It’s Only Links ‘n Roll

It’s been ages since I’ve done a music-themed links page, but a bunch of little news items have popped up that are undeserving of full-article treatment.

Beth Akers, “How Income Share Agreements Could Play a Role in Higher Ed Financing,” The Brookings Institution, October 16, 2014.

When we last (and first) met Beth Akers she was trolling the student debt crisis, but now she’s doing some good advocacy with “income share agreements,” a novel term for what I’ve seen referred to as human capital contracts. It’s just replacing debt with equity for financing higher education, but it shifts the risk (and the rare windfall) away from the students. Unfortunately it hasn’t come up often in recent debates, aside from the University of Oregon’s decision to investigate using them. The fear was that human capital contracts would lead to an “adverse selection” problem as with health insurance: People in majors with the best job prospects will prefer to pay full tuition while those with the worst prospects will take the equity route, leaving the funders (the university in Oregon’s case) broke. Adverse selection is really a problem for universities that don’t sell lucrative degrees, so I’m not sure it’s really the problem at all.

Rashmi Rangan and James Angus, “Time for a state-sponsored law school in Delaware,” DelawareOnline.com, October 12, 2014.

Remember the University of Delaware’s scheme to build a public law school? Well, Rangan and Angus don’t. The idea was first floated in late 2010, but several months later the university’s feasibility study produced some bad news: The project would cost $100 million and the law school would run at a $165 million operating deficit for ten years. Nothing about the rising wages and job vacancies for attorneys in Delaware. I guess those folks didn’t have the nerve to predict an attorney shortage that would have to be remedied with foreign lawyers like Indiana Tech did.

Rangan’s and Angus’s arguments for a public law school boil down to (a) the population of two of its counties is growing and (b) the school’s graduates would go into public service. Again, nothing on unfilled attorney positions and rising wages. Delaware would probably get a lot more out of a $100 million expenditure by funding legal aid clinics throughout the state.

Dean Baker, “Quick Note on Heavy Babies and GDP Accounting,” Beat the Press, October 16, 2014.

Baker writes:

I have always thought that for purposes like constructing cost-of-living indexes, we are best off just pulling out the money we spend on health care and measuring the price increases of non-health care consumption against the income we have left over after paying for health care expenses. This would treat spending on health care like a tax. If we want to then incorporate changes in our health into our assessment of living standards then we look directly at outcome measures (e.g. life expectancy, morbidity rates, self-rated health conditions), not the volume of health services we are consuming.

We could say the same thing about higher education costs, mutatis mutandis, given that there’s no evidence it increases national income yet we’re told it’s crucially necessary for “competitiveness.”

Kate Lao Shaffner, “Five Questions With … Altoona Mayor Matt Pacifico on walking routes, property taxes, and downtown struggles,” NewsWorks.org, October 14, 2014.

Altoona is a rare example of a municipality that has chosen to take advantage of Pennsylvania’s split-rate property tax system to implement land value taxation. In a Q&A with the city’s mayor, Matt Pacifico, though, he seems to think it “didn’t work.”

I think when we decided to go 100 percent Land Value Tax, it missed the mark on what it was intended to do. It was supposed to motivate homeowners to want to improve their dwellings without seeing their property taxes go up from the city, but a lot of homeowners in the city are unaware of how it works. So I don’t think it was properly promoted. For instance, you could build a $3 million house on a two acre parcel of land, and you’re only taxed by the city on the value of the land, and not the structure on it. However, the school district and the county still tax you by the structure, so it can be very confusing. If those two taxing bodies were also able to tax based on LVT, then it could have the right effect, but they are not.

This is a pretty muddled statement. On the one hand, Pacifico acknowledges that the effects of LVT have been hampered by concurrent property tax systems the city has no control over that still tax structures, but on the other hand he seems to think that the primary point of LVT is to stimulate home remodeling. I’d hazard that people don’t think much about property taxes when adding patios to their dwellings but do think about them when building new structures from scratch.

