Throughout the summer, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has been promoting legislation that would provide relief to students with educational debt. As the Senate concludes its work — and I use that word loosely — before the November elections, she is taking another run at the issue. Most recently, Senator Warren made her case in an article that appeared in the September 9, 2014 edition of the Huffington Post: “The Vote That Could Cut Your Student Loan Bills.”
Her point is simple: Students who took out educational loans prior to July 1, 2013 are locked into an interest rate of nearly 7 percent. “Older loans run 8-9% and even higher,” she writes. She’d like to bring that rate down by allowing graduates (and parents who co-signed their loans) to refinance them.
Politics, You Say?
Election year politics have rendered her proposal dead on arrival. That became clear in June when Senate Republicans filibustered the bill, even though three of them — Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Susan Collins of Maine — were among the 56-38 majority that was insufficient to bring it to the floor.
But the gridlock in Washington and resulting inaction may focus attention on a more important underlying problem: How does a system anchored in noble intentions evolve to produce such enormous and unsustainable levels of educational debt in the first place? Some law schools have become poster children for the unfortunate answer to that question.
Blame Professor Friedman
In the 1960’s, Milton Friedman argued that America would benefit if individuals had a way to borrow against future incomes and invest in becoming more valuable workers. In those days, a college education was the surest path to the middle class. To a large extent, it still is.
From Friedman’s idea came the federal student loan program. But over time, Congress and several presidents added features that became problematic. Imagined and unfounded fears of moral hazard — specifically, that students on the cusp of lucrative careers would declare bankruptcy to avoid paying their student loans — resulted in the rule that educational debt survives bankruptcy, except in extreme circumstances that courts rarely find.
Coupled with federal guarantees, the loans eliminated lender risk. That created a new moral hazard: Educational institutions themselves were at least two steps away from any financial accountability for their graduates’ outcomes.
Law School Misbehavior
For law schools, all of this has assumed special significance. Unlike undergraduate colleges that can claim to be creating well-rounded and better informed citizens entering a variety of careers, law schools exist to train people who want to become lawyers. Some law graduates may take rewarding non-legal paths, but undergraduates aspiring to careers in business, for example, typically attend business school. At least, they should.
If the ability of a school’s graduates to use their legal training initially in a JD-required job is an appropriate way to measure a law school’s success, then many are unambiguous failures. For the class of 2013, 33 of 201 ABA-accredited schools placed fewer than 40 percent of their graduates in long-term full-time JD-required employment (excluding law school-funded jobs).
But here’s the kicker. Thanks to the moral hazard that the federally-backed loan program creates, some schools with the worst employment records for recent graduates have students with the highest levels of law school loan debt.
For the class of 2013, three of the top ten schools with the highest average student loan debt at graduation placed less than one-third of their graduates in full-time long-term JD-required jobs (again, excluding law school-funded positions). They were: Thomas Jefferson ($180,000 average student debt; 29 percent employment rate), Whittier ($154,000 average student debt; 27 percent employment rate), and Florida Coastal ($150,000 average student debt; 31 percent employment rate).
Defying the Market
How do these schools and others like them accomplish this economically perverse feat? Large doses of prospective student confirmation bias combine with federally-backed student loans to create a dysfunctional market.
Marginal law schools seek to fill their classrooms to maximize revenues. Next week, I’ll examine a few schools pursuing this goal through recruiting materials that seem to obfuscate ABA-required employment disclosures. For now, the important point is that what happens to those students after they graduate becomes someone else’s problem. Once students pay their tuition bills, law schools have no financial stake in their graduates’ employment outcomes.
Searching for Solutions
This takes us back to Senator Warren’s bill aimed at giving past students a break. In the current low-interest rate environment, it’s reasonable to provide former students with the kind of refinancing opportunities available to homeowners, business proprietors, and other debtors. But that won’t begin to solve the real problem. The current system of financing legal education creates moral hazard that has produced — and will continue to produce — law school misbehavior at great expense, not only to affected students, but also to all of us.
In the coming weeks prior to my October 24 presentation to the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review Symposium at St. John’s University School of Law, I’ll offer some ideas for dealing with that larger problem. Some people won’t like them.