JERRY FALWELL JR.’S NEW ASSIGNMENT

Since his inauguration, Donald Trump has dominated news cycles with chaos. It was easy to miss his new task force charged with deregulating higher education. The leader is Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University.

“The goal is to pare it back and give colleges and their accrediting agencies more leeway in governing their affairs,” said Falwell, an evangelical leader with a law degree.

Heaven help us all.

Liberty University

Falwell’s father founded Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. It thrives on federal student loan and grant dollars — $347 million for undergraduates alone in 2015, according to The New York Times. Liberty’s nominal student loan default rate within three years of graduation is nine percent. But only 38 percent of Liberty borrowers are paying down at least one dollar on their student loan principal amounts within three years of leaving the school. The Times also reports that six years after entering college, 41 percent of Liberty students earn less than $25,000 a year. That’s about what a typical 25-year-old with only a high school diploma earns.

For years, law schools have been the leading edge of this crisis. Falwell’s Liberty University has one of those, too. Tuition is $32,000 a year. Twenty percent of first-year students entering in 2014 left for academic reasons. Of 61 students who graduated in 2015, only half got full-time long-term jobs requiring a J.D. —  including one graduate who went to work for Liberty. There was some relatively good news: the average debt load for Liberty’s class of 2015 students who borrowed for law school was $68,000 — a lot lower than the $112,000 average for all law schools.

Reversal of Fortune 

Any progress that the Obama administration made to increase accountability in higher education seems destined for Trump’s dustbin. The Department of Education had put heat on schools that were exploiting students who incurred enormous educational debt for degrees of dubious value. Last summer, one of the department’s advisory committees took the American Bar Association to task for allowing law schools to run such scams. In November, the ABA put Charlotte Law School on probation while the school tried to work out its problems. In December, Charlotte lost its eligibility for federal student loans and its death spiral accelerated.

At long last, someone noticed that federal money was allowing bottom-feeder law schools to stay in business. But the legal profession’s accrediting agency – the types of organizations that Falwell says he wants to vest with greater decision-making power – hadn’t pulled the trigger on Charlotte. The DOE had.

President Obama also moved the vast majority of student lending from the private sector to the federal government. The expectation is that Trump will move it back. Since the election, the stock prices of private student lenders and loan servicing companies have soared. They’re a good bet. Federal guarantees protect lenders; borrowers can’t discharge educational debt in bankruptcy.

The end result is that marginal schools still have no financial skin in the game. They keep filling classrooms with students who borrow huge sums for degrees that aren’t worth it. Income-based repayment programs may provide some relief, but eventually someone will figure out that the U.S. Treasury will wind up footing that bill, which could become a very big number. When loan forgiveness programs shrink or disappear, an entire generation will live — and, in many cases, die — with educational debt incurred to pay the big salaries of people like Jerry Falwell, Jr.

How much damage could Falwell’s task force do? Plenty. The ABA is institutionally incapable of cracking down on law schools that should have closed long ago or never opened at all. Watch out for this: If the federal student loan spigot reopens for Charlotte Law School, there’s no bottom in sight.

What Would Jesus Do?

Jerry Falwell, Jr. was an anchor of Trump’s evangelical constituency. As president of Liberty, he earns $900,000 a year. In fact, Falwell said Trump offered him the Secretary of Education position that DeVos now occupies, but he turned it down. Trump wanted a four-to-six year commitment; Falwell reportedly said he couldn’t afford to work at a cabinet-level job for more than two years.

As Falwell and others like him prosper, their students suffer. Now that Falwell is in charge of deregulating higher education, Trump’s victory speech after winning the Nevada primary last year takes on new meaning: “We won the evangelicals… We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.”

I suspect Jerry Falwell, Jr. loves the poorly educated, too. When it comes to selling a dubious degree from a marginal school, they’re especially inviting targets.

THE STRANGE CASE OF STUDENT LOAN DEBT

The Obama administration has a multifaceted approach to the student debt crisis. It’s time for a policy consistency checkup.

— The President says he wants all young people to pursue higher education and he hopes parents will encourage their kids to do so.

— The President says he wants to hold colleges and vocational schools accountable financially for graduates’ poor outcomes. At many schools, those outcomes include stunning rates of attrition and dismal employment results for graduates.

— The President says he wants to end soaring tuition that creates enormous student debt.

— And the President says students should avail themselves of income-based repayment (IBR) and loan forgiveness, even though those programs will produce large long-term hits to the federal treasury.

