GAME-CHANGER?

Almost overnight, a persistently sad situation finally has many legal educators squirming. And rightly so.

The problem has been years in the making, as has been the profession’s unwillingness to address it. Federal funding mechanisms have combined with lack of accountability and non-dischargeability in bankruptcy to block the effective operation of market forces in legal education. Well-intentioned policies have gone terribly awry; they actually encourage misbehavior among many law school deans.

As law student debt soared into six-figures, calls for change produced the equivalent of catcalls from the “voice of the profession” — the ABA. Its latest Task Force report on the subject should embarrass anyone associated with it, including the House of Delegates that approved it. As the profession’s echo chamber convinced itself that all was well, hope for meaningful change was leaving the building.

But as it did four years ago, The New York Times has now aimed its spotlight on one of the profession’s dirtiest secrets.

The Paper of Record Speaks

In January 2011, The New York Times’ David Segal wrote a series that exposed the cynical gamesmanship whereby law schools inflated their recent graduates’ employment statistics. Through the deepening Great Recession, the profession still generated 90-plus percent employment rates for recent graduates. How? By counting every short-term, part-time, and non-JD-related job as if it were a position that any law graduate would want. Part-time greeters at Wal-mart, temporary baristas at Starbucks, and associates at Cravath were all the same in the eyes of that metric: employed.

The ugly truth surprised many prospective law students, but not the ABA, which had approved the schools’ misleading reporting methods. It turned out that within nine months of graduation, only about half of all new J.D.-degree holders were obtaining full-time long-term (defined as lasting a year) jobs that required bar passage. Within two years of the Times’ expose’, the ABA succumbed to public embarrassment and required law schools to detail their employment outcomes.

And It Speaks Again…

The overall full-time long-term JD-required employment rate has barely budged since the new age of transparency began, but law school tuition and resulting student debt have outpaced inflation. As applications to law school plummeted, many deans responded by increasing acceptance rates to keep student loan revenues flowing.

So now the focus has shifted from full disclosure to flawed funding, and the Times has entered the field of battle:

— On August 25, it published my op-ed on the law school debt crisis and the ABA”s feeble response. It went viral.

— On October 24, the Times’ lead editorial was “The Law Student Debt Crisis.” It, too, went viral.

— On October 26, the first page of the Times’ business section completed the trifecta with “Study Cites Lower Standards in Law School Admissions.” The article discusses Law School Transparency’s report documenting that bottom-feeder schools are exploiting unqualified applicants.

And Still the Naysayers Resist…

Previous posts discussed two letters-to-the-editor responding to my August 25 Times piece — one from a law professor at Texas A&M; the other from Northeastern’s dean. There’s no need to review them here. The latest Times’ editorial is generating similarly defensive vitriol from some law professors and deans who are determined to defend the indefensible.

For example, Professor Frank Pasquale at the University of Maryland School of Law (where the full-time long-term JD-required employment rate for 2014 graduates was 57 percent) fears that the Times’ October 24 op-ed will accelerate privatization:

“Private lenders are sure to be pleased by the editorial,” Pasquale writes at Balkanization. “Law school loans are lucrative for them because of extremely low student loan default rates for law school borrowers… The stage is now set for a bootlegger/baptist coalition: as prohibitionists cut off the flow of federal loans, private lenders line up to take their place.”

But The Naysayers Are Wrong…

Pasquale offers a clever turn of phrase, but his premise is incorrect. The widespread use of deferral and income-based repayment programs means that the default rate is not the most meaningful measure of whether a loan will be repaid. Actual repayment rates are. Depending on the school, repayment rates can be pathetic.

Professor Bill Henderson at Indiana University Maurer School of Law doesn’t share Pasquale’s confidence that private lenders would step into any breach that the loss of federal funds created. Henderson also notes, correctly, that private loans don’t come with deferral and IBR options that have kept nominal default rates low as non-repayment rates have surged:

“[P]rivate lenders would need to be confident that loans would be repaid. That likelihood is going to vary by law school and by law student, raising the cost of lending.”

Precisely correct. As I’ve suggested previously, tying the availability of law school loans to school-specific employment outcomes could allow the market begin exercising its long-denied power to correct the situation. It could also mean big trouble for marginal schools.

How About Holistic?

