ANOTHER SHOT AT STUDENT LOAN DEBT

A recent Department of Education initiative has not attracted the public attention that it deserves. But it could have important implications for the federal loans that fuel higher education, including law schools. The Department seeks to create a framework for dealing with the thousands of students who recently filed “defense of repayment” claims.

The Wall Street Journal’s recent summary of the program could strike fear in the hearts of many law school deans and university administrators:

“In the past six months, 7,500 borrowers owing approximately $164 million have applied to have their student debt expunged under an obscure federal law that had been applied in only three instances before last year. The law forgives debt for borrowers who prove their schools used illegal tactics to recruit them, such as lying about their graduates’ earnings.”

But it could get even worse for the schools, as the Journal explains:

“Last week, the department began a months-long negotiation with representatives, schools and lenders to set clear rules, including when the department can go after institutions to claw back tuition money funded by student loans.”

Will the Department’s latest effort to impose meaningful accountability on institutions of higher education fare any better than predecessor techniques that have failed? There have been too many of those.

Lawsuits Haven’t Worked

Law schools have become poster children for the accountability problem and ineffectual efforts to solve it. In 2012 some recent alumni sued their law schools, but they didn’t get very far. The vast majority of courts threw out claims that the schools had misrepresented graduates’ employment opportunities. The winners on motions to dismiss or summary judgment included Thomas M. Cooley (now Western Michigan University Cooley School of Law), Florida Coastal, New York Law School (not to be confused with NYU), DePaul, IIT Chicago-Kent, and John Marshall (Chicago), among others.

Judge Melvin Schweitzer’s March 21, 2012 ruling in favor or New York Law School set a tone that other courts followed: Prospective students “seriously considering law school are a sophisticated subset of education consumers…” In other words, they should have known better. That might be true today, but at the time Judge Schweitzer wrote his opinion, he was wrong. So were the courts who followed his rationale to reach similar results. At a minimum, there were serious factual disputes concerning his conclusory assessment of an entire cohort of prelaw students.

In particular, the plaintiffs in the New York Law School case graduated between 2005 and 2010. Back in 2002 through 2007 — when those undergraduates were contemplating law school — NYLS claimed a 90 to 92 percent employment rate for its most recent graduating classes. But that stratospheric number resulted only because all law schools counted any job for purposes of classifying a graduate as “employed.” A part-time worker in a temporary non-JD-required position counted the same as an assistant U.S. attorney or a first-year associate in a big firm. Only after 2011 did the ABA finally require schools to provide meaningful data about their recent graduates’ actual employment results.

A notable exception to the dismissal of the cases against the law schools was one of the first-filed actions, Alaburda v. Thomas Jefferson School of Law, which is set for trial in March 2016. In that case, Judge Joel Pressman correctly found that a jury should decide the clearly disputed issues of fact. He got it right, but he’s an outlier.

The ABA and the AALS Haven’t Helped

Anyone expecting the profession to put its own house in order continues to wait. The changes requiring greater law school transparency in employment outcomes came about only because the public outcry became overwhelming and Congress threatened to involve itself. When political opposites such as Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) agree to gang up on you, it’s time to wake up.

Since then, the organization has returned to form as a model of regulatory capture. Twice in the last four years, it has punted on the problem of marginal law schools that survive on student loan debt. School that would have closed long ago if forced to operate in a real market continue to exist only because the legal education market is dysfunctional. That is, the suppliers — law schools — have no accountability for their product — far too many graduates who are unable to obtain full-time long-term JD-required employment after incurring the six-figure debt for their degrees.

And while we’re on the subject of regulatory capture, the current president of the AALS has now declared that there is no crisis in legal education. Her interview produced an article titled, “As Law Professors Convene, New Leader Looks to Unite the Profession.” Why all law schools should unite to protect marginal bottom-feeders exploiting the next generation of students remains a question that no one in the academic world is willing to ask, much less answer.

