CBO Projects Additional $1.3 Trillion in Student Loan Debt by 2024

…And that’s just the government loans.

Forget Erwin Chemerinsky’s and Carrie Menkel-Meadow’s NYT op-ed, the real news is the Congressional Budget Office’s baseline projection of the federal student loan program for FY 2014-2024. Notably, it thinks that over the next 11 years the government will lend out another $1.3 trillion in direct loans and that it’ll even make $1.10 per dollar lent. $115 billion of that will be Grad PLUS loans (9 percent).

Federal law requires the CBO to account for student loans by comparing the net present value of federal loans to investing in government debt. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, and the CBO would rather use fair-value accounting to evaluate the loan risk, so its hands are tied behind its back.

…But that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh at its absurd projections for Grad PLUS loans, about 30 percent of which go to ABA law school law students.

For one, the CBO believes that the government will make more than $1.30 on the dollar from Grad PLUS loans.

2014 Student Loan Baseline Projections (2)

(Click to Enlarge)

In the real world, most people who take out large balances of Grad PLUS loans will use IBR and then cancel their loans after 20 years. I’d be very surprised if non-law graduate and professional students counterbalance the losses the government will take on these loans. Another prediction I don’t think will pan out is the increase in the average amount borrowed and the number of borrowers.

The other fantasy is subtler: The CBO expects interest rates to spike over the next few years. By 2018, students will be borrowing at the maximum legal interest rates because either the economy will recover magnificently, or the bond vigilantes will finally come and stop lending the government money. (Then, of course, there would be a run on the dollar, export demand will spike, and we’ll return to full employment, but that’s off-topic.)

2014 Student Loan Baseline Projections (5)(Click to Enlarge)

If you do the math, on a 10-year repayment plan (which is used for calculating 20-year IBR monthly payments), law students entering today will pay a maximum additional 5.3 percent in interest for their 3L Grad PLUS loans over their 1L ones this fall. In other words, the CBO predicts law school’s costs will increase even as schools flatten or cut tuition.

I wonder if law professors writing op-eds agree.

After the JD Wave 0

Last month I wrote an article for the The Am Law Daily about the After the JD project, a longitudinal study that measures employment outcomes for people who passed the bar exam in 2000. I thought it might be interesting to offer, as an appendix, the Official Guide‘s employment outcomes for Y2K law grads (they’re in the ’03 edition). Obviously, this isn’t a perfect fit as some people who passed the bar in 2000 graduated earlier, but the overlap should be fairly significant.

Back in those days, though, the Official Guide wasn’t the treasure trove of knowledge that the ABA’s employment questionnaire reports are now, and it’s certainly not as detailed as the After the JD’s information is. However, for those interested in getting a sense of the legal market many of the After the JD cohort entered into by law school, look no further.

To conserve blog space, the tables will follow the jump.

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Class of 2013 Employment Report

[UPDATE: Emory's data are now included in this page.]

Okay, this’ll be short as I have work to do.

The ABA has released its employment data for the class of 2013, which is defined as everyone who graduated between September 1, 2012, and August 1, 2013. Employment data are outcomes as of February 15, 2014, irrespective of interim job changes. Savvy readers will notice that the most mediocre law school ever, Generic University School of Law, made an appearance again. They’ll also note that Emory’s data have been removed from the ABA’s site, which I’m sure will be corrected soon. For those who are truly curious, the ABA has even broken down the employment data for each of Cooley’s branch campuses. There are a few other traps for the unwary, e.g. schools that haven’t received even provisional ABA accreditation, like Lincoln Memorial. Even Peking China made the list. None of these schools have any useful data.

Generally, graduates fared little better this year than last year. 55.3 57 percent were employed full-time/long-term in bar-passage required jobs. This is up 0.2 0.8 percentage points from February 2013.

On the other hand, the graduate unemployment rate grew while the non-response rate declined.

Tables below the jump to conserve blog space.

