One of the next big bubbles is educational debt. A recent article in The New York Times notes that it exceeds one trillion dollars — more than total consumer credit card debt. Meanwhile, according to The Wall Street Journal, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports that for those aged 40 to 49, the percentage of educational debt on which no payment has been made for at least 90 days has risen to almost 12 percent. Sadly, history will view these as the good old days.
Middle-aged education debt blues
Growing delinquencies among middle-aged debtors result from two phenomena. First, some people took out loans for their own education, such as the 50-year-old who woman told the WSJ that she got her bachelor’s degree in 2008. The recession pushed many newly unemployed workers into higher education as a way of reinventing themselves. For some, the strategy worked.
A second group consists of parents who took out loans to fund their kids’ education. A related Department of Education program is, according to the Journal, “among the fastest-growing of the government’s education loan programs.”
For anyone who thinks this problem is bad now, wait until today’s twenty-somethings who went to law school and can’t get jobs reach their forties. Indiana University Maurer School of Law Professor William Henderson has analyzed the origins and long-run implications of current trends. His article with Rachel Zahorsky, “The Law School Bubble,” describes them in thoughtful detail.
Recent graduates in particular know where this is going because many are already there: Lots of debt — averaging $100,000 for recent classes — and limited prospects of employment with which to repay it. Meanwhile, the nation’s law schools are turning out more than twice the number of lawyers as there are law jobs.
The problem is growing, but so is denial. Recent headlines proclaimed that a drop in law school applications must be a sign that the market is self-correcting. After all, first-year enrollment fell by seven percent — from 52,500 in 2010 to 48,700 in 2011. Now for some context: The current number is about the same as total one-L enrollment was each year from 2002 to 2006.
How are law schools responding to this continuing crisis? Some better than others.
Law school reactions
Deans at George Washington University, Hastings and Northwestern recently announced that they were considering plans to reduce enrollments. Meanwhile, Thomas M. Cooley Law School opened a new campus in Tampa where it has signed up 104 students — double the number it initially expected. Last month the WSJ quoted Cooley’s Associate Dean James Robb, who said that the school “isn’t interested in reducing the size of its entering class on the basis of the perceived benefit to society.”
All right, let society take care of itself. But how about the school’s students? Two weeks after the Journal article, the ABA reported recent law school graduate employment data that, for the first time, refined one category of “employed” to include only jobs requiring a J.D. degree. For that group, Cooley’s “full-time long-term” rate for the class of 2011 nine months after graduation was 37.5%. Remarkably, more than two dozen law schools did even worse.
I wonder how those who run Cooley — and many other law schools — would feel if they had to bear the risk that some of their alumni might default on their educational loans. For now, we’ll never know because: 1) the federal government backs the vast majority of those loans, and 2) even bankruptcy can’t discharge them.
Meanwhile, a court recently dismissed Cooley alumni’s complaint alleging that the school’s employment statistics misled them into attending. The most revealing line of Senior Judge Gordon Quist’s ruling is the conclusion:
“The bottom line is that the statistics provided by Cooley and other law schools in a format required by the ABA were so vague and incomplete as to be meaningless and could not reasonably be relied upon.”
Too bad for those who did. In some ways, the profession is a terrible mess — and it’s just the beginning.