Now Comes the Fun Part

Ignoring problems does not make them go away. As the profession refuses to acknowledge a bad situation, it loses the opportunity to influence the discussion. Which takes us to the recent Department of Education activity relating to criteria for applying the burgeoning volume of “defense of repayment” applications.

Special interests are likely to resist meaningful change. From institutions of higher education to debt collectors who have made student loan debt collection a multi-billion dollar business, lobbyists will swamp the process. Still, attention seems assured for marginal schools exploiting a dysfunctional market. That’s a good thing.

As the disinfecting qualities of sunlight intensify, someday the ABA and the AALS may realize that an old adage is apt: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Perhaps another round of bipartisan congressional interest will help them see the light.

THE CRISIS IN LEGAL EDUCATION IS OVER!

[NOTE: The trade paperback edition of my book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books) — complete with an extensive new AFTERWORD — will be released on March 8, 2016. That’s just in time to put in proper perspective the latest annual rankings from U.S. News & World Report (law schools in mid-March) and Am Law (big firms on May 1). The paperback is now available for pre-order at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Now on to today’s post…]

Wishful thinking is never a sound strategy for success.

“I don’t see legal education as being in crisis at all,” said Kellye Testy, the new president of the Association of American Law Schools and dean of the University of Washington Law School. She made the observation on January 5, 2016 — the eve of the nation’s largest gathering of law professors.

Perhaps her declaration made attendees more comfortable. Unfortunately, it’s not true.

The Trend! The Trend!

Law deans and professors cite the dramatic declines in applicants since 2010 as proof of law school market self-correction. Dean Testy echoed that approach: “I think there is a steadying out now after quite a crash in the number of students our schools are admitting….”

Two points about that comment. First, the decline in the number of applicants since 2010 is real, but that year may not be the best baseline from which to measure the significance of the drop in subsequent years. From 2005 to 2008, the number of applicants was already declining — from 99,000 to 83,000. But the Great Recession reversed that downward trend — moving the number back up to 88,000 by 2010 as many undergraduates viewed law school as a place to wait for three years while the economy improved.

Viewed over the entire decade that began in 2005, the “drop” since 2010 was from a temporarily inflated level. If the roughly four percent annual reduction that occurred from 2005 to 2008 had continued without interruption to 2014, the result would have been about 65,000 applicants for the fall of 2014, compared to the actual number of 56,000. That difference of 9,000 applicants doesn’t look like a “crash.”

A More Troubling Trend

Second and more importantly, many law schools solved their reduced applicant pool problem by increasing admission rates. Overall, law schools admitted almost 80 percent of applicants for the fall of 2014. Compare that to 2005 when the admission rate was only 59 percent.

During the same period, the number of applicants dropped by 40,000, but the number of admissions declined by only 12,000. Countering the impact of fewer applicants to keep tuition revenues flowing meant lowering admission standards. The ripple effects are now showing up in declining bar passage rates for first-time takers.

Student Enlightenment Interrupted

Transparency has given students access to data that should produce wiser decisions. Until the current application cycle, better information was contributing to the recent decline in the number of law school applicants. But the relentless promotional efforts of law school faculty and administrators may be interrupting that trend. Compared to last year, the number of applicants is up.

But law schools aren’t solely to blame. Responsibility for persistently dubious decisions also rests on those making them. A December 22 article in The Wall Street Journal, “U.S. Helps Shaky Colleges Cope with Bad Student Loans, includes this unfortunate example:

“Anthony C. Johns, 32 years old, regrets accumulating $40,000 in debt while attending Texas College, a private college in Tyler. He says he graduated in 2007 with an English degree but couldn’t land a full-time job.

“‘I think I applied for everything on CareerBuilder from teaching to banking,’ says Mr. Johns, who has defaulted on his Texas College loans. ‘Default was very embarrassing.’ Since then, he has enrolled in law school and borrowed $30,000 to pay for his first year.'”

The emphasis is mine.