— But when students and their parents find themselves swamped in educational debt because graduates can’t find jobs offering a realistic shot at repaying their loans, the President’s Department of Education jumps to the schools’ defense. In its vigorous resistance to discharging school loans in bankruptcy, the administration provides another layer of protection to marginal schools that remain unaccountable for their students’ poor outcomes.

A Case in Point

In 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney suggested famously that, if necessary, students should borrow from their parents to attend college. It’s not Mitt’s fault, but two years before he become governor of Massachusetts and continuing through 2007, one of his constituents, Robert Murphy, took out a loans totaling $221,000 to do exactly that for his three kids.

Unfortunately, when Murphy’s manufacturing company closed and moved overseas in 2002, he lost his job as its president. Since then, he hasn’t found work. He’s now 65 years old.

To cover living expenses, Murphy’s IRA retirement account valued at $250,000 in 2002 is now gone. He and his wife live on $13,000 a year that she earns as a teacher’s aide. In 2014, their $500,000 home was worth $200,000 less than the mortgage on it — and was in foreclosure.

As interest accrued, the balance due on Murphy’s educational loans for his kids increased to more than $240,000 by 2014. He now represents himself in a bankruptcy case that has reached the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. The issue is how the court should interpret and apply the “undue hardship” requirement for discharging educational debt. The statute doesn’t define the phrase and the federal appeals courts have adopted differing standards. All are difficult for debtors.

Enter the Department of Education

In this and other cases, the government’s primary educational debt servicing contractor, Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC), has urged courts to apply the toughest possible rule in deciding whether to grant relief to student loan debtors. At the request of the court hearing Murphy’s appeal, the U.S. Department of Education intervened on October 12.

Murphy calculates that if he found a job paying $50,000 a year and worked until he was 77, the student debt he owes would actually increase — to $500,000. His government doesn’t care. The Department of Education spares no adjective in describing the parade of horribles that would follow upon discharging Murphy’s debt.

For example, allowing him off the hook would “impair the fiscal stability of the loan program…” Repaying the loans may require “that he remain employed at or past normal retirement age,” it argues, even though “his income may top out or decrease” and “further employment opportunities may be limited.” The government regards retirement account contributions, fast-food dinners, cell-phone plans, and nutritional supplements as “luxury expenses.”

Absent showing a “certainty of hopelessness,” the government urges, no debtor should get relief from student loans: “[A] debtor must specifically prove a total incapacity in the future to repay the debt for reasons not within his control.”

Welcome to America’s 21st century version of debtors’ prison.

Confused Priorities

What matters most, the government urges, is “protecting the solvency of the student loan program.” But if solvency is a function of how much the United States receives in return for the money it lends, aren’t income-based repayment and loan forgiveness greater long-run threats to the solvency of the program? Oh, I forgot. The long run is always someone else’s problem.

Even more to the point, debtors in Robert Murphy’s position will never be able to repay their loans anyway. Simply put, the government’s failure to write off Murphy’s bad loan — and others like his — just means that its accounting methods haven’t caught up with reality.

When that reality hits, some may look back and ask why today’s policymakers ignored the bad behavior of marginal schools at the front end. In fact, government policies encourage misbehavior. As the President delivers his “get more education” message to students and parents, marginal schools beat the bushes for enrollees who represent revenue streams of federally insured loans. Why isn’t the ability of those students to repay their loans the focus of efforts aimed at preserving the student loan program’s solvency?

Ask the Right Questions

Currently, schools have no financial stake in student outcomes and marginal schools have exploited the resulting market dysfunction. Did students complete degrees? Did graduates find decent jobs?

Anyone looking for a true picture of the “solvency of the student loan program” might consider those questions, along with this one: How many students are repaying their loans? Last month, the Obama administration released a new report providing some troubling answers to that one.

Three years after their loans had become due, more than one-third of all student loan borrowers had made no progress toward repaying their educational debt. None. And the bar for “progress” was as low as it could be: one dollar.

Profiting from Market Failure

At 347 colleges, more than half of borrowers had failed to pay down a single dollar of their principal loan balance after seven years. Of that group, almost 300 are for-profit schools. Through the federally insured student loan program that relieves them of any debt collection responsibility, some for-profit schools and their investors are making a lot of money off the rest of us.

Many of those same investors decry government intervention in anything. Like Mitt Romney — a vocal supporter of for-profit colleges during his 2012 campaign — they embrace competitive markets as the only proper way to produce correct decisions. But they’re delighted to exploit a student loan market that doesn’t work at all. Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, divided the country into “takers” and “makers.” A lot of those for-profit college investors feeding off government student loan largesse sure look like “takers” — albeit in nicely tailored clothing.

So much for the probative value of divisive partisan labels.