Pasquale also chides the Times for its narrow-minded approach: “[T]he paper’s biased view of higher education in general is inflecting its take on law schools. We can only hope that policymakers take a more holistic approach.”

How about a holistic approach that permitted educational debtors to discharge their private loans in bankruptcy? In that case, Pasquale’s “stage” would no longer be “set for a bootlegger/baptist coalition” whereby “prohibitionists cut off the flow of federal loans [and] private lenders line up to take their place.” Private lenders wouldn’t rush to make fully dischargeable loans to students seeking to attend marginal schools that offered little prospect of employment generating sufficient income to repay them.

How About A Constructive Suggestion?

Policymakers could revise the federal loan program to tie student funding at a school to that school’s employment outcomes for recent graduates. In fact, it could do that while preserving deferral and IBR programs. Add dischargeability of educational debt in bankruptcy and you have the beginnings of a holistic recipe for hope.

In that respect, Professor Henderson notes: “I have faith that my legal colleagues would do a masterful job solving the problems of higher education.”

Based on the profession’s track record to date, I fear that my friend’s sentiment reflects a triumph of hope over reality. But his key message is right on target: If the profession does not put its own house in order soon, someone else will.

Marginal law schools exploiting market dysfunction may have triggered the current round of scrutiny, but outside interveners will not limit their systemic fixes to the bottom feeders. Deniers of the ongoing crisis can persist in their positions, or they can propose solutions, as I have.

The Times has pulled a loose thread on the entire legal education establishment’s sweater.

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.

WHEN SUPPORTING A CAUSE UNDERMINES IT

Lee Siegel and The New York Times probably thought they were aiding a vital cause when the Times published Siegel’s June 6 op-ed, “Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans.” The underlying issue is important. Many of today’s young people bear the burden of huge educational debt in an economy that has not afforded the kinds of opportunities available to their baby-boomer parents, including Siegel.

Here’s the problem: Siegel did more harm than good. He made himself a poster child for the kind of moral hazard that first led policymakers to render student loans non-dischargeable in bankruptcy more than 40 years ago. It was a mistake then, and it’s a mistake now. But Siegel is exactly the wrong spokesperson for the issue.

Lee Siegel’s Pitch

According to his op-ed, Siegel financed his education with student loans, the first of which he obtained 40 years ago. But when his family’s financial hardship left him unable to pay the full cost of tuition at “a private liberal arts college,” he “transferred to a state college in New Jersey, closer to home.” Eventually, he defaulted on his student loans.

“Years later,” he writes, “I found myself confronted with a choice that too many people have had to and will have to face. I could give up what had become my vocation (in my case, being a writer) and take a job that I didn’t want in order to repay the huge debt I had accumulated in college and graduate school. Or I could take what I had been led to believe was both the morally and legally reprehensible step of defaulting on my student loans, which was the only way I could survive without wasting my life in a job that had nothing to do with my particular usefulness to society.”

He urges others to follow his example: default.

Who is Lee Siegel?

Here’s what Siegel and the Times didn’t reveal.

Notwithstanding his transfer to a New Jersey state college, he obtained three degrees from Columbia University — a B.A., an M.A., and a master’s of philosophy. According to the HarperCollins Speakers Bureau website, he’s “an acclaimed social and cultural critic.” The mere fact that he appears on that site means that you should expect to pay big bucks for the privilege of hearing him speak. He has written four books and his essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

In other words, he has an elite education that led to a lucrative career. He is exactly the wrong person to be the face of the student loan crisis — which is very real.

The Problem with Siegel’s Support

Siegel has now made himself a powerful anecdote for those on the wrong side of the fight for reform in financing higher education. Forty years ago, similar ammunition — anecdotes about individuals exploiting moral hazard — led to bad policy when student debt first became non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.

In the early years of the student loan program, the Department of Health, Education & Welfare brought a supposed “loophole” to the attention of the 1973 Congressional Commission on Bankruptcy Laws. Concerned about tarnishing the image of the new program, the Department didn’t want new college graduates embarking on lucrative careers to default on loans that had made their education possible

But there was no hard, numerical evidence suggesting a serious problem. Rather, media hype over a few news reports of “deadbeat” student debtors took on a life of their own. In 1976, Congress yielded to public hysteria and made student loans non-dischargeable in bankruptcy unless a borrower had been in default for at least five years or could prove “undue hardship.”