The Biggest Problems Remain

According to LinkedIn, someone named Anthony C. Johns graduated from Texas College in 2007 and is currently a student at the Charlotte School of Law. That’s one of the Infilaw consortium of three for-profit law schools — Charlotte, Arizona Summit, and Florida Coastal. Owned by private equity interests, the Infilaw schools — like many others — survive only because unrestricted federal student loans come with no mechanism that holds schools accountable for graduates’ poor employment outcomes.

Ten months after graduation, Charlotte School of Law’s full-time long-term bar passage-required placement rate for 2014 graduates was 34 percent. The average law school loan debt of its 2014 graduates was $140,000. If Anthony Johns regretted accumulating $40,000 in college debt, wait until he’s taken a retrospective look at law school.

You Be The Judge

Perhaps Dean Testy is right and there is no crisis in legal education. Or perhaps it depends on the definition of crisis and how to measure it. When a problem gets personal, it feels different.

Since 2011 when the ABA first required law schools to report the types of employment their graduates obtained, over 40 percent of all graduates have been unable to find full-time long-term employment requiring bar passage within ten months of receiving their degrees.

Now let’s make those numbers a bit more personal. Saddled with six-figure law school debt, many recent law graduates might consider crisis exactly the right word to describe their situation. Where you stand depends on where you sit.

LEGAL EDUCATION’S STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

The recent New York Times editorial on the law student debt crisis didn’t attack all law schools as “scams.” Rather, along with Law School Transparency’s recent report, it exposed a soft underbelly. But in defending the bad behavior of others, many law professors and deans are doing themselves, their schools, and the profession a great disservice.

It’s a puzzling situation.

In my 30-year career as a litigator at Kirkland & Ellis, I encountered plenty of bad lawyers. I regarded them as embarrassments to the profession. But I didn’t defend their misconduct. Good doctors don’t tolerate bad ones. Gifted teachers have no patience for incompetent colleagues.

The Opposite of Leadership 

Yet the top officers of the Association of American Law Schools sent a letter to the Times editor that began:

“The New York Times fails to make its case on law school debt.”

AALS president Blake Morant (dean of George Washington University Law School), president-elect Kellye Testy (dean of the University of Washington School of Law), and executive director Judith Areen (professor and former dean at Georgetown Law and former AALS president) then explained why all is well.

If those AALS leaders speak for the organization, a lot of law deans should consider leaving it. Rather than serving the best interests of most law schools, publicly defending the bottom-feeders — while saying “no” to every proposal without offering alternatives — undermines credibility and marginalizes otherwise important voices in the reform process.

Using a Poster Child to Make a Point

The Times editorial looked at Florida Coastal, about which certain facts are incontrovertible: low admission standardsdismal first-time bar passage ratesaverage debt approaching $163,000 for the 93 percent of its 2014 graduates with law school loans; poor JD-employment prospects (ten months after graduation, only 35 percent of the school’s 2014 class had full-time long-term jobs requiring bar passage).

Florida Coastal isn’t alone among those exploiting law school moral hazard. Without any accountability for the fate of their graduates, many schools feed on non-dischargeable federal loans and the dysfunctional market that has allowed them to survive.

Predictable Outrage from a Inside the Bubble

In June, Scott DeVito became Florida Coastal’s new dean. In an interview about his strategic plans, he said, ““We’re going to have to build more on the parking garage because people will want to go here.”

Predictably, DeVito pushed back hard against the Times’s op-ed. (The newspaper published only a portion of his two-page letter.) He boasts that his school’s first-time bar passage rate was 75 percent in February 2015 — third best of the state’s 11 law schools. That’s true.

But the February session typically includes only 50 to 60 Florida Coastal first-time test-takers annually. DeVito doesn’t mention more recent results from the July 2015 administration, which usually includes 200 to 300 Florida Coastal grads each year: 59.3 percent first-time bar passage rate — eighth out of eleven Florida law schools.

