMC could do a lot to ease the stress on overburdened student-loan debtors if they would merely allow people like Keldric Mosely to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy without having to battle their way into the federal appellate courts.  

References

Mosely v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 494 F.3d 1320 (1lth Cir. 2007).

"It's not personal. It's just business."


Thursday, December 17, 2020

Mendenhall v. Navient: Idaho bankruptcy judge grants a family man a partial discharge of student loan debt totally more than $400,00.

Mendenhall v. Navient Corporation: A $76,000 student-loan debt grows fivefold

In 2007, Steven Mendenhall obtained a bachelor's degree in film and video production from Brooks Institute of Photography, a for-profit college in California, which later closed.  To finance his studies, Mendenhall took out about $75,000 in federal student loans and $76,000 in private loans from Sallie Mae.

Mendenhall's private student loans gradually spun out of control. By 2013--six years after graduating, Mr. Mendenhall's private student-loan debt had grown from $76,000 to  $260,357.69--more than three times what he borrowed.  By 2018, his private loan debt had grown to $407,912.84--more than five times what he borrowed.

How did that happen? To begin with, Sallie Mae's interest rate was quite high--13.625 percent. Interest on Mr. Mendenhall's unpaid debt accumulated and capitalized, causing his loan balance to spiral upward.  Also, Sallie Mae charged Mendenhall additional fees--nearly $40,000 in fees as of 2013. That's more than half the amount Mr. Mendenhall borrowed.

Added together then--Mr. Mendenhall's private student-loan debt and his federal debt totaled almost half a million dollars.

Mr. Mendenhall diligently sought employment and finally landed a pretty good job working at Brigham Young University's branch campus in Rexburg, Idaho. He attempted to manage his towering debt by filing for bankruptcy three times. Realizing he could not discharge his student loans absent a showing of undue hardship, Mendenhall filed for bankruptcy twice to discharge his other debts, hoping to free up more money to pay on his student loans. Still, he was unable to pay down his private student-loan debt.

Mendenhall filed his third bankruptcy petition in 2018, hoping to discharge his student loans. He settled with the U.S. Department of Education but still owed over $400,000 to Sallie Mae's successor in interest, Navient.

Judge Joseph Meier grants Mr. Mendenhall a partial discharge of his massive student debt

Idaho Bankruptcy Judge Joseph Meier reviewed Mr. Mendhall's financial situation and concluded that Mendenhall and his wife had lived frugally. The judge specifically approved of Mendenhall's expenditures for life insurance and his contributions to a retirement fund and a small savings account.

In fact, Judge Meier found only two unreasonable expenses--Mendenhall's $400 a month charitable contribution to the family church and his $300 monthly payments on his attorney fees.

After reviewing the totality of Mr. Mendenhall’s income and expenses, Judge Meier concluded that Mendenhall only had $150 a month in available income to pay on his student-loan bill---$407,000, which was accruing interest at the rate of 13.625 percent.

Judge Meier then analyzed Mendenhall’ situation under the three-pronged Brunner test to determine whether Mendenhall and his dependents would suffer an “undue hardship” if he were required to repay his private student-loan debt.

In the Judge’s view, Mendenhall met all three prongs of the Brunner test.  First, he was unable to repay his student loans and maintain a minimal standard of living. Second, his current financial situation was unlikely to change substantially.  And third, Mendenhall had handled his loans in good faith.

After completing his extensive analysis, Judge Meier then gave Stephen Mendenhall a partial discharge of his private student loans. The judge discharged all of this debt except $45,000--a little more than 10 percent of the total amount he owed. This debt could be paid without accruing interest, Judge Meier instructed, in payments of $150 a month over 25 years.

Sometimes a partial student-loan discharge is an appropriate remedy

Judge Meier made the right decision, one that other bankruptcy judges should follow. Granting a partial student-loan discharge gives a judge the flexibility to fashion a reasonable and just remedy for an honest but unfortunate debtor burdened by massive student-loan debt. Such a remedy is particularly appropriate for Mr. Mendhenhall, a husband and father with four children, burdened by student debt that had careened out of control due to a high interest rate and unconscionable fees.

References

Mendenhall v. Navient Corporation, JMM Adversary Case No. 19-8010-JMM, 2020 WL 6557964 (Bankr. D. Idaho Oct. 15, 2020).




Monday, December 7, 2020

Is massive student-loan forgiveness off the table? The insiders prefer long-term, income-based repayment plans and that's what student debtors are likely to get

Remember the heady days of the 2020 presidential primaries? Democratic nominees proposed massive student-loan forgiveness, and some promised a free college education. 