Continue reading

What’s ‘Bold’ About Nominal Law School Tuition Cuts?

…Is the question readers of The New York Times asked themselves Saturday morning while reading, James B. Stewart’s, “A Bold Bid to Combat a Crisis in Legal Education.”

The article begins by promptly misleading readers into believing there is a “crisis” in legal education because five law schools have closed, even though apparently all five were non-ABA-accredited schools in California, which frequently enroll only a few students. The distinction is important because the article doesn’t investigate why those law schools closed (if they did—I suspect the NYT’s source is the Wikipedia, which isn’t always reliable for information on California law schools) and what commonalities their fiscal situations shared with Brooklyn Law School’s, the central character in the article.

Indeed, the NYT quotes Brooklyn’s dean, Nicholas Allard, saying that high law school debt burdens are a significant problem, yet students at most non-ABA schools are ineligible for the kind of easy federal student loans ABA schools are infamous for. In 2012-13, 49 percent of Brooklyn Law students took out an average $34,800 in Grad PLUS loans, which can cover the $29,500 gap between the annual Stafford Loan limit and full-time tuition—and also living expenses in cheap, cheap Brooklyn Heights.

As for Brooklyn’s “bold” move:

[Brooklyn] announced that it was taking some unusually bold steps to confront the crisis: The school is cutting tuition and abandoning what has become a widespread obsession with climbing the ladder of national law school rankings.

But the real question is, does Brooklyn Law have a choice? For instance, this year it accepted 47 percent of its full-time applicants, up 7 percent from 2012-13 and up 17 percent from 2011-12. In 2012-13, only 16 percent of its full-time students were paying full tuition. Sixty-three percent were paying $35,400 or less, which after cursory investigation makes Brooklyn the most “over-leveraged” law school in the New York City area in terms of merit aid. Even Seton Hall doesn’t subsidize that many full-time students by that much. Clearly, Brooklyn Law School was playing the scholarship game very, very hard.

And it still lost badly, hence the cuts.

Aside from the above criticisms, too much of the article relies on quotations rather than real reporting. Specifically, the last three paragraphs might as well have been written as an editorial by Dean Allard.

Mr. Allard argues passionately that the legal profession isn’t just for Supreme Court clerks and high-paid associates at elite firms. He noted that 94 percent of Brooklyn’s graduates passed the bar exam and 90 percent were currently employed in legal careers. Many meet the legal needs of underserved populations.

To my knowledge, the bar passage rate is right for last July, but the 90 percent employment in “legal careers” would be a miraculous turn of fortune for Brooklyn Law’s graduates. Fewer than half of its 2011 and 2012 grads were employed full-time, long-term in “bar passage required” positions, and less than 10 percent of both classes were in full-time, long-term “JD advantage” jobs. Did I mention that more than a quarter of these grads reported being either unemployed or didn’t respond to the survey?

Allard adds:

“Those who do manage to graduate from law school end up with excruciating debt. They feel compelled to take jobs with the highest paycheck to find some relief. They don’t feel free to work in jobs that fit their interests or that meet a critical demand.”

Tell that to the Brooklyn grads who never have an opportunity for such jobs.

Then he closes with the real howler:

[Allard] said he believed that law schools had an obligation to address the problem. “If we don’t get this right, we’ll create an acute shortage of lawyers, and law schools will price themselves out of business.”

An acute shortage of lawyers? In a state that allows foreign-trained graduates to take the state’s bar exam?

Yes, the nominal tuition cut and reduced merit scholarship gaming is a good thing. However, characterizing it as “bold” instead of “necessary”; comparing Brooklyn to tiny, non-ABA law schools that aren’t eligible for federal loans; and then handing the mic to the dean is not good reporting. The Times takes Allard at his word when he rhetorically asks, “If you increase quality and reduce cost, demand goes up. Why isn’t everybody doing this?” when it should be asking him why schools weren’t doing that before. Why can’t the Times ask what if anything law schools can do to reduce the signaling effect on law school costs?

