postings by Alan White

For-profit college chain files (for receivership)

posted by Alan White

Education Corporation of America filed a legal action in federal district court last week claiming financial distress, seeing to enjoin its creditors and restructure its debt. Sounds like Chapter 11, right? But no. ECA can't file a bankruptcy petition, because that would immediately cut off its main funding source, federal student grants and loans. ECA and its subsidiary Virginia College LLC were already facing disaster under the Obama administration's gainful employment rule, but Secretary DeVos suspended that rule giving poorly performing trade schools a new lease on life. At the same time ECA was facing loss of federal student aid because their accreditor, ACICS, was derecognized by the Education Department under the prior administration for its weak oversight of deeply flawed for-profit schools, like Corinthian College. Unsurprisingly, Secretary DeVos is reconsidering the ACICS decision as well. In a story that seems to be repeating for many for-profit colleges, and even law schools, enrollments are plummeting due to a combination of consumer information about poor student outcomes and reluctant but inevitable enforcement by accreditors and regulators. ECA's proposed plan is to close some of its schools and continue operating others. Its very creaVirginiaCollegeYPtive complaint asks the court for a nationwide injunction against its landlords and creditors and appointment of a receiver, among other things. Here is the court's temporary restraining order enjoining all landlords and creditors nationwide for 10 days.

While I am generally not in favor of bankruptcy discrimination, the ineligibilty of bankrupt colleges for taxpayer funding is eminently sensible. Given the weakness of institutional gatekeeping and the political challenges to shutting down predatory schools, and the for-profit college business model in which taxpayer grants and loans are used to prepay tuitions for students who are frequently misled about career chances, we don't need bankruptcy to give these failing schools a new lease on life.

UPDATE: After hearing and briefing, the District Court on November 5 dismissed ECA's action, finding there is no justiciable case or controversy.

Trump socialism and housing finance

posted by Alan White

Various tax law scholars have commented on the tax fraud allegations in the recent New York Times story. Equally important is the story's reminder that our housing finance system, and the real estate fortunes it has spawned, have depended for nearly a century on the largess of government.

Fred Trump, the president's father, built the fortune that Donald Trump inherited after avoiding or evading millions in estate and gift taxes.  Fred's fortune was almost entirely due to his savvy exploitation of federal government housing subsidies. When Roosevelt's New Dealers struggled to put the economy back on its feet, they invented the FHA mortgage insurance program, and Fred Trump was one of FHA's first profiteers. As recounted in Gwenda Blair's wonderful book, Fred went from building one house at a time to building Huge middle-class apartment complexes when he was first able to tap into government-backed FHA loans.  Screen Shot 2018-10-15 at 10.40.49 AM

 In his fascinating 1954 testimony before the Senate Banking Committee (begins at p. 395), Fred Trump explains how he purchased the land for the Beach Haven apartments for roughly $200,000, put the land in trust for his children and paid gift taxes on a $260,000 land valuation, and then obtained a a $16 million FHA mortgage to build the apartments.  Fred's corporation owning the buildings netted $4 million from the loan proceeds above and beyond the construction costs, and the land belonging to the Trump childrens' trust was valued by the City tax assessors at $1.3 million as a result of the FHA mortgage transaction and apartment construction. In other words, Fred Trump parlayed his $200,000 investment into a $4 million cash profit for his business and a $1.3 million ground lease producing $60,000 annual income for his children. In his testimony he conceded that this would have been impossible without the FHA government loan guarantee.

Peter Dreier and Alex Schwartz have written a nice exposé of the irony in President Trump's proposals to slash the very government housing finance subsidies to which he owes his personal fortune.

More on PSLF fail

posted by Alan White

The US Education Department is assigning the complex task of monitoring the employment and the on-time payments of Public Service Loan Forgiveness aspirants to its worst-performing servicer. USED has contracted with servicing company FedLoan, affiliate of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), to administer the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. PHEAA/FedLoan has performed its contract obligations poorly. At the end of 2017 the Department ranked FedLoan 9th out of 9 servicers based on a combination of delinquency rates and customer satisfaction survey results.  Based on this poor performance, US Ed will allocate only 3% of new loan servicing to FedLoan. However, all public servants who are applying for Pubic Service Loan Forgiveness are assigned to FedLoan for loan servicing.

