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.

BULLET DODGED? OR REDIRECTED TOWARD YOU?

For the past six months, Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego seemed poised to become the first ABA-accredited law school to fail since the Great Recession began. For anyone paying attention to employment trends in the legal sector, the passage of six years without a law school closing somewhere is itself remarkable. It also says much about market dysfunction in legal education.

In his November 5 column in the New York TimesUniversity of California-Berkeley law professor Steven Davidoff Solomon has a different view. Solomon argues that recent enrollment declines prove that a functioning market has corrected itself: “[T]he bottom is almost here for law schools. This is how economics works: Markets tend to overshoot on the way up, and down.”

Solomon urges that the proper course is to keep marginal law schools such as Thomas Jefferson alive for a while “and see what happens.” I disagree.

Take Thomas Jefferson, Please

As I’ve discussed previously, in 2008 the school issued bonds for a new building. When the specter of default loomed large in early 2014, the question was whether some accommodation with bondholders would keep the school alive. Solomon suggests that creditors made the only deal possible and the school is the ultimate winner. He gives little attention to the real losers in this latest example of a legal education market that is not working: Thomas Jefferson’s students, the legal profession, and taxpayers.

In retrospect, the restructuring agreement between the school and its bondholders reveals that a deal was always likely. That’s because both sides could use other people’s money to make it, as they have since 2008.

According to published reports, interest on the taxable portion of the 2008 bond issuance was 11 percent. Tax-exempt bondholders earned more than 7 percent interest. Thanks to federally-backed student tuition loans, taxpayers then subsidized the school’s revenue streams that provided quarterly interest and principal payments to those bondholders.

Outcomes? Irrelevant In This Market

Last year, Thomas Jefferson accepted 80 percent of applicants. According to its latest required ABA disclosures, first-year attrition was over 30 percent. The school’s California bar passage rate for first-time takers in February and July 2012 was 54 percent, compared to the state average of 71 percent.

Solomon cites the school’s other dismal statistics, but ignores their implications. For example, Thomas Jefferson’s low bar passage rate made no difference to most of its graduates because the full-time long-term bar passage-employment rate for the class of 2013 was 29 percent, as it was for the class of 2012.

Meanwhile, its perennially high tuition (currently $44,900 a year) put Thomas Jefferson #1 on the U.S. News list of schools whose students incurred the greatest law school indebtedness: $180,665 for the class of 2013. According to National Jurist, the school generates 95 percent of its income from tuition.

It’s Alive

This invites an obvious question: How did the school survive so long and what is prolonging its life?

First, owing to unemployed recent graduates with massive student loans, bondholders received handsome quarterly payments for more than five years — much of it tax-exempt interest. The disconnect between student outcomes and the easy availability for federal loans blocked a true market response to a deteriorating situation. Bondholders should also give an appreciative nod to federal taxpayers who are guaranteeing those loans and will foot the bill for graduates entering income-based loan forgiveness programs.

Second, headlines touted Thomas Jefferson’s new deal as “slashing debt” by $87 million, but bondholders now own the law school building and will reportedly receive a market rate rent from the school — $5 million a year. Future student loans unrelated to student outcomes will provide those funds.

Third, the school issued $40 million in new bonds that will pay the current bondholders two percent interest. Student loan debt will make those payments possible.

Net-net, win-win, lose-lose

The bottom line benefit for Thomas Jefferson is immediate relief from its current cash crunch. Instead of $12 million in principal and interest payments annually, the school will pay $6 million in rent and bond interest — funded by students who borrow to obtain a Thomas Jefferson law degree of dubious value.

“I think the whole deal is a reflection of the fact that the bondholders were very desirous for us to succeed,” [Thomas Jefferson Dean Thomas] Guernsey said.

Actually, it reflects the bondholders’ ability to tap into the proceeds of future federal student loans as they cut a deal with a wounded adversary. Instead of cash flow corresponding to bond interest rates of 7 and 11 percent, bondholders will receive about half that amount, along with an office building and the tax advantages that come with ownership (e.g., depreciation deductions). Think of it as refinancing your home mortgage, except the bank gets to keep your house.

Erroneous Assumptions Produce Dubious Strategies

“This restructuring is a major step toward achieving our goals,” said Thomas Guernsey, dean of Thomas Jefferson. “It puts the school on a solid financial footing.”

Throwing furniture into the fireplace to keep the house warm is not a viable long-run survival strategy. Consider future students and their willingness to borrow as the “furniture” and you have a picture of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law’s business plan.