In 1990, it extended the default period to seven years. In 1997, the Bankruptcy Reform Commission still had found no evidence supporting claims of systemic abuse, but Congress decided nevertheless that only “undue hardship” would make educational debt dischargeable. That placed it in the same category as child support, alimony, court restitution orders, criminal fines, and certain taxes. In 2005, it extended non-dischargeability to private loans as well.

The Enduring Power of a Big Lie

Unfortunately, the anecdotes and unsubstantiated lore about supposed abuses that led to the current rule persist to this day. In a lead editorial on July 25, 2012, The Wall Street Journal perpetuated the falsehood that “[a]fter a surge in former students declaring bankruptcy to avoid repaying their loans, Congress acted to protect lenders beginning in 1977.” 

There was no such surge. It was “more myth and media hype” than reality. Now, Siegel has provided fuel for a new round of obfuscation to displace facts.

“Thirty years after getting my last [student loan],” Siegel writes, “the Department of Education is still pursuing the unpaid balance.” I hope they catch him.

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The Chicago Tribune honored it as one of the “Best Books of the Year.” You can get it at Amazon, bn.com, Google, iTunes, and Kobo.

MAKING MONEY ON OUR KIDS

Where can an investor earn a 7.9 percent guaranteed annual rate of return? Not 30-year United States Treasury bonds; they pay around 3 percent. Not other countries’ sovereign debt; some of the most economically fragile nations in the Euro zone sell 10-year bonds bearing interest rates of less than 6 percent—and it’s certainly not guaranteed.

Try your kids. The interest rate on subsidized federal student loans is currently 3.4 percent, but it will jump to 6.8 percent on July 1 and covers just a slice of the market anyway. For undergraduates who don’t qualify for the subsidy, it’s already 6.8 percent. For graduate students (including law students), the rate is 7.9 percent.

Big returns with no risk

The program is a moneymaker for the government. According to a February 2013 Congressional Budget Office report, the federal government makes about 36 cents in revenue for every student loan dollar it puts out. Graduate (and law) student loans are especially lucrative — 55 cents on the dollar.

These eye-popping returns are especially juicy because the loans have virtually no risk of non-repayment. If a student defaults, the feds retain a collection agency to pursue the money (total cost of all federally retained debt collectors last year: more than $1 billion). Eventually, they’ll get it because such loans are in that small category of debts that survive a personal bankruptcy filing, along with alimony, child support, certain fines, and taxes. An exception for debtors who can demonstrate “undue hardship” rarely applies.

Bipartisan blame

How did this happen? Good intentions went awry. In the 1960s, Congress followed economist Milton Friedman’s earlier recommendation that the government provide direct loans for higher education. The underlying principle still resonates: a society’s investment in human capital pays long run dividends. The corollary is that those who benefit personally should repay loans for the education that gives them a better life.

Unfortunately, as that better life has become more elusive for so many, the student loan program has converted struggling young people into profit centers for the government. In the trillion-dollar world of educational debt, students entering the professions — including law — are among the most unfortunate victims, in part because both their tuition and their loan interest rates are the highest.

The special plight of young lawyers

Lawyers generate little sympathy from the rest of the population. But 85 percent of today’s law graduates have educational loans exceeding $100,000. The grim market for new attorneys means that only about half of them are finding full-time long-term employment requiring a legal degree. Even fewer earn enough to repay their staggering loans. (Before blaming these young people for their plights, take a close look at the behavior of many law school deans who misled them into the profession with deceptive information about post-graduate employment prospects. Meaningful transparency on that topic is a recent phenomenon.)

As the July 1 deadline nears, proposals that seem to be gaining traction in Washington would preserve all above-market rates and the student loan program’s profitability. They also suggest that we’ve learned little from the subprime mortgage debacle. The House recently passed Rep. John Kline’s (R-MN) bill, resetting the graduate student rate at 4.5 percent above the 10-year Treasury, subject to a 10.5 percent cap.

In the unlikely event that the House bill gets past the Senate, President Obama has threatened to veto it. However, he is willing to have students borrow at a lower variable rate that’s still significantly higher than the 10-year Treasury, but with no cap (although once set, the rate would remain for the life of the loan). Combining the floating rate elements of the House proposal with the president’s plan could produce a truly disastrous compromise. The president also wants income-based repayment and debt forgiveness. Because Republicans with blocking power oppose those partial remedies on the grounds that it will encourage students to take on bigger debt, those proposals seem doomed.

