How the federal government can help student loan borrowers

Because of the structure of lending, the student today with a five year plan to graduate will spend up to a 1/3 of his life (25 years) paying for what he got, an education.  The economic value and quality of the education is, of course, important.

The federal government, through its Department of Education, has rigorous standards.  The Department of Education holds high schools, and even grade schools, accountable to these standards and reviews performance on a regular basis.  Insuring educational value is delivered to the American consumer is a clear and consistent federal goal.

But a breakdown has occurred on the college level: trade schools with inferior instruction and high pressure sales techniques have flooded the marketplace with high cost alternatives to public universities and institutions of higher learning.  These “for profit” colleges are fairly unregulated, and often not accredited by traditional sources.  Studies show their degrees are not given the same respect in the employment marketplace as those from publicly funded universities (such as Indiana University or Purdue) and “not for profit” universities (such as the University of Indianapolis or Butler University).

Sadly, trade schools promising a college education are often institutions of lower learning, less supervised in their access to federal funds than the average high school.  Yet in recent years they have received a large portion of the 1.3 trillion now owed on student loans. This is not small change.

That lack of federal supervision and oversight has been an opportunity for profiteers in the “education business”.  According to the business model many trade schools have endorsed, overpromising is just “good sales technique”.  Likewise, underdelivering is a way to “keep costs down” and profits up.  Unfortunately, this way of thinking is now pervasive: institutions of higher learning are thinking on a lower level, about profit achievement more than educational achievement.

Certainly the US Department of Education did not, and has not, endorsed such behavior.  But it has funded those schemes, using billions of dollars of federal student loan monies.  With all that money gone from the federal treasury, the student is expected to pay the US Department of Education regardless of high cost and little value.  Meanwhile, the student’s debt load has increased dramatically, but his earning power has not.

The trade school closures and bankruptcies, most recently ITT and Corinthian, create for the federal government a public relations nightmare:  the government must now collect from naive students the “ill gotten gains” which enriched institutions of lower learning in the billions of dollars from taxpayer funds.  As a former full time college professor for 6 years, I find this offensive.

Because the US Department of Education disbursed those funds without effective oversight, it now must find someone at fault.  Better late than never, as the old saying goes. If the US Department of Education can find someone to blame, so the reasoning goes, that federal agency can escape criticism of its role in this massive disbursement of federal funds without oversight.

The student loan debt is now owed to the federal government (through the Department of Education).  According to the debt arrangement, the federal government will now hold the student accountable for what was done.  For now, the federal government holds the student accountable for what was done by him, and likewise holds him accountable for what was done to him.

In this search for accountability, the US Department of Education has first pinned the blame on closed schools, but only to the extent the student was active in that time frame in seeking the degree.  As to the “real world economic value” of the product the student bought, this is not considered.  Nor is the cost considered, even if that cost is exorbitant for results obtained. Nevertheless, it is this undefined “price/earnings ratio” which will show the true value of the degree over time.

It would appear that the violations which the Department of Education has cited against ITT in recent years prove the point:  ITT was negligent.  But there is not yet an admission that all who supervised ITT and other schools were also negligent.  This would implicate the US Department of Education, the source of funds.  As to the student, that naïve student was the least effective or capable in supervising the trade school. The purse strings were held by the US Department of Education, without monitoring the use of those funds.

Nevertheless, the Department of Education has said in recent investigations that “the actions we are taking against ITT… are based on operational and financial risk…not on the finding that they (ITT) defrauded students”.  With this statement and policy on the part of the Department of Education, it would seem that erasing these student loans for those who have received modest benefit will not be easy, unless the school closed while they were enrolled currently.

A review of the Department of Education website indicates that the student loan discharge rules are numerous and restrictive. Nevertheless, it is the opinion of this author that those rules are arbitrary.  Federal judges can review such rules in bankruptcy proceedings creating “new rules” for discharge of student loan debt, on an individual basis.

For the time being, those rules are administered by collectors who receive a commission rate of 13 to 18% for collecting funds. They are not in the business of giving students a break.

Further review by the US Department of Education shows well documented abuses by student loan collectors, who do not discuss all options with students, as the collector hopes to funnel the former student into a profitable collection system. Thus, the US Department of Education makes it clear that they do not wish to deal with the issue of high debt and little value for the student.  The US Department of Education would rather delegate the task of considering the student’s dilemma to collectors working on commission.

Due to lack of oversight and abuse of federal funds, the United States Department of Education has issued “school fraud” rules for schools which accept federal student loan funds.  In short, these rules would limit, as of November 1st, 2016, the availability of these funds for schools which failed to demonstrate an educational benefit in line with the cost.  Of course this is the right rule for the future, regardless of whether the school is public or private, a “not for profit” or a school organized as a business.

But what about the past lending mistakes which have burdened low income students with high debt?  The bankruptcy in May, 2015 of the Corinthian Schools network caused the alarm bell to sound.  This publicly traded trade school/company had enrolled more than 70,000 students the year before, at more than 100 campuses.  This was becoming quite a massive problem, for more than just a few students. And trade schools are quite expensive, anywhere for 2 to 4 times the cost of public universities, with the vast majority of their funds coming from student loans.

On September 13th of this year, our own United States representative Luke Messer has filed a bill to restore the G.I. educational benefits for veterans who saw their moneys dissipated with closed trade schools. This could be a significant benefit to many.

Nevertheless, the future looks bleak for trade schools, and many bankruptcies beyond the ITT bankruptcy are anticipated. As to the student with unsustainable loan debt, there may be a silver lining to this dark cloud:  a student’s bankruptcy can adjust student loan debt, contrary to what most believe.

As to the future, the warning signs are clear.  Any college (public or private) which offers poor quality of education and low job placement, lack of transferability of credits, and high student debt can lead to financial ruin for all concerned.

It is time to clean up the mess.  Holding schools and accreditors accountable to the US Department of Education is a start.  The lack of accountability of the past is the next issue, shown in unsustainable student loan debt.  What can be done?  For now, the US Department of Education is of little help except after a school is closed, a fact that the federal courts will examine in adjusting that debt on an individual basis.

With hope for the future, we must look to productive solutions, even if in the courts.  It is important to insure education continues to be a meaningful goal for our youth.