This is what Vice President Joe Biden promised last April:

The concept I’m announcing today will align my student debt relief proposal with my forward-looking college tuition proposal. Under this plan, I propose to forgive all undergraduate tuition-related federal student debt from two- and four-year public colleges and universities for debt-holders earning up to $125,000. . . . The federal government would pay the monthly payment in lieu of the borrower until the forgivable portion of the loan was paid off. This benefit would also apply to individuals holding federal student loans for tuition from private HBCUs and MSIs.

But the election is over, and the political insiders have had time to reflect on massive loan forgiveness. As the Washington Post editorialized just a few days ago,

[W]wholesale debt relief is actually the antithesis of progressive policy. Most benefits would flow to upper-income households, which, despite the undeniable burden of debt for lower-income families, actually owes a disproportionate share of the total [student-loan] dollars. 

 The Post disapproves of the relief plan put forward by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Charles Schumer.  They want Biden to forgive student-loan debt up to $50,000 per borrower.  Biden himself has trimmed back his April proposal and now only wants Congress to forgive $10,000 in student debt.

I think massive student-loan relief is off the table. Instead, I think the Department of Education--acting with or without Congressional action--is more likely to offer more generous income-based repayment plans.

In fact, that is exactly what the Washington Post is endorsing. Citing a study by Sylvain  Catherine and Constantine Yanellis, the Post says the feds should "mak[e] sure that everyone who qualifies enrolls in an existing plan that links repayment to a borrower's income."

But tinkering with income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) will not solve the student-loan crisis. 

Nine million people are in them now, and virtually none of them are paying down the principal on their loans.  College borrowers who stick it out will eventually get their student loans forgiven, but the canceled debt is considered taxable income by the Internal Revenue Service.

Making IBRPs more generous, which the new administration might do, is just a student-loan forgiveness program in disguise.  It would do nothing to change the status quo, allowing students to borrow too much money to attend college and the universities to charge tuition that is far too high.

As Steve Rhode argued in a recent essay, the solution to the student-loan crisis is to ease restrictions on bankruptcy relief for distressed college-loan borrowers.  All that needs to be done is to remove the "undue hardship" language from the Bankruptcy Code and allow student-loan debtors who are truly insolvent to discharge their loans in bankruptcy.

But perhaps that solution is too simple for the crafty minds of our politicians and our college leaders.  Instead of giving student borrowers a fresh start in bankruptcy,  they will likely concoct another complicated and labyrinthine IBRP.







Friday, December 4, 2020

Steve Rhode: Here is Why Forgiving Student Loans is an Impossible Issue with an Easy Solution

Written by Steve Rhode

 Originally published at Get Out of Debt Guy

When it comes to a rapidly accelerating financial burden on American families, there is no greater concern than student loans.

The debt is burdensome and unfair on many levels that I’ll explore below.

However, there is a straightforward and simple solution for dealing with all of this outside of struggling to develop a fair forgiveness strategy. I’ll talk about that after we look at common opinions on the subject.

Is Student Loan Forgiveness Fair?

The talk of forgiveness is a difficult topic because how do you reach any level of fairness.

And let me be clear when people talk about forgiving student loans, it only applies to federal student loans. Not private student loans.

As Howard Dvorkin, Chairman of Debt.com said, “Only one-third of the people in this country get a four-year college education. The two-thirds without a college education is expected to subsidize their education when it is very likely that they earn less than the people who are receiving the educational subsidy.”

Dvorkin went on to say, “The issue of forgiving debt is complicated. What about all the people that have already struggled to pay their debts, and now other people get loans forgiven. That’s not fair.”

Student Loans – Another Financial Mistake for Many

A 2019 student by New York Life of 2,200 adults found the average participant reported taking 18.5 years to pay off their student loans, starting at age 26 and ending at 45.

That is a significant portion of life to have to be tied to a student loan payment that should have been directed to saving for retirement and then mushroomed into a giant nest egg. It can take decades to recover from that financial mistake. But that’s not the only financial regret people have.

What is shocking is the number of people that have student loan debt but who never graduated. I’ve seen statics as high as 75 percent of people with any student loans never obtained the degree.

And the wave of for-profit schools that have oversold education to people that never should have purchased their product is another national disaster.

“For-profit schools are not worth the money,” said Dvorkin. “As an employer, I hire people with traditional non-profit college degrees before I would hire someone with a for-profit degree.”