Recently, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) offered her first bill. For a year, it would cut the student loan rate to 0.75 percent—the same rate that big banks get on their borrowing from the Fed. Unfortunately, a prospective one-year solution is no solution at all. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has the best current plan: set a 4 percent rate for all student loans and allow graduates with existing debt to refinance at that rate. But that won’t happen, either.

Guiding principles

As policymakers grapple with the growing educational debt bubble, they might consider two governing principles.

First, those running institutions of higher education should be held accountable financially for their graduates’ poor employment outcomes. Otherwise, federal dollars will continue to worsen the situation as administrators focus myopically on filling classroom seats to maximize tuition revenues. Allowing the discharge of educational debt in bankruptcy and permitting the federal government to seek recourse from schools that impoverish their graduates with tuition loans might alter some schools’ worst behavior.

A second principle should be even easier to implement. No mechanism for funding higher education should convert our kids into profit centers.

The Most Unfortunate Comment Award to Date

The words seem so innocuous — “federally guaranteed student loans.” But what do they mean when someone actually defaults and the government has to make good on its guarantee? A recent article in The New York Times provides the answer.

A brief review of the business model

This post is the latest in what became my unintended series on the law school business model. It began with The Wall Street Journal’s misrepresentation in a lead op-ed piece. The Journal claimed that Congress made student loans non-dischargeable in 1976 because of widespread abuse. That is, graduates benefited from government loans and then declared bankruptcy on the eve of lucrative careers to avoid their debt. There’s no delicate way to put this: The WSJ was perpetuating a thirty-five-year-old myth.

Then I considered law schools that offer tuition discounts in the form of merit scholarships. There’s no mystery there: a secretive process of awarding money facilitates an individualized approach to pricing that maximizes tuition revenues while enhancing a school’s U.S. News ranking.

Most recently, I turned to yet another element of the current law school business model: raising the list price of tuition while reserving the flexibility to move lower as needed to attract particular candidates.

Follow the money

Now consider the source of all that tuition money. Some people are able to pay their own way, regardless of the cost. But they’re in the minority. Matt Leichter reports that the 44,000 law graduates in the class of 2010 took on $3.6 billion in debt, up sharply from $3.1 billion only two years earlier. The number is climbing as tuition goes up.

The chances that recent graduates will secure a job requiring a law degree are about 50-50. Although others will get non-legal jobs that pay reasonably well, the ranks of new lawyers with loans they can’t afford to repay is growing.

So what?

Students now have an income-based repayment (IBR) option for federal loans; that may afford some relief. But as Professor William Henderson explains in “The Law School Tuition Bubble,” two problems arise. First, dedicating fifteen percent of income for the requisite twenty-five years of a total IBR plan is akin to a permanent tax on the already low incomes of those lawyers. Forget about saving for retirement or funding their own kids’ higher education.

Second, those IBR participants who make it all the way to the end of the twenty-five years will have their remaining loan balances forgiven. That will add more debt that that the federal treasury will bear — for anyone who worries about such things.

Default

For recent graduates with limited job prospects, IBR is better than nothing. But some will default on their loans, just as their predecessors have. This poses no problem for law schools; they’ve already collected their tuition money and don’t have to return it.

Default poses no problem for lenders, either. That’s because educational debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy, except in rare cases that satisfy the “undue hardship” requirement.

Moreover, the federal guarantee kicks in for private lenders, at which point the government foots the bill. But that’s not the end of the story. As the Times article explains, the newest growth industry is student loan debt collection. Last year, the government paid more than $1.4 billion to debt collection organizations it hired to track down student defaulters.

A Most Unfortunate Comment

For anyone who doubts that this is unapologetic intergenerational exploitation of the young by the old, consider these comments from Jerry Ashton, a consultant for the debt collection industry and the winner of the most Unfortunate Comment Award to date:

“As I wandered around the crowd of NYU students at their rally protesting student debt at the end of February [2011], I couldn’t believe the accumulated wealth they represented – for our industry. It was lip-smacking.”