FedLoan's application of the Department's "every month by day 15" payment rule has led to truly absurd impediments to public servants qualifying for PSLF. Borrowers who make an extra monthly payment, and therefore cause all subsequent payments to be posted to the month BEFORE the payment was made, are told those payments don't count, because they are not made in the month they are due. Other borrowers find that while they continue making on-time payments and are trying to correct FedLoan's recordkeeping errors, FedLoan will place their account in administrative forbearance. Administrative forbearance means that no payments are due, so that even if the borrower continues making a payment called for by their income-based repayment plan, the payment will not count towards the 120 needed to qualify for forgiveness.

The servicers are paid for each month they continue to service a loan (more for a performing loan, less for a delinquent loan.) While this makes some sense as a contract design, it does create a disincentive for servicers to approve public service loan forgiveness and other discharges (like permanent disability.)  Servicing contracts also create incentives for servicers to put borrowers into forbearance rather than income-based repayment. The PSLF fail comprises a combination of regulatory failure, contract design failure and contract supervision failure.

Million public servants counting on broken PSLF program

posted by Alan White

Screen Shot 2018-09-29 at 7.16.15 AMThis week we learn from the GAO that more than 1 million public servants have applied to certify their work and their student loan payments as qualifying for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. The number seems to be growing by about 300,000 annually. These teachers, child care workers, firefighters, soldiers, police officers, nurses, prosecutors, and public defenders, are facing a gauntlet of needlessly complex and exacting rules to receive the debt relief Congress promised them.

According to the GAO report, 40% of the tens of thousands of rejected applicants were found not to have made the required 120 monthly payments. The Department of Education's regulations for the program, 34 CFR 685.219, require that there be 120 "separate" monthly payments, that every payment be made within fifteen days of the due date, in the required amount, and under a qualifying repayment plan. This creates all sorts of problems, for example, when a servicer delays posting a timely payment until day 16, or a borrower has an emergency and makes 2 payments in a lump sum, or especially for borrowers who receive employer or law school assistance in making their payments. The "every month by day 15" rule was not written by Congress. The statute, Section 455(m) of the Higher Education Act, requires only that public servants have made 120 monthly payments under a qualifying plan. A less procrustean payment rule would be an easy regulatory fix.

Only Federal Direct loans qualify, not private or guaranteed loans. However, borrowers can use a Direct Consolidation loan in many cases to convert ineligible student loans into eligible loans.

The statute also requires that the public servant have been in a qualifying full-time job "during the period in which the borrower makes each of the 120 payments. . . ."  This requirement has also been interpreted strictly by the Department, and may create problems for public servants changing jobs or job assignments, teaching for only part of the year, and so forth. It also appears that some simple technology fixes could go a long way towards fixing the problems. For example, a public servant's monthly loan statement could show a running total of months earned towards the 120 total required, perhaps with two check boxes for timely payment, and qualifying work.

Another obvious fix is to provide assistance for public servants whose applications were rejected, to calculate exactly what they need to do to finish making 120 qualifying payments and receive their discharge. The problems with this program are being widely reported.  What is needed now are solutions from Congress, the Education Department, and the servicer (PHEAA/FedLoan.)  

 

 

 

Public Service Loan Forgiveness Fail

posted by Alan White

20,521 applications rejected as ineligible. 96 borrowers approved.  Those are the early results for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. PSLF promised student borrowers with federal Direct Loans who worked in qualifying public service jobs that they would have their loan balances discharged after 10 years of income-based repayment. The first cohort of PSLF borrowers applied beginning in the Fall of 2017, so these results reflect the first year of borrower attempts to receive the benefits they were promised. The three eligibility requirements were to work in a qualifying public service job, make all income-based payments for 10 years, and have a federal Direct loan. The Education Department's report does not break down the rejections by failed eligiblity criteria. It has been widely reported that what U.S. Ed. considers a "public service" job has been a moving target, and servicers have misled borrowers about the program, but that surely cannot explain these dismal results. Perhaps some Congressional oversight is in order.

