The Washington Post had a story yesterday about the Department of Education's look at how student loan servicers deal with the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and its protection to members of the Armed Forces. Senator Elizabeth Warren is drawing on her years of empirical research to question the methodology and the resulting conclusions of the study. (In a warning strike for the Empiricist, Senator Warren and some colleagues asked just why it was taking a large government agency well over a year to conduct a study--a credible claim from someone who conducted several large empirical studies, largely with the help of a few research assistants.)
As a professor, Warren conducted several large empirical studies, each gathering hundreds of variables on a sample of more than 1,000 families in bankruptcy. She is miffed that the Department of Education only conducted a detailed review of 55 cases (out of a universe of 20,000). A prior DOJ investigation concluded that 60,000 servicemembers paid too much interest on their student loans, resulting in a $97 million settlement with Sallie Mae and its former subsidiary Navient. Yet, the Department of Education apparently uses a very different legal standard for determining compliance with Servicemembers Civil Relief Act than the Department of Justice. Not surprisingly, with a tiny sample and a narrow analysis, the Department of Education concluded all was well and good.
But as Senator Warren well understands as an empirical researcher, what you find depends on where your look--and if you have your eyes open! Her staff report details other concerns in a report , which reads more like something you'd find on SSRN or in a social science journal than the typical sound-bites of Washington press releases. Senator Warren had to defend her research methodology and findings, and she always rose to the occasion. Having an Empiricist in Congress means you can expect someone reading your report, not accepting the conclusions. Senator Warren is bringing her research acumen to the government's work--where like in the scholarly world, there are not-so-good studies and good studies. Our servicemembers deserve a hard look at whether their legal rights are being protected, while they are protecting our rights.