Ashton included a photograph of several students to which he added these details: “a girl wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the fine sum of $90,000, another with $65,000, a third with $20,000 and over there a really attractive $120,000 was printed on another shirt.”

Someday this will all come crashing down. I fear that people like Ashton — and merger/acquisitions specialist Mark Russell, who described student loans as the debt collection industry’s “new oil well” — will make money on that event. too. Shame on them. Shame on all of us.

WHEN FACTS GET IN THE WAY

Facts should matter, especially to newspaper editors. On July 25, The Wall Street Journal based its lead editorial on a factually incorrect premise. I happened to notice the Journal’s error because I’m writing a book about the legal profession’s current crises, one of which is exploding law school debt. But the WSJ blunder raises an important question: How often does the truth lose out to editors’ ideological convictions?

You Don’t Owe That” suggested that current bankruptcy law proposals to modify the impact of burdensome student loans would “reverse a hard lesson learned during the 1970s.” The editors claimed that provisions barring the discharge of educational loans in bankruptcy occurred “[a]fter a surge in former students declaring bankruptcy to avoid repaying their loans.” For that reason, the WSJ continued, “Congress acted to protect lenders beginning in 1977.”

Not true. There was no such 1970s surge. There was no empirical record of abuse to support the legislative change that began a 30-year slide down a slippery slope, culminating in an even more unfortunate 2005 amendment to the bankruptcy laws.

Perpetuating myths

Old misconceptions die hard. Prior to 1976, all educational debt was dischargeable. That year, Congress amended the Higher Education Act of 1965 to prohibit the discharge of federal educational loans until at least five years had passed since the beginning of the repayment period. Why?

More than 20 years ago, a thorough examination of what some critics characterized as a “loophole” that “allegedly allowed graduating students to discharge their loan obligations through bankruptcy on the eve of lucrative careers” was “more myth and media hype than reality.” More recently, the Congressional Research Service noted that the 1997 Bankruptcy Commission found “no evidence to support the assertion that when student loans were dischargeable the bankruptcy system was ‘systematically abused.’”

Fear and anecdotes — not facts or evidence — resulted in federal student loans joining the same bankruptcy category as child support, overdue taxes and criminal fines. Except for rare exceptions based on undue hardship, a person paid those debts or died, whichever came first.

Bipartisan blame

The Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978 continued the new five-year rule, even though statistical analyses from the General Accounting Office and a House report confirmed that earlier claims of abuse were “virtually nonexistent.” In 1990, Congress and the first President Bush extended that period to seven years. In 1998, Congress and President Clinton decreed that debtors would never discharge their federal educational loans. In 2005, Congress and the second President Bush extended that protection to private lenders as well.

The recent Journal editorial worries about those private lenders. No one has been able to identify the author of the 2005 amendment giving financial institutions that huge break. It also gave them something else: a new incentive to lend money with less concern for how debtors would repay it.

Framing the question

The WSJ position seems somewhat paradoxical for the otherwise libertarian-leaning newspaper. On the one hand, personal responsibility is an easy argument to make when focusing on young people who incur debt: “They should be careful and make better choices.”

On the other hand, what entitles such students’ older, wiser and more knowledgeable bankers to put the government’s heavy thumb (in the form of granting special creditor status to lenders) on the scale?  For some law school graduates, the result is enormous educational debt for degrees that won’t lead to jobs necessary for repayment. Shouldn’t lenders feel the consequences of their poor decisions? Might everyone be better off if lenders sat down with pre-law students and asked them what they planned to do with their J.D. degrees before approving loans for tuition?

Moreover, from the debtor’s perspective, the underlying issue involves the exercise of a constitutional right. Against the backdrop of eighteenth century debtors’ prisons, the founders empowered Congress to enact uniform national bankruptcy laws so that a debtor didn’t risk losing all assets in one state only to be thrown in jail for not paying debts in another.

Accountability

Perhaps questions of accountability and personal responsibility turn on the characterization of the issue — and who should be accountable to whom. The Wall Street Journal is accountable to more than two million daily readers. Those readers assume the honesty of editors who include purported facts in an op-ed piece on important policy questions.

This time, readers got what an important newspaper’s editors would like the facts to be, instead of what they are. Even worse, most of them will never know it.

THE NEXT DEBT CRISIS

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 Journalthe 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.”

Now extrapolate

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.