Real coverage on the story would have involved asking whether the proposed tuition cut would in fact increase demand. Law degrees aren’t perfectly spherical widget cows from an econ textbook; they’re highly subsidized positional goods that have lost their popularity. How will Brooklyn Law communicate to prospective applicants that $45,000 annual tuition as opposed to $53,000 will make their degrees worth the risk of 20 percent unemployment nine months after graduation?

We’ll find out in a few years if the Times and Allard are right. If Brooklyn’s application and matriculant positions stabilize (it lost 700 full-time applicants this year), increase, or drop less than at nearby schools that don’t try cutting tuition, then we’ll know that its target consumers respond to price changes. However, history has shown that law school applicants weren’t sensitive to price increases in the past, so it stands to reason that they won’t be when prices fall.

If this is true, then Brooklyn Law will have to do more than cut nominal tuition.

The Unnatural End of American Social Reproduction

A theoretical sketch:

Young people are supposed to borrow money to buy houses, start business, and get educations that allow them to “buy out” the previous generation. Then they work, and as they age they save, often moving from home to home as their families grow. They eventually become the net creditors who are then bought out by the succeeding generation. They often downsize their homes. This is the generational lifecycle. It is the mechanism of social reproduction.

The cog in the generational lifecycle is the Georgist land cycle. Because the supply of land (especially urban locations) is fixed, its value is inevitably whipsawed by speculation. The more people buy land at the peak of the land cycle and lose out, the more land ends up in the hands of the wealthy (banks), who can afford to wait to sell the land when prices rise again. Everyone else must suffer.

If after several of these cycles, people lack the purchasing power to buy out the previous generation, they cease to reproduce—more so thanks to the contraception revolution—and existing landowners hoard land for longer, exacerbating the disruption of the generational lifecycle.

I believe this happened in Japan after its land bubble burst in 1990. I’m sure some moss-covered media outlet is overdue for an article on “herbivore” men and “parasite single” women.

Here’s evidence for the disruption in the United States. Behold the household formation rate.

Household Formation Rate

(Source: Table 13, 13(a), spikes due mainly to Census revisions)

Note that the conventional (blue) and revised (red) estimates were at a combined record low last year.

Now here are total households by age.

Total Households by Age

(Source: Table 12, 12(a))

…And declining homeownership rates.

Homeownership Rates by Age

(Source: Table 12, 12(a))

Undoubtedly, the relatively large boomer cohort is influencing what’s shown here, but eyeballing the charts shows that the 35-44 and <35 brackets are the ones that have been hampered the most. Also, the measure of new households isn’t a perfect measure of what we’re looking for. For instance, I have no idea how many people live in roommate-type arrangements or live alone. However, if you want more direct evidence of the disruption of the generational lifecycle, you can see here the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds who are children of householders. For women, the percentage has pretty much doubled since 2004. You can also see that for men the typical low was about 10 percent before 1980.

Figure AD-1b

(Source: Table AD-1b)

Mass unemployment and low wages ensure that young people won’t be able to buy out the older generation. Somewhere along the chain of homeowners, people will be unable to (or believe they will be unable to) sell their homes to the next household in the sequence. This will create pessimism for homeownership, freeze growth, and further reduce the number of future households.

Without reform it could take many years for the negative feedback from the land cycle to stop disrupting social reproduction.

The Official Guide is Dead, Long Live the Official Guide!

Deciding that paper is out, the ABA has moved the information that used to be published in the encyclopedic ABA-LSAC Official Guide to the ABA Law Schools to the Internet. I’m told that the ABA will release a spreadsheet full of the same data to make researchers’ lives easier.

Being a masochist, I went ahead and looked through the full-time tuition numbers anyway.