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York said, “Students who attend for-profit institutions take on more educational debt and are more likely to default on their student loans than those attending similarly selective public schools.”

The study went on to say, “Overall, our results indicate that, on average, for-profit enrollment leads to worse student loan outcomes for students than enrolling in a public college or university, which is driven by higher loan takeup and worse labor market outcomes. This is an important set of findings for several reasons. First, a substantial amount of public funds go to for-profit institutions through the financial aid system. Our estimates indicate the return to such expenditures may be quite low. Second, the results suggest that students who attend local for-profit institutions when there is a negative labor demand shock may be making mistakes: they would be better off attending the local public college or university instead.”

But even non-profit schools are ramping up tuition and selling students into seats that maybe should not have been admitted.

Student loan debt is a life sentence in painful debt for many: The Impossibility of Forgiveness

Opinions on forgiveness range all over the place. Betsy DeVos, the current Secretary of Education said recently, “Policies should never entice students into greater debt. Nor should they put taxpayer dollars at greater risk. There are too many politicians today who support policy that does both.”

 

She also labeled student loan forgiveness as an “insidious notion of government gift giving. We’ve heard shrill calls to “cancel,” to “forgive,” to “make it all free.” Any innocuous label out there can’t obfuscate what it really is: wrong.”

Forgiveness is never going to be fair, and it’s not going to a quick and effective way to stimulate the economy in a difficult time from a pandemic, as some claim.

Today, student loan forgiveness would result in people not making loans they are already in default on or making payments that are too low to pay the debt off. At most, it will result in people not having to make some loan payments monthly.

The economic impact will be felt over a long period of time rather than the boost and support the economy needs now.

While DeVos talks about avoiding policies that entice students into greater debt, her own Department of Education is a big part of the problem, with help from Congress.

As the federal student loan program stands now, there is $1.37 trillion of outstanding debt to students, and the Education Department has determined that borrowers will only pay back $935 billion. That leaves the program in the red and holding for $435 billion of bad loans.

The Wall Street Journal said, “The analysis was based on government accounting standards and didn’t include roughly $150 billion in loans originated by private lenders and backed by the government.”

 

To deal with that shortage, “Congress will have to raise taxes, cut services or increase the deficit to cover the losses.” That solution is also not fair to the many that repaid their loans.

So the Battles and Arguments About Student Loan Forgiveness Are Complicated

We can argue and politically position ourselves around the idea of forgiving student loans is either the best thing or the worst thing ever to happen.

It is actually a moot point since the program is in so much trouble already.

Let’s not forget the 42 million student loan borrowers will become due again in January 2020, as a result of the CARES Act forbearance ending.

People that can’t afford their student loans will suddenly be required to begin payments again. Defaults will explode even more.

As it stands now, the Department of Education’s base position is students should feel lucky they can enroll student loan debt in an Income-Driven Repayment program (IDR) that will give them a loan payment based on income. But, as I wrote before, it’s a trap.

As it stands now, while a student loan debtor might enroll in an income-based repayment program, the minimum payment is not enough to cover the interest being charged on the loan, and the balance owed grows. While people say, “certainly Congress will change that.” The reality is they have not, over the many years the programs have been in place.

So the way the “lowest payment” solution works right now is that the government lets you pay less than is due, that grows the balance, and in two decades, when the exploded balance is forgiven, people will owe income tax on that debt unless they are insolvent. It sounds crazy, but it is true.

Here is a case that is a great example of the madness. The student loan debtor could not afford to pay off her $40,000 of student loans over 14 years but is now required to enroll and remain in an IDR that will drive her balance up.

The article by Richard Fossey J.D. says, “How could the judge conclude that Hladly might someday pay off her student loans when the amount she initially borrowed had tripled since the time she graduated from law school? If Hlady could not pay off $40,000 in student loans over 14 years, how will she ever pay $140,000 over the next 25 years, especially since her loan balance grows by $20 a day in accruing interest?

As Judge Scarcella observed, Ms. Hlady is 48 years old. Her 25-year repayment plan will terminate when she is 73. By that time, her loan balance will be more than a quarter of a million dollars. This amount will be forgiven, but the forgiven debt will be taxed as income unless Hlady is insolvent at the time.”

With IDR Plans, the Government Has Already Accepted the Loan Forgiveness Proposition

In my opinion, with federal student loan forgiveness programs already on the books, policymakers have already accepted some form of loan forgiveness. Yet, the current talk of student loan forgiveness ranges from its “socialism” to its “a right.”