From 2010 to 2014, the school’s July results were:

2010: 78.8% (7th out of 11)

2011: 74.6% (8th)

2012: 75.2% (9th)

2013: 67.4% (10th)

2014: 58.0% (10th)

Who among America’s law school deans is willing to defend that performance record? Their professional organization, the AALS, seems to be.

Facts Get in the Way

DeVito acknowledges that his students’ law school debt is high, but says that’s because, as a for-profit school, “taxpayers are not paying for our students’ education.” That’s a remarkable statement. Florida Coastal and every other law school receives the current system’s inherent government subsidies: non-dischargeable federal student loans, income-based repayment (IBR), and loan forgiveness programs.

Likewise, DeVito asserts that Florida Coastal students “repay their loans,” citing the school’s low default rate. The AALS letter makes the same point: “[M]ost law students…are able to repay and do. The graduate student default rate is 7 percent versus 22 percent for undergrads.”

That argument is disingenuous. The absence of a default doesn’t mean a graduate is repaying the loan or that the day of reckoning for deferred or IBR-forgiven debt will never arrive for students and taxpayers. In fact, it’s inconsistent to assert that law students “repay their loans” while also touting the benefits of IBR and loan forgiveness because students in those programs will never have to repay their loans in full. (And they still won’t be in default!)

Not Defaulting Is Not the Same as Repaying

A recent Department of Education report on colleges highlights the extent to which the absence of default is not equivalent to repayment. There’s no similar compilation for law schools, but an April 2015 Federal Reserve Bank of New York Report on Student Loan Borrowing and Repayment trends generally notes that while only 11% of all educational loan borrowers are in default, “46% of borrowers are current in their loans but are not in repayment. Only 37% of borrowers are current on their loan and actively paying down.” (Emphasis supplied)

As the New York Fed reports, the worsening repayment rate is exacerbating the long-term debt problem for students and taxpayers: “The lower overall repayment rate [compared to earlier years] helps explain the steady growth in aggregate student debt, now at nearly 1.2 trillion dollars.”

Righting Wrongs?

Finally, DeVito takes a noble turn, claiming that it “takes a for-profit entity to right a wrong — in this case the lack of diversity in law schools.”

In “Diversity as a Law School Survival Strategy,” St. Louis University School of Law Professor Aaron N. Taylor explains that marginal schools with the worst graduate employment outcomes have become diversity leaders: “[T]he trend of stratification may only serve to intensify racial and ethnic differences in career paths and trajectories.”

Rather than righting a wrong, it looks more like two wrongs not making a right.

A Few Profiles in Courage

To their credit, Professors William Henderson (Indiana University Maurer School of Law) and David Barnhizer (Cleveland-Marshall College of Law), among others, have embraced the Times’s message that Brian Tamanaha (Washington University School of Law) offered years ago: The current system is broken. Recognize it; accept it; help to lead the quest for meaningful reform.

Likewise, Loyola School of Law (Chicago) Dean David Yellen worries about schools that are “enrolling large numbers of students whose academic credentials suggest that they are likely to struggle gaining admission to the bar… [T]he basic point is an important one that legal education must address.”

The Real Enemy

DeVito’s effort to spin away Florida Coastal’s problems is understandable. Properly implemented, school-specific financial accountability for employment outcomes would put maximum pressure on the weakest law schools. Frankly, the demise of even a single marginal law school would come as a welcome relief. Since the Great Recession we’ve added law schools, not eliminated them.

That’s why most law schools and their mouthpiece, the AALS, should side with Dean Yellen and Professors Henderson, Barnhizer, Tamanaha, and others urging meaningful reform. To test that hypothesis, try this:

The next time someone says that introducing financial accountability for individual schools would be a bad idea, ask why.

The next time someone says that respectable law schools serving their students and the profession should not distance themselves from marginal players that could never survive in a functioning market for legal education, ask why not.

The next time someone says that a united front against change is imperative, ask who the real enemy is.

Then offer a mirror.