Suffolk/NCLC Student Loans Symposium
I had the pleasure of participating in this weekend's very successful Research Symposium on Student Loans organized by Kathleen Engel of Suffolk Law School and Deanne Loonin of the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) (NCLC, by the way, is looking to hire three attorneys!). In this post I want to mention some of the highlights.
The symposium was not your typical academic conference. Although almost 20 papers were presented during the two days, a number of participants were from industry and nonprofits. Participants also heard from an NCLC client who had actually dealt with student loan issues and come out the other side. This was, as one speaker mentioned, the conference some of us had been waiting for.
The speakers also included former Slips regular and now senior Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (pictured at the event). The Senator focused her remarks on her proposal to allow refinancing of student loans (federal and private) at the interest rates Congress approved last summer (3.86% for undergraduate loans and 5.41% for grad unsubsidized loans). She noted that this is just a small step on the road to fixing the problems with the student loan system but since Congress not too long voted to lower future students' interest rates agreeing that they were too high she is hoping this proposal might actually have some political legs.
A number of speakers presented original empirical work, but some also reflected on some of the reasons there are over $1.2 trillion in student debt outstanding. Jonathan Glater began the conference by reminding us that our current model of loading the risk of borrowing on students and their families disproportionally affects students from the poorest families, including students of color and recent immigrants. Daniela Kraiem reminded us that the metaphor of higher education as a commodity has only recently begun to eclipse debates about what education is and should be. Her talk focused on how this market metaphor has shaped the legal and policy structures around higher education financing.
On the empirical work front, despite the volume of empirical work presented, it was clear to everyone in the room that we do not have enough information about student loan performance or student loan borrowers. More data is critical. As Rohit Chopra (Student Loan Ombudsman at the CFPB) remarked, regulators (like companies) need to manage down uncertainty and to do that they need data. The last panel at the conference focused on identifying the data we need and the questions we want answered, with the idea that this would allow us to better lobby the appropriate parties to collect or share this data.