As it stands today, the federal government already runs a student loan program that is rapidly increasing in delinquencies, defaults, and repayment plans that will only grow the balance.

The only current winners in the student loan cycle are the schools that can sell students on attending and get easy money from the federal government.

Students enroll, schools get paid and accept almost no responsibility for the outcome. When a student loan debtor was sold education, they could never logically or mathematically afford and later defaults; the school does not have to pay back the loan.

Howard Dvorkin said, “Colleges must start operating as a business and deliver service within income. The days of college expansion paid for from easy government student loan money needs to stop.”

He’s right.

Student Loan Forgiveness is Much-Ado-About-Nothing and Misdirected

I hate to state the obvious here, but rather than worry about the inequities of forgiveness and who wins and loses, the most rational and logical option is to roll back the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA).

BAPCPA made private student loans harder to discharge in bankruptcy. And private student loans are growing as well.

The issue is students are drowning in debt. It can be argued that because of student loan debt, they are also having to take out other debt and reduce retirement savings.

When those people are old enough and can no longer work, the lack of retirement savings will create a public safety net drain. No matter how you look at this, the systemic problem of easy money for education has driven up the debt, and we will all pay for it in one way or another.

The Solution Seems So Apparent

Up until 1976, all student loans were dischargeable in bankruptcy. Bankruptcy is a legal right for consumers to get a fresh financial start, and it is even a part of the U.S. Constitution. Those that file for bankruptcy generate an immediate stimulus for the economy and have a second chance to do better, having learned hard lessons from mistakes.

Returning to allowing both federal and private student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy has many features:

1.      It is a current and accepted legal process with clear rules and guidelines.

2.      The debt is forgiven tax-free.

3.      It allows people a chance to get a fresh start from an impossible situation. Oftentimes these issues are the result of accidents, injuries, medical issues, pandemics, etc.

4.      A bankruptcy Trustee and Judge must review and approve the discharge plan. If a consumer has too much income for a full immediate discharge, they will be required to enter a five-year repayment plan in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

5.      Forgiveness will be restricted to only those that qualify.

6.      The fact the loans may now be dischargeable should force lenders to make better loan decisions before just handing the money to anybody.

7.      If loans are less abundant or actually just based on repayment ability, then schools would have to ratchet back tuition fees. Less easy money would be available.

8.      This process would be restricted to those who need and meet the accepted legal standards for bankruptcy.

9.      People that can afford to repay their loans will have to do so through their Chapter 13 repayment plan.

10.  We can eliminate this ridiculous game and administration of student loans that will never be repaid and have to be dealt with.

If We Restore Bankruptcy Student Loan Debt Elimination to All Then We Can Focus on Doing Better

There is no argument that education leads to opportunity. I don’t care if that is education at a trade school, some other hands-on education, or a degree in some college subject at the best school in a 200-mile radius.

I heard recently about a “toilet paper” degree program. That’s where plumbers make much more than people to go to college. I do know some very rich electricians and plumbers. I guess that’s a raw subject for me since I’ve spent $3,000 in plumbing bills in the last 30 days.

We have a wonderful system in place to allow people to have affordable access to start their education. The local community college is a fantastic place to start.

It is affordable, and as Dvorkin said, “When thinking of how to get started on the journey of education, community college is a great investment. Think about this: why pay much higher tuition to take classes that use the same books as the community college class uses. Start affordably and then transfer to a more expensive school if you want to continue to finish your college degree.”

The power of community colleges is not new. It is proven. My very own father started his education from a farm in Michigan at the local community college. He then went on to become the very first Ph.D. graduate in Political Science at Michigan State.

So let’s all stop trying to reinvent the wheel here. Just restore the bankruptcy provision for all student loans and require some commonsense and responsibility on future lending.

There will never be any universally accepted plan for past forgiveness of student loans that were flawed from the start.

We are a great country and instead of looking back, let’s do better moving forward.

 

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Steve Rhode points out that wholesale forgiveness of student loans is impossible. Bankruptcy Relief for distressed college debtors is the best option

 Millions of words have been written about the student loan crisis. Heck, I've probably written a couple of million words about it myself. 

For my money, Steve Rhode's succinct and cogent essay, published yesterday, is the best analysis of this catastrophe. Mr. Rhode explains why massive student-loan forgiveness is a bad idea. Instead, he argues that bankruptcy relief is the better option. He also points out the fatal flaws in the federal student-loan program, which have brought us to the brink of calamity.