Trump Administration's Student Loan Policy

posted by Alan White
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Student loan debt has jumped from $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion in the last 5 years. The Education Department's official default rates seriously understate the share of young borrowers who default, or are not able to repay their loans. In the face of the growing student loan debt crisis, the Administration's corrupt policy is to undo the Obama administration's gainful employment rule for colleges, grease the wheels for fraudulent for-profit schools, curb loan relief to victims of school fraud, and sabotage consumer protection enforcement by the CFPB and state regulators (by asserting preemption) against student loan servicers who mislead and abuse borrowers. This article sums it up nicely.  

Westlaw: A Digital Deportation Machine?

posted by Alan White

Lawyers and legal academics may be surprised to learn that Thomson Reuters, owners of the Westlaw electronic law library, sells its data to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, and reserves the right in its privacy policy to share browsing history and search terms with law enforcement agencies. My colleague Sarah Lamdan explores the ethical issues for lawyers and the legal publishers in a recent paper, "When Westlaw Fuels ICE Surveillance: Ethics in the Big Data Policing Era." 

Trump’s Bank Regulators

posted by Alan White

ProPublica’s new web site “Trump Town” tracks political appointees across federal agencies. In light of the president’s promises to “drain the swamp”, it is interesting to peruse some of the Treasury Department appointees responsible for bank regulation. I previously wrote about Secretary Mnuchin and Comptroller Joseph Otting and their connections to subprime mortgage foreclosure profiteers. Lower-level political appointees at Treasury seem to come mostly from one of three backgrounds – lawyers and lobbyists for banks, real estate investors (and sometimes Trump campaign officials), or former staffers for Republican members of Congress. Here are some examples:

Continue reading "Trump’s Bank Regulators" »

Counting the millions of evictions

posted by Alan White

The Eviction Lab, a project led by sociologist Matthew Desmond (author of Evicted), have performed the invaluable and impressive task of gathering landlord-tenant eviction records from every county in the nation for the past 16 years. The sobering results, released today (NY Times story) paint a picture of widespread housing insecurity in the wealthiest nation in the world. Each year nearly a million renter households are evicted by court order, and more than twice that number are summoned to court to face eviction. 

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© evictionlab.org

The project's web page offers a variety of data reports at the state level, and the promise of many more critical analyses to come. Among the questions that researchers may explore using these data include the rate of housing loss for African-American and Latino families, the impact of the 2008 mortgage foreclosure crisis, and foreclosures generally, on renter households, the efficacy of state and local rental housing subsidy programs, whether gentrification results in displacement, and the location of neighborhoods facing high concentrations of evictions and housing abandonment.

 Security of housing tenure is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary condition for the protection of other political and socio-economic rights. Millions of evictions are the sad and now visible legacy of decades of cuts to public and subsidized housing and basic income support for the poor.

The underutilized student loan bankruptcy discharge

posted by Alan White

A common misconception is that student loans are never dischargeable in bankruptcy. There is a bankruptcy discharge exception for some qualified student loans and educational benefit repayment obligations. The discharge exception does not, however, apply to all loans made to students. Jason Iuliano argues in a new paper that bankruptcy courts have interpreted the discharge exception too broadly, applying it to loans for unaccredited schools, loans for tutoring services, and loans beyond the cost of attendance for college. His paper presents a compelling argument based on the plain language of the statute, the legislative history and policy in support of a narrow reading of 11 USC §523(a)(8).

The Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas recently adopted the narrow reading of §523(a)(8)(A)(ii) in Crocker v. Navient Solutions, LLC , Adv. 16-3175 (Bankr. S.D. Tx Mar. 26, 2018). The court denied Navient's motion for summary judgment, finding that the bar exam study loan from SLMA at issue was not within the discharge exception for qualified student loans or educational benefit repayments.

