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.

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.

MY OP-ED IN THE NY TIMES — AND A KINDLE BOOK PROMOTION

My August 25, 2015 New York Times op-ed on law student debt, law school moral hazard, and the dysfunctional legal education market appears here: “Too Many Law Students, Too Few Legal Jobs.”

In the winter 2015 issue of the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review, I published a specific proposal for creating a law school accountability: “Bankruptcy and Bad Behavior – The Real Moral Hazard: Law Schools Exploiting Market Dysfunction.” 

Additionally, Amazon is running a promotion for my novel. From August 25 through August 29, you can download the Kindle version of The Partnership – A Novel.

 

 

THE ABA AT WORK — NOT!

Recently, I suggested that the ABA House of Delegates reject the June 17 Report of the Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education. The Task Force was supposed to tackle the crisis of massive student loan debt that is subsidizing marginal law schools. Its Report not only fails to fulfill that mission, but also ignores the central problem of a dysfunctional legal education market. As a consequence, it offers superficial recommendations that will accomplish little.

Doomed from the Start; Flawed at the Finish

As I observed when the ABA announced the creation of the Task Force in May 2014, no one should have reasonably expected its chairman, Dennis Archer — who is also chairman of the national policy board for Infilaw — to point his group in the direction of true market-based reform that would jeopardize revenues at marginal law schools. After all, Infilaw is a private equity-owned consortium of three for-profit law schools with dismal full-time long-term JD-required employment outcomes: Arizona Summit, Charlotte, and Florida Coastal.

On August 4, the ABA House of Delegates gave the Task Force Report a rubber stamp of approval by adopting five “Resolutions.” Only two are even operative; the remaining three now go the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. Together, they constitute an abdication of the ABA’s role in an important national discussion.

The Details

Let’s start with the two resolutions that don’t require additional action by the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. We’ll call them “urging” and “encouraging,” which means they are essentially toothless.

One asks the ABA to “urge all participants in the student loan business and process, including law schools, to develop and publish easily understood versions of the terms of various loan and repayment programs.”

The other asks the ABA to “encourage law schools to be innovative in developing ways to balance responsible curricula, cost effectiveness, and new revenue streams.”

On to Another Committee…

The remaining three resolutions “encourage” another ABA Committee to adopt equally ineffective measures: “enhanced financial counseling for students (prospective and current) on student loans and repayment programs,” “return to collecting expenditure, revenue, and financial aid data annually for each law school,” and “make public the information on legal education it currently maintains and information it collects going forward.”

It took the Task Force more than a year to come up with its recommendations. Expect another year or more to pass before the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar acts on the Task Force’s “encouragement.” If the Council takes up these issues, expect law schools to fight major battles resisting disclosure of their financial affairs. But it doesn’t really matter what the Council does or how long it takes because none of the recommendations will make a difference to the core problem: lack of individual law school-specific financial accountability for graduates’ poor employment outcomes.

One More Thing

On July 29, NPR’s Marketplace ran a brief report on the larger crisis in legal education. In his NPR interview, Dennis Archer defended his Task Force’s Report, saying, “People make choices about their lives. And they make choices every day.”

In the current dysfunctional financing regime that his Task Force refused to confront, law schools make choices, too. However, once students pay their tuition bills, law schools have no financial accountability for what happens next. Stated differently, the weakest law schools have the freedom to make the bad choice of maximizing enrollments, tuition revenues, and student debt, even if most of their graduates have dismal JD-required job prospects upon graduation.

The ABA makes choices, too. In the ongoing debate concerning one of the nation’s most pressing issues, it has chosen to remain silent. The next generation of potential ABA members is taking notice.

DEAR ABA…

Dear ABA (especially members of the House of Delegates to the upcoming annual meeting in Chicago):

For years, America’s dysfunctional system of financing legal education has produced too many lawyers for too few jobs — and too many law graduates with too much educational debt. A year ago, the ABA created yet another Task Force to consider the problem. The June 17, 2015 Final Report on the Financing of Legal Education embodies the failure of that Task Force’s mission. It now goes to the House of Delegates for approval.

If the Delegates are interested in rehabilitating the ABA’s credibility and restoring public confidence in the profession on an issue of critical importance to the country, they could take this simple step: reject the Task Force Report. That’s right. Rather than giving the typical rubber stamp of approval amid flowery speeches thanking Task Force members for their time and effort in generating a hollow ABA statement summarizing the obvious, the House of Delegates could just say no.