Meanwhile, Solomon echoes the hopes of law school faculty and administrators everywhere when he says, “[T]he decline in enrollment could lead to a shortage of lawyers five years from now.”

In assuming a unitary market demand for lawyers, he conflates the separate and distinct submarkets for law school graduates. His resulting leap of faith is that a rising tide — even if it arrives — will lift Thomas Jefferson’s boat and the debt-ridden graduates adrift in it. It won’t.

STUDENT LOANS, MORAL HAZARD, AND A LAW SCHOOL MESS: PART 2

Sometimes law school moral hazard assumes a concrete form — literally.

A School Making Unwanted News

For example, Thomas Jefferson School of Law is now coping with a widely publicized credit downgrade of its bonds to junk status and related concerns about its future. But those financial difficulties date back to late 2008. The deepening recession was decimating the employment market for lawyers generally and hitting Thomas Jefferson graduates especially hard.

That didn’t stop the school from breaking ground in October 2008 on a new building that opened in January 2011. California tax-exempt bonds financed the $90 million project. Government-backed student borrowing for ever-increasing tuition — currently almost $45,000 a year — would provide a revenue stream from which to pay bondholders.

In 2012, new ABA-required disclosures allowed the world to see the school’s dismal employment record for graduates seeking full-time, long-term jobs requiring a JD (63 out of 236, or 27 percent, for the class of 2011). As enrollment declined, so did revenue from student loans. Unfortunately, the building and the bonds issued to pay for it remain, as does the stunning debt that students incurred for their degrees.

Quinnipiac’s New Digs

Recently, Quinnipiac University School of Law celebrated the opening of a new $50 million building in North Haven, Connecticut. Its website boasts that the new facility “is 154,749 square feet and will include a 180-seat two-tiered courtroom with Judge’s Chambers and Jury Room.” The Law Center is one of three interconnected buildings on a graduate school campus that is “expansive and architecturally distinctive, with an array of shared amenities, a beautiful full-service dining commons, bookstore, ample parking, and convenient highway access.”

Quinnipiac’s students — including all 92 entrants to the fall 2014 one-L class — will have luxurious accommodations in which to contemplate their uncertain futures. According to the school’s ABA required disclosures, nine months after graduation only 51 of 148 students in the class of 2013 — 34 percent — had found full-time long-term employment requiring a JD. And a Quinnipiac law degree has become increasingly expensive as tuition and fees alone have risen from $30,280 in 2006 to more than $47,000 today.

Tough Numbers

Such dismal employment outcomes for Quinnipiac are not new. Only 41 percent of its 2012 graduates found full-time long-term employment that required a JD. The rate for the class of 2011 was 35%.

Both Thomas Jefferson and Quinnipiac are among many law schools that must yearn for the good ole’ days — three years ago — when deans didn’t have to disclose whether their most recent graduates held jobs that were short-term, part-time, or had no connection whatsoever to the legal training they had received. ABA-sanctioned opacity allowed law schools as a group to claim — without qualification — that the overall employment rate for current graduating classes exceeded 90 percent.

Back to the Future

At Quinnipiac, the culture of that bygone era apparently endures. The link to its ABA-required disclosures page takes prospective students to “Employment Outcomes” and this:

“82% of the graduating class was employed as of Feb. 15, 2014 in the categories listed below…Bar passage is required, JD is an advantage, other professional jobs, and non-professional jobs.”

But if prospective students want to know the whole truth, they have to click again, go to the school’s ABA questionnaire, and perform a calculation from the raw data that reveals the 34 percent employment rate for the most important job category — full-time, long-term, JD-required jobs.

Law School Marketing

Similarly, the “Career Development” section of Quinnipiac’s current prospective student “Viewbook” leads with the banner headline that its “Employment Rate” for the class of 2012 was a remarkable 84% — “127 of 151 graduates employed.” An asterisk adds this tiny note: “Comprehensive employment outcomes for the class of 2012, including all employment categories as defined by the ABA (full-time/part-time/short term/long term) can be found at emplyomentsummary.abaquestionnare.org.”

Can prospective law students discover the truth? Sure. Should they take the time to do so? You bet. Do all of them make the effort? Not a chance. If they did, the 80+ percent, big-font employment statistics wouldn’t be in Quinnipiac’s recruiting materials. For careful readers, those big numbers are a waste of space.

What, me worry?