In another class action complaint filed last year against Sallie Mae and Navient, plaintiffs claim that servicers are systematically defrauding student loan debtors about their bankruptcy discharge rights. According to the complaint in Homaidan v. Sallie Mae, Inc. (17-ap-01085 Bankr. EDNY), servicers illegally continued collecting private student loans that were fully discharged in debtor bankruptcies because they were not qualified educational loans. The servicers exploited the common misconception that "student loans" writ large are excluded from bankruptcy discharge. The defendants' motion to dismiss or compel arbitration is pending.

Professor Iuliano has also demonstrated in a prior paper that even student loans covered by the bankruptcy discharge exception can still be discharged based on showing "undue hardship," and that courts are far more likely to approve undue hardship discharges than many debtors (and lawyers) may realize.

Fed chair Powell to Congress - make student loans dischargeable in bankruptcy

posted by Alan White

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 12.39.45 PMCoverage of Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell's Congressional testimony highlighted his optimism about economic growth and its implications for future interest rate hikes. Less widely covered were his brief remarks on the student loan debt crisis. Citing the macroeconomic drag of a trillion-and-a-half dollar student loan debt, chairman Powell testified that  he "would be at a loss to explain" why student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. According to Fed research, Powell noted, nondischargeable student loan debt  has long-term negative effects on the path of borrowers' economic life.

Preempting the states: US Ed to shield debt collectors from consumer protection

posted by Alan White

As if the power to garnish wages without going to court, seize federal income tax refunds and charge 25% collection fees weren't enough, debt collectors have now persuaded the Education Department to free them from state consumer protection laws when they collect defaulted student loans. Bloomberg News reports that a draft US Ed federal register notice announces the Department's new view that federal law preempts state debt collection laws and state enforcement against student loan collectors. This move is a  reversal of prior US Ed policy promoting student loan borrower's rights and pledging to "work with federal and state law enforcement agencies and regulators" to that end, as reflected in the 2016 Mitchell memo and the Department's collaboration with the CFPB.

Customer service and consumer protection will now take a back seat to crony profiteering by US Ed contractors. This news item has prompted a twitter moment.

The Student Loan Sweatbox

posted by Alan White

Studentloandebtballchain Student loan debt is growing more rapidly than borrower income.  The similarity to the trend in home loan debt leading to the subprime mortgage bubble has been widely noted. Student loan debt in 1990 represented about 30% of a college graduate’s annual earnings; student debt will surpass 100% of a graduate’s annual earnings by 2023.  Total student loan debt also reflects more students going to college, which is a good thing, but the per-borrower debt is on an unsustainable path. Unlike the subprime mortgage bubble, the student loan bubble will not explode and drag down the bond market, banks and other financial institutions. This is because 1) a 100% taxpayer bailout is built into the student loan funding system and 2) defaults do not lead to massive losses. Instead, this generation of students will pay a steadily increasing tax on their incomes, putting a permanent drag on home and car buying and economic growth generally. Student loan defaults do not result in home foreclosures and distressed asset sales. They result in wage garnishments, tax refund intercepts and refinancing via consolidation loans, and mounting federal budget outlays. In many cases, borrowers in default repay the original debt, interest at above-market rates, and 25% collection fees. In other words, defaulting student loan borrowers will remain in a sweatbox for most of their working lives. Proposals to cut back on income-driven repayment options will only aggravate the burden, further shifting responsibility for funding education from taxpayers to a generation of students.

Continue reading "The Student Loan Sweatbox" »

Letting the Money Changers Back in the Temple

posted by Alan White

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 2.36.55 PMGolden Valley Lending, Inc. is a payday lender that charges 900% interest on consumer loans sold over the internet. Golden Valley relies on the dubious legal dodge of setting up shop on an Indian reservation and electing tribal law in its contracts to evade state usury laws. In April 2017 the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau filed an enforcement action asserting that Golden Valley and three other lenders were engaged in unfair debt collection practices because they violated state usury laws, and also failed to disclose the effective interest rates, violating the federal Truth in Lending law (enacted in 1969).  Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 2.35.39 PM

 Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s interim appointee to direct the CFPB, has now undone years of enforcement staff work by ordering that the enforcement action be dropped.  The advocacy group Allied Progress offers a summary of Mulvaney’s special interest in protecting payday lenders, in South Carolina and in Congress, and the campaign contributions with which the payday lenders have rewarded him.