Round One

Some observers had hoped that the ABA’s previous Task Force on the Future of Legal Education might tackle the daunting issues responsible for our dysfunctional legal education market. After all, the ABA’s leaders promised that the 2012 Task Force would make “recommendations to the American Bar Association on how law schools, the ABA, and other groups and organizations can take concrete steps to address issues concerning the economics of legal education and its delivery.”

To its credit, the 2012 Task Force put its toe in those waters, observing that the “system of lending distances law schools from market considerations and it supports pricing practices that do not well serve either the public or private value in legal education.”

Let’s state the problem more bluntly: Marginal law schools are relying on exploding student debt to produce revenue streams that keep them alive. They get away with it because federal student loans come without school-specific accountability for graduates’ dismal employment outcomes. Schools have no financial skin in the game.

But the 2012 Task Force didn’t go beyond identifying the problem because, it said, “The time and resources available to the Task Force have made it impractical to develop a structure of equitable and effective solutions.”

Round Two

So in May 2014, then-ABA president James R. Silkenat announced the creation of a new Task Force — one specifically devoted to the Financing of Legal Education. It was supposed to pick up where the 2012 Task Force had stalled. It was going to “conduct a comprehensive study of the complex economic and political issues involved and produce sound recommendations to inform policymakers throughout the legal community.”

The 2014-2015 Task Force Report recites that 25 percent of law schools obtain at least 88 percent of their total revenues from tuition and that the average for all law school is 69 percent. It also reports that higher tuition has produced more student debt, even as job prospects for graduates of marginal schools have languished.

Since 2006 alone, average student debt has increased by 25 percent (private schools) and 34 percent (public schools) in inflation-adjusted dollars. Average student debt at graduation from private law schools in 2013 was $127,000; for public schools it was $88,000. Meanwhile, only about half of new law graduates are obtaining full-time long-term jobs requiring a JD.

But the new Task Force didn’t pursue this obvious market dysfunction. Instead, its Final Report offers superficial fixes: better debt counseling for students, better disclosure forms from the Department of Education, more dissemination of how schools spend their money, and continued experimentation with law curriculum. They ignore the core financial accountability problem, rather than confronting and addressing it.

Insularity and Self-Interest

The chairman of the 2014-2015 Task Force was Dennis W. Archer, former mayor of Detroit, former Michigan Supreme Court justice, and past president of the ABA. Did the ABA think no one would notice that Archer also chairs of the national policy board of Infilaw — a private equity-owned consortium of three for-profit law schools — Arizona Summit, Charlotte, and Florida Coastal.

The Infilaw schools feed on the market dysfunction that the current system for funding legal education creates. The job market for law graduates from schools such as Infilaw’s remains dismal. But even in the face of their graduates’ poor full-time long-term JD-required employment results, Infilaw’s schools increased enrollment and have become leaders in creating debt for their students.

Archer wasn’t the only problematic appointment to the 2014-2015 Task Force. Another member, Christopher Chapman, is president and CEO of Access Group — the collective voice of 197 ABA-accredited law schools.

According to the Access Group’s website, “During the course of our 30+ year existence, we became a leading provider of affordable student loans for aspiring professionals in law, medicine, dentistry, health, business, and other disciplines. As such, we served as a national originator, holder and servicer of federally guaranteed and private, credit-based loans, funding more than $18 billion of education loans since 2001.”

Enough said.

Forfeiting The Right To Be Heard

The fact that, as one 2014-2015 Task Force witness said, legal education may be the “canary in the coal mine” on issues relating to student debt and financing higher education generally is no excuse for the profession to refrain from offering potential solutions.

For that reason, at its upcoming August 3-4 meeting in Chicago, the ABA House of Delegates could reject the Task Force Report. It could then reconstitute the Task Force membership with individuals willing to deliver the tough message that the profession needs. It could direct the newly constituted group to develop meaningful proposals that tie law student loan availability to individual law school outcomes. My recent article in the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review, “Bankruptcy and Bad Behavior,” offers one idea that would force law schools to put some financial skin in the game; others have suggested plans warranting serious consideration.

The ABA describes its mission as “committed to doing what only a national association of attorneys can do: serving our members, improving the legal profession, eliminating bias and enhancing diversity, and advancing the rule of law throughout the United States and around the world.”

In a single vote rejecting the 2014-2015 Task Force Report on the Financing of Legal Education, the House of Delegates could match those lofty words with action.