The biggest overall changes are one new private law school (Belmont), and Texas Wesleyan is now Texas A&M. It’s the first time since 1997 that a private law school has merged with a public university, but I think it will become more common going forward. For instance, South Carolinians were discussing buying up Charleston School of Law a few months ago. Same goes for the University of New Hampshire. In fact, just this weekend Vermont Law School was said to be in merger talks with the University of Vermont.

And yes, I have no idea why a public university would want to buy up a law school that’s losing money and students. Texas A&M, in fact, lost 33 students this year (~$770,000 netting out full-time and part-time students and assuming they’d pay full tuition). It’s like, they must be asking for a reorganization at some point down the road to say nothing of the fact that public law schools are obsolete.

As for tuition … it went up!

Full-Time Law School Tuition Dispersion (Excl. P.R., 2013 $)

(Clicking on this chart shall embiggen it.)

…As did the number of law schools that charge more than the $20,500 annual Stafford loan limit. Welcome to Grad PLUS country, travelers.

No. Law Schools With Tuition Exceeding Annual Stafford Loan Limit

Okay, we know at this point that a lot of people aren’t paying full price for legal education anymore, except if they lost their scholarships. Nevertheless, someone has to be paying for the merit aid, and despite the applicant crash, as of two years ago inflation-adjusted revenue from full-time students paying full tuition hadn’t stopped increasing. Even the median law school hauled in more money from full-time, full-paying students than before (~$7.8 million).

For tuition increases, though, the outlier of the year is Thomas M. Cooley Law School, which increased its full-time tuition by $6,400 (17 percent). Meanwhile, its full-time enrollment fell from 604 last year to 386 this year. The number of full-time matriculants this fall was 49, down from 115 last year (57 percent). Wow.

On the other side of the cost curve universe, Arizona’s resident tuition fell by 10 percent, a record low going back to … 2009, when you were listening to the soundtrack to Hannah Montana: The Movie.

I haven’t carefully combed the numbers for this year, but researchers should know that Southern University Law Center reported its semester tuition, not annual.

For private law schools, full-time tuition increases occurred on the more expensive end, but they’re slowing down in tandem, just not as quickly as the inflation rate.

Full-Time Private Law School Tuition Increases by Tuition Quintile (Current $)

That’s all I’ve got. Peace.

New America Foundation Discovers Law School Debt Disaster

Via Jordan Weissmann of Slate, the New America Foundation (NAF) issued a policy brief titled, “The Graduate Student Debt Review.” It opens with a suspiciously leading question, “Is America’s student debt problem due more to expensive graduate degrees than unaffordable undergraduate educations?” Like, why would it think graduate debt is a bigger problem than undergraduate debt? Hm … If I didn’t know any better I’d say the NAF has it in for Grad PLUS loans…

…Which I have no problem with. If the NAF wants to dress up in camos, put on war paint, and emerge from the lagoon with a machete clenched in its teeth as it hunts down the beast of unlimited student lending, I say have at it. I might even sneak into the theater to watch.

The obvious question, though, is what does the NAF mean by “America’s student debt problem”? I know what I think it means, but the NAF’s justifications appear to be different:

Students, families, and taxpayers invest significant resources in financing “college,” in large part because a bachelor’s or associate degree is a must for anyone who wants to secure a middle-class income. If students are taking on unmanageable debt to earn those credentials, then many would argue that the system isn’t working. We should not, however, draw the same conclusions from debt levels of students who attend graduate and professional school. While a graduate or professional degree boosts a student’s earnings prospects and the economy at large, it is not the foundation for economic opportunity and middle-class earnings that a two- or four-year degree now provides. (2)

My eyes bleed reading such ideology.

So if someone goes to college, doesn’t take out a lot of debt, but ends up among the 20 percent of graduates who earn less than the median high school graduate in the same age bracket, then the higher education system is working? What about the average defaulted federal loan balance being less than $15,000? How is the system working if someone can borrow a lot of money and pay it off even if they learned their skills on the job?