Undeterred by its recent graduates’ employment track record, Quinnipiac wants to grow. “There’s a decline in the demand for lawyers,” university president John Lahey said. “Even with the decline, we’re the only school in the country to spend $50 million for a new law school.”

That peculiar boast reflects an “if you build it, they will come” mentality determined to maximize tuition revenues. Unfortunately, that attitude can lead to short-term mischief and long-run calamity. Just ask anyone associated with the Thomas Jefferson School of Law.

Market dysfunction

Law schools remain unaccountable for the poor employment outcomes of their graduates. As most schools raise tuition, many students incur increasing amounts of debt for a degree that won’t get them a JD-required job. Because the federal government backs the vast majority of those loans, you could say that the system is your tax dollar at work.

Quinnipiac didn’t raise tuition for 2014-2015, but 86 percent of its 2013 graduates incurred law school debt averaging $102,000. Down the road at New Haven, 80 percent of Yale’s 2013 graduates with far superior job prospects incurred debt averaging $112,000.

The More Things Change…

The perverse law school response to market forces is a predictable business strategy, especially for law schools whose graduates are having the greatest difficulty finding law jobs. In an interview with the New Haven Register, Quinnipiac University President Lahey said that he hopes enrollment will grow from the current total of 292 students to 500 — the design capacity for the school’s new building.

Now that they’ve built it, will students come? If they value a “beautiful full-service dining commons,” perhaps. If they consider footnotes, read the fine print, and assess realistically their JD-required employment prospects as they peruse recruiting materials touting a Quinnipiac law degree, perhaps not.

UNFORTUNATE COMMENT AWARD

Apparently, some law school deans just don’t get it and never will. One of them, Dean Rudy Hasl of Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, wins my latest Unfortunate Comment Award with his remarks reported in The Wall Street Journal:

“You can’t measure the value of a law degree in terms of what your employment number was nine months after graduation.”

All right. Then how should we measure it?

Bad facts and getting worse

Hasl was trying to explain away his school’s position in the bottom five of those reporting the new ABA-required metric: percentage of graduates with full-time long-term jobs requiring a law degree. Thomas Jefferson School of Law reported that only 27 percent of its 2011 class held such jobs nine months after graduation.

Transparency can be unflattering. For the profession overall, the full-time, degree-required, nine-month employment rate for all 2011 law graduates was 55 percent. Predictably, graduates from the top schools fared the best. But the interesting comparisons are with last year — when the ABA and U.S. News allowed schools to include part-time and non-legal jobs in classifying their graduates as employed.

According to the Journal, data that Thomas Jefferson reported to U.S. News under last year’s broader definition showed a 68 percent employment rate nine months out. That’s nothing to brag about, but this year’s 27 percent long-term degree-required employment rate is stunning. Nevertheless, Dean Hasl says not to worry.

What metric matters?

Hasl explained that the nine-month employment rate is inappropriate because a “graduate who takes the California bar exam in July…won’t get the results until late November. Many employers won’t even interview a graduate who hasn’t been licensed.”

That moves his argument to even weaker ground. The July 2011 California bar passage rates for first-time test-takers put Thomas Jefferson School of Law dead last among 20 California ABA-approved schools — with a 33 percent bar passage rate.

Last year, it became the first of many schools facing alumni suits alleging that misleading and deceptive post-graduation employment statistics induced them to attend law school in the first place. Among their defenses, some schools have asserted a variation of the “everyone does it and the ABA says it’s ok” defense. When I was a kid, that sort of excuse for failing to exercise independent judgment didn’t usually work with my parents.

The judge in a similar case against the New York School of Law (not to be confused with NYU) didn’t buy it, either. But the court dismissed that complaint on more tenuous grounds. It thought that college graduates considering law school were “a sophisticated subset of education consumers, capable of sifting through data and weighing alternatives before making a decision regarding their post-college options.”

That reflects some serious magical thinking about the way law schools have bombarded prospective students with dubious information. Only two years ago, the overall percentage of all law school graduates supposedly employed nine months after graduation was in the 90s — but few schools bragged about the ones who were part-time baristas at Starbucks or greeters at Wal-Mart.

Now what?

Thomas Jefferson School of Law will charge full-time students $42,000 for annual tuition in 2012-2013. What are those students buying for their more than $120,000 degrees? A one-in-three chance of passing the California bar on the first try and slightly better than a one-in-four chance of holding a full-time degree-required job nine months after graduation.

If you graduated a few years ago, you might also have a spot in a putative class action against your alma mater. The court hasn’t dismissed that complaint.