On this vitally important issue, the ABA leadership has caused many attorneys and the general public to become cynical about the organization’s motives. The House of Delegates has a unique opportunity to prove that the ABA is not just the vehicle whereby an insular, self-interested group seeks to preserve the present at the expense of the future. The House of Delegates can be part of the solution, or it can remain part of the problem.

Which path will it choose? The whole legal world is watching.

LAW SCHOOL MORAL HAZARD

My article in the Winter 2015 issue of the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review, “Bankruptcy and Bad Behavior — The Real Moral Hazard: Law Schools Exploiting Market Dysfunction,” is now available on the Social Science Research Network. (Free download)

Here’s a teaser.

Loose talk about “the market for law school graduates” and related optimism about future employment prospects for entering students lack analytical rigor. That’s because the job market for new law school graduates is not a single market at all. Rather, graduate employment opportunities vary tremendously across distinct law school submarkets. But tuition and resulting law student debt often bear little relationship to graduates’ employment outcomes.

Current federal policies, including unlimited educational loans that are not dischargeable in bankruptcy, ignore these differences in law school submarkets and confound the operation of a true market. Those policies allow many law schools to exploit the resulting moral hazard, namely, the absence of accountability for their graduates’ poor employment outcomes.

I propose a solution that will make many law school deans, admissions officers, and faculty squirm — as they should.

THE BATTLE FOR CHARLESTON

On the heels of my post about two struggling law schools, the New York Times published Professor Steven R. Davidoff’s discussion about one of them. Davidoff argues that critics of InfiLaw’s proposed acquisition of for-profit Charleston Law School are missing a key point: Why is it any worse for the private equity firm that owns InfiLaw to operate Charleston School of Law than, say, the current owners who have already taken millions of dollars out of the school?

In fact, he implies, if the school winds up affiliating with the state-run College of Charleston, why would that be preferable? Profit is profit; what difference does it make who gets it?

Here’s Davidoff’s money quote: “Lost among the dispute is the fact that a lower-tier law school like Charleston — whoever owns it — can not only produce capable graduates but help students start careers they couldn’t have without a law degree.”

Really?

As I’ve reported previously, even the dismal market for new attorneys hasn’t slowed the growth of InfliLaw’s three law schools (Arizona Summit, Charlotte, and Florida Coastal) — from a combined 679 graduates in 2011 to 1,191 in 2013. According to the ABA, only 36 percent of the InfiLaw classes of 2013 (including all three of its law schools) obtained full-time, long term JD-required employment.

Disaggregation doesn’t make things look any better for the company, unless you’re one of its private equity owners. For example, Davidoff cites Florida Coastal’s improvement in the percentage of graduates who pass the bar — from 58.2 percent to 76.4 percent as evidence of InfiLaw’s “track record of improving schools.” He’s responding to a “fear about the acquisition — that a private equity firm will lower standards.”

Davidoff doesn’t cite a source for his 76.4 percent number. According to Florida Coastal’s website, only 67.4 percent of first-time takers passed the bar in July 2013 — down from 75.2 percent for the July 2012 test. For February 2014, 72.9 percent of first-time takers passed — down from 79.3 percent in February 2013.

But that’s a minor issue compared to the overriding problem: only 35 percent of 2013 graduates obtained full-time, long-term jobs requiring that degree. The rest are not starting “careers that they wouldn’t have without a law degree.”

Debt

Maybe most InfiLaw graduates aren’t getting full-time, long-term law jobs, but they’re acquiring a lot of educational debt. Annual tuition and fees at all three InfiLaw schools exceed $40,000. At Arizona Summit, median federal law student debt between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013 was $184,825. At Florida Coastal, it was $162,549. The Charlotte Law School median was $155,697, plus another $20,018 in private loans.

Davidoff’s defense of InfiLaw ignores the combination of big debt and poor employment outcomes that afflict most of its recent graduates.

His concluding thoughts make a valid point: “Instead of arguing about who will profit from them, Charleston’s students may instead want to ask who will give South Carolina’s residents the best opportunity to succeed as lawyers at an acceptable price.”

Based on its track record to date, the answer isn’t InfiLaw. And I would reframe the question: Why should anyone profit at all when non-dischargeable student loans are the source of those profits?

The new ABA Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education has an unprecedented opportunity to straighten out this mess and take the profession to a better place. But with the chairman of InfiLaw’s National Policy Board (Dennis Archer) chairing that committee, don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.