If I were paranoid, I would suspect that the NAF’s goal is to cut off the worst abuses of the student loan program to save it from critics who think higher education is mostly a positional good. That, or it’s innocently confused on the theoretical debate (such as it is in Washington). Recall that the NAF advocated eliminating Grad PLUS loans while increasing the unsubsidized Stafford loan limit to restore students’ lost purchasing power. It reasoned that Grad PLUS loans can “discourage prudent pricing on the part of institutions,” but the mainstay Stafford certainly does not because education is necessary for the middle class and $30,000 of student debt isn’t so bad.

Okay, so the NAF is probably motivated by a (correctly) assumed conclusion, but what about its findings?

The point of the policy brief is to show that graduate and professional students are borrowing more than a few years ago and that their borrowing accounts for a large portion of total federal student loans (40 percent of the evil $1 trillion+ figure). Therefore, we should separate trends in college borrowing from post-college borrowing. As evidence, the NAF sampled a dataset of people who finished several types of graduate and professional programs in 2004, 2008, and 2012 and displayed their median, 75th percentile, and 90th percentile debt levels.

The tables the NAF provides are interesting for what they are, and along with data provided elsewhere they do show that typical grad students’ debt levels are growing more than undergrads’. However, the tables don’t really answer the questions the NAF is asking. If 40 percent of all student loans are owed by graduates and professionals, we’d want to know the distribution of that 40 percent aggregate by course of study. (How much of it went to med school students? Is it really as bad as those law school scambloggers say? Etc.) That way, we’d know if the growth seen in the tables is systemic as the NAF asserts or isolated to a handful of degree fields.

Instead, the NAF tells us median debt levels for graduates in all fields have gone up, but we knew this already because Grad PLUS loans can go to living expenses and relatively few 2008 grads used them. In a sense the NAF equivocated when it asked, “Is America’s student debt problem due more to expensive graduate degrees than unaffordable undergraduate educations?” Are graduate degrees expensive because tuition costs more or because people are borrowing from the government to leave near campus? We can’t tell, but in Weissmann’s post, the brief’s author, Jason Delisle, claimed Grad PLUS loans mightn’t responsible for the increasing medians but probably the increases at the 75th and 90th percentiles. I don’t believe him either, but that’s what happens when you deny the possibility that credentials are positional goods.

One big reason a distribution analysis would have been more useful is that median debt levels in most graduate degree fields grew by less than $10,000 between 2008 and 2012, and the overall median was only $6,854 higher. The median for “medicine and other health sciences” grew by $23,700, but law grads, as always, stole the show: $44,500 more debt in four years. Indeed, very savvy readers will note that at $128,000, the median 2012 law grad’s debt load was way higher than the weighted average grad’s debt (~$107,000 by looking at the number of graduates and U.S. News debt rankings).

If there’s anything to say about graduate students and debt from this policy brief, it’s that the NAF has discovered that legal education is a unique disaster in higher education.

Instead, it lectures:

Students pursuing [graduate and professional] degrees already have an undergraduate degree, and they should be far more informed consumers. Therefore, they shouldn’t need a lot of public support to finance their next credential, which is why there are no Pell Grants for master’s degrees.

I can’t tell if the gratuitous phrase, “should be far more informed consumers,” is a normative statement against the grad students, their undergraduate institutions for failing to educate them properly, or the grad programs for pitching degrees of dubious value. Chalk one more up to the strategic use of the passive voice, I guess. The worst-case scenario is that the NAF believes that everyone who goes to grad school knows about IBR’s loan cancelation feature, so they irresponsibly attend thinking they won’t have to repay their debts even though they make lots of money because they’re so amazingly educated.

If you think I’m being hard on the NAF—well, I am—but the point is that its policy brief is a bellwether. The Grad PLUS Loan Program is not long for this world, and that’s a very good thing. On the other hand, the NAF is not the ally to the working class—sorry, “middle class”—it fantasizes to be. It’s very much enthralled by human capital theory, and it won’t pay any price if people graduate from college and don’t collect any premium.


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