Recently, Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jack Reed (D-RI), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced the “Protect Student Borrowers Act of 2013.” The bill would allow the Secretary of Education to require that colleges and universities pay a penalty for federal student loans in default. The penalty would increase with the school’s default rate.
Default is too long to wait before creating a better nexus between educators’ incentives and their graduates’ fate. Thousands of recent law graduates are living with the consequences of a system that immunizes schools from financial accountability for their students’ poor employment outcomes. Eighty-five percent of today’s newest lawyers have six-figure law school debt. Only about half of all 2012 graduates found full-time long-term jobs requiring a JD. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics employment report indicates that between December 2012 and December 2013, employment in the “all legal services” category actually declined by 1,000 people.
Demand down; supply still growing
As the profession was losing a thousand jobs last year, law schools graduated a record number of new lawyers — 46,000 — and big classes are in the pipeline. Sure, law school applications are down, but acceptance rates have gone way, way up to compensate. Recent BLS estimates suggest an ongoing lawyer glut for years to come. (For a more detailed analysis, take a look at Matt Leichter’s recent article in Am Law Daily.) And in the midst of this disaster, law school tuition keeps increasing. It’s all quite perverse.
Unfortunately, it’s also a predictable consequence of structural incentives. Most university administrators (and their law school deans) run their institutions as businesses. In the current system of financing higher education, that approach produces a myopic focus: maximizing short-term tuition revenues by filling classrooms. Added encouragement comes from U.S. News rankings criteria that, for example, actually reward expenditures regardless of added value or lack thereof. The vast majority of students borrow enormous sums to pay tuition. But — and here’s where educational institutions lack the constraints that they would encounter as true businesses — any later failure to repay those loans never becomes the school’s problem.
Instead, virtually all student loans come with the backing of the federal government. In case of default, the schools remain protected. So far, graduate student default rates have remained below those for colleges and vocational schools, but across the board, all rates are trending higher. (I wonder if low JD default rates are attributable, in part, to lawyers’ better understanding of the procedural steps that can forestall default. Attorneys also grasp the counterproductive futility of defaulting: educational debt survives bankruptcy and forcing the government to pursue a default just adds monetary penalties and collection costs to the tab.)
IBR is no panacea
Income-based tuition repayment plans may become an important potential relief valve to some indebted graduates. But IBR is new and it comes with lots of caveats. For example, during the time that a graduate remains in the program, interest on his or her overall debt continues to accrue. Exiting the system before completing the requisite repayment period (typically 25 years; 10 years for public service jobs) can produce an even greater debt than existed upon graduation.
Those who make it all the way to the end of the repayment period are off the hook for their loans and accrued interest, but debt forgiven through IBR is considered taxable income. If Congress doesn’t fix that problem, the result will be a big tax bill for a person who, by definition of ongoing participation in the IBR program, can’t afford it. Moreover, the forgiven amounts still have to come from the federal treasury at taxpayer expense, so there never was or will be a free lunch – except for the schools that received tuition but thereafter had no financial skin in the game. It has the feel of a law school bailout, doesn’t?
A better way
Maybe this three-step approach would help to restore a functioning market: 1) allow educational loans to become dischargeable in bankruptcy; 2) in the course of such a proceeding, require the bankruptcy court to determine whether educational debt was a significant factor in the debtor’s need for bankruptcy protection; and 3) in those cases where it is such a factor, permit the federal government guarantor to seek recompense from the educational institution whose conduct lies at the heart of the mess. (Requiring need-blind admissions as a prerequisite to participation in the federal loan guaranty program generally might counteract a school’s temptation to bias admissions in favor of those who can afford to pay.)
Most people profess confidence in free markets — some with an evangelistic zeal. If they really want to give the market a chance to work in the student debt setting, they’ll support a serious effort to cure the system’s current failures. Personal educational debt currently exceeds $1.2 trillion — more than all consumer credit card debt combined. Every day, that bubble is growing. Just ask a law student.
As a former law school admissions dean — I so appreciate your candid and well-written assessment of the issues. I left the field, no longer ethically comfortable in my role of recruiting students to attend law school so that a broken business model would work. Keep up the terrific work.