I urge you to read Steve Rhode's essay in its entirety.  My commentary will highlight a few key points.

First of all, Rhode points out that taking out student loans to pay for a college education was a mistake for millions of Americans. He cites a New York Life survey, which found that the average student-loan borrower took 18.5 years to pay off student loans, starting at age 26 and ending at 45.

That is a significant portion of life to have to be tied to a student loan payment that should have been directed to saving for retirement and then mushroomed into a giant nest egg. It can take decades to recover from that financial mistake. But that’s not the only financial regret people have.

Shockingly, millions of Americans took out student loans and never finished their degrees. For those people, student loans are a dead loss.  Instead of enhancing their economic future, dropouts shot themselves in the foot by taking out student loans.

Rhode also points out (as have many others) that the for-profit college industry has wreaked havoc among a population of Americans who took out student loans to attend for-profit schools. He cites a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which found that “[s]tudents who attend for-profit institutions take on more educational debt and are more likely to default on their student loans than those attending similarly selective public schools.”

The Federal Reserve Bank study then went on to say: "Overall, our results indicate that, on average, for-profit enrollment leads to worse student loan outcomes for students than enrolling in a public college or university, which is driven by higher loan takeup and worse labor market outcomes."

The federal student loan program is a mess. It is probably the worst public policy decision Congress ever made when it launched a program more than a half-century ago that now has more than 40 million people ensnared by a total of $1.7 trillion in outstanding student-loan debt.

But massive student-loan forgiveness is not a viable option. 

First of all, wiping out all that debt is fundamentally unfair. And here I will quote Steve Rhode's analysis:

As Howard Dvorkin, Chairman of  Debt.com said, “Only one-third of the people in this country get a four-year college education. The two-thirds without a college education is expected to subsidize their education when it is very likely that they earn less than the people who are receiving the educational subsidy.” 

As Mr. Dvorkin pointed out, “The issue of forgiving debt is complicated. What about all the people that have already struggled to pay their debts, and now other people get loans forgiven. That’s not fair.”

In any event, as Mr. Rhode explained, millions of people are already in a loan forgiveness plan. About 9 million people are in income-based repayment plans that allow them to make minimal loan payments that don't even cover accruing interest on their underlying debt.

So what is the solution to the train wreck we call the federal student-loan program? This is what Steve Rhode recommends:

I hate to state the obvious here, but rather than worry about the inequities of forgiveness and who wins and loses, the most rational and logical option is to roll back the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA).

It was this pernicious law that made even private student loans virtually nondischargeable in bankruptcy.  Many of the congresspeople who voted for this bill still hold elected office. They should be ashamed of themselves. 

Just as importantly, Mr. Rhode argues, Congress needs to remove the "undue hardship" language from the Bankruptcy Code and allow distressed debtors to discharge their college loans in bankruptcy like any other consumer debt.

Steve Rhode succinctly points out the merits of reasonable bankruptcy relief:

Returning to allowing both federal and private student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy has many features:

1.      It is a current and accepted legal process with clear rules and guidelines. 

2.      The debt is forgiven tax-free. 

3.      It allows people a chance to get a fresh start from an impossible situation. Oftentimes these issues are the result of accidents, injuries, medical issues, pandemics, etc. 

4.      A bankruptcy Trustee and Judge must review and approve the discharge plan. If a consumer has too much income for a full immediate discharge, they will be required to enter a five-year repayment plan in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. 

5.      Forgiveness will be restricted to only those that qualify. 

6.      The fact the loans may now be dischargeable should force lenders to make better loan decisions before just handing the money to anybody. 

7.      If loans are less abundant or actually just based on repayment ability, then schools would have to ratchet back tuition fees. Less easy money would be available. 

8.      This process would be restricted to those who need and meet the accepted legal standards for bankruptcy. 

9.      People that can afford to repay their loans will have to do so through their Chapter 13 repayment plan.

10.  We can eliminate this ridiculous game and administration of student loans that will never be repaid and have to be dealt with.

As I said at the beginning of this commentary, I urge people to read Steve Rhode's article in its entirety. I agree with him completely.

Let's see what Congress does in the coming months. The way out of the nightmare is to amend the Bankruptcy Code.  Various student-loan forgiveness scenarios will not fix this enormous problem. 

If loan forgiveness is the best idea Congress has to offer, then our nation's political leaders will have opted for the status quo. And the status quo will ultimately destroy our nation's colleges and universities along with the lives of millions of student-loan debtors.