 

 

Student loans - the debt collector contracts

posted by Alan White

Twelve senators have just written EWKHto Education Secretary Betsy DeVos questioning why the Education Department continues to award lucrative contracts to debt collection firms, and criticizing the seriously misaligned incentives embedded in those contracts.

While most federal student loan borrowers deal with loan servicing companies like PHEAA, Navient and Nelnet, defaulting borrowers in an unlucky but sizeable minority (roughly 6.5 million) have their loans assigned to debt collectors like Collecto, Inc., Pioneer Credit Recovery, and Immediate Credit Recovery Inc. Borrowers assigned to collection firms immediately face collection fees of 25% added on to their outstanding debt. The collection firms harvest hundreds of millions of dollars in fees, mostly from federal wage garnishments, tax refund intercepts, and new consolidation loans borrowers take out to pay off old defaulted loans. Wage garnishments and tax refund intercepts are simply involuntary forms of income-based repayment, programs that could be administered by servicers without adding massive collection fees to student debt. Similarly, guiding defaulted borrowers to consolidation loans, and putting them into income-driven repayment plans, are services that servicing contractors can and do provide, at much lower cost. In short, the debt collector contracts are bad deals for student loan borrowers and bad deals for taxpayers.

 According to a Washington Post story, one of the collection firms to be awarded a contract this year had financial ties to Secretary DeVos, although she has since divested those ties. In other news, the current administration apparently reinstated two collection firms fired under the prior administration for misinforming borrowers about their rights. More in-depth analysis of the collection agency contract issue by Center for American Progress here.

Student loans - the other debt crisis

posted by Alan White
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Brookings Institute 2018

In a low unemployment economy, an entire generation is struggling, and millions are failing, to repay student loan debt. As many as 40% of ALL borrowers recently graduating are likely to default over the life of their student loans, according to a recent Brookings Institute analysis. Total outstanding student loan debt is approaching 1.5 trillion dollars, exceeding credit card debt, exceeding auto loan debt. Two other key points from the Brookings analysis: 1) for-profit schools remain the primary driver of high student loan defaults, and 2) black college graduates default at five times the rate of white college graduates, due to persistent unemployment, higher use of for-profit colleges and lower parental income and assets.

The rising delinquency (11% currently) and lifetime default rates are all the more disturbing given that federal student loan rules, in theory, permit all borrowers to repay based on a percentage of their income. Most student loans are funded by the U.S. Treasury, but administered by private contractors: student loan servicers. Study after study has found that student loan borrowers are systematically assigned to inappropriate payment plans,  yet the U.S. Education Department continues renewing contracts with these failing servicers. The weird public-private partnership Congress has created and tinkered with since the 1965 Higher Education Act is broken.

Unmanageable student loan debt will saddle a generation of students with burdens that will slow or halt them on the path to prosperity. Student loan collectors have supercreditor powers, to garnish wages and seize tax refunds without going to court, to charge collection fees up to 40%, to deny graduates access to transcripts and job licenses, and to keep pursuing debts, zombie-like, even after borrowers go through bankruptcy and discharge other debts. Recent graduates cannot get mortgages to buy homes, even if they are not in default, because their student loan payments are taking such a bite out of their monthly incomes. State legislatures have piled on educational requirements for a variety of entry-level jobs (nurse's aides, child care workers, teachers, etc.) while cutting state funding for public colleges and increasing tuition: unfunded job mandates. Finally, the combination of high debt and the harsh consequences of default are widening the racial wealth and income gaps.

Current reform proposals would make a bad situation worse. For example, it is difficult to see how increasing the percentage of income required for income-based repayment plans will help student borrowers, nor how extending the repayment period before loan retirement would reduce defaults. What is needed instead is to 1) deal with the for-profit school problem, 2) restore the state-level commitment to funding public colleges, 3) fix the broken federal student loan servicer contracting, 4) rethink the collection and bankruptcy regime for student loans and 5) repeal the student loan tax, i.e. the above-cost interest rates college graduates pay to the Treasury. Among other things. More on these themes in later posts.

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