Pacifico isn’t alone, for even Altoona’s city council is going to investigate the results of the tax shift. Superficially, however, I think Altoona’s LVT been more successful than Pacifico believes. A 2011 article in the Altoona Mirror described residents calling the city asking why their property taxes had fallen—and land speculators complaining about their bills. Most persuasively, a study of the final phase of Altoona’s tax shift found that most parcels would receive a tax cut while most would see a hike if it shifted back to a flat property tax. Generally, the switch to LVT decreased revenue from residential parcels while increasing it from commercial parcels. Consequently, on an in personam basis, the findings should be that LVT has cut taxes on the majority of middle- and lower-income households and raised them on land owned by the wealthy.

Nevertheless, I hope that the investigation explores the effects of LVT on the land use of commercial properties and absentee or vacant parcels. Here’s hoping the results are both good and clearly presented.

Send a Comment to the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education

A while back I wrote about how the ABA was convening a Task Force on the Future of Legal Education and how it has its work cut out for it. It’s asking for comments before its February 9 meeting in Texas, so if you feel like saying something, do so. I’m reprinting my comment here, with a couple of corrections to watch out for in the endnotes. I admit I didn’t plan on submitting a comment until I was asked to, but it helped me summarize my thoughts on what the problems are and how they should be solved. It also gave me an opportunity to dumpster-dive into the LSTB and find posts on topics that don’t come up often but lurk in the background. The LSTB crested 300 posts recently, so there’s a lot there.

I’ll add that some of the comments are quite good (UC-Hastings dean Frank Wu’s is getting some deserved attention), and I mentioned a few of the better ones. I’ve at least skimmed through all of them (not so much the one by the Canadian lawyers that spanned hundreds of pages), but of the ones uploaded after mine I recommend most the one by UC-Los Angeles law professor Richard L. Abel because it addresses the history of how lawyers are licensed in the U.S.

****************************************

Matt Leichter

[email]

lawschooltuitionbubble.wordpress.com

January 16, 2013

Task Force on the Future of Legal Education

c/o Art Garwin, Deputy Director

Center for Professional Responsibility

American Bar Association

futurelegaled@americanbar.org

To the Honorable Randall T. Shepard and Task Force members,

I write at the encouragement of Task Force member Thomas Lyons, and I thank you for considering outside opinions such as my own. The Task Force is to be commended for accelerating its timetable, for such eagerness reflects positively on the ABA’s willingness to take seriously the problems facing new lawyers and legal education.

Until now, legal education reform has primarily focused on what I consider “demand-side issues”: furnishing more accurate information about law school graduates’ employment outcomes to prospective applicants so they can hopefully make informed decisions about becoming lawyers. The ABA Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar responded quicker to the information deficit than I’d predicted, but the successes of demand-side reforms of legal education pale against those problems remaining on the supply-side of lawyer licensing: The barriers to obtaining a law license (which includes law school costs) are too high and arbitrary, and they harm both aspiring lawyers and the public the profession serves. I recommend the Task Force consider legal education as one of many practices that require reform.

The Task Force Should Encourage the ABA to Shift Its Position on Federal Student Loans and Bankruptcy Reform, Embrace Novel Education Financing Options

            That said, the education requirement for becoming a lawyer is obviously the most salient issue today, but recognizing that one of the Task Force’s subcommittees is dedicated to improving the delivery of legal education, I believe this is one of the last items that require revision. Overall, I find demands for “practice-ready” attorneys to be a distraction from more legitimate concerns. If employers want certain skills they should train their workers themselves and advocate simplifying the lawyer-licensing process accordingly. That’s how it works other industries, and asking educators to provide training for jobs that employers aren’t obliged to create costs students unfairly.

Rather, the dominating problem with law school is the over-generous Federal Direct Student Loan Program (DLP), which obligingly lends most students up to $20,500 in Stafford loans and the remaining total cost of attendance plus living expenses in Grad PLUS loans each year. I believe that access to unlimited student loans, well-intentioned as it may be, enables law schools to increase their tuition for as long as people are willing to attend them.[i] I suspect that without Grad PLUS loans and the restrictions on discharging private student loans in bankruptcy, both authorized in Congress’ 2005 bankruptcy reform,[ii] tuition at private law schools would have begun to level off or even decline by now because students would have been unable to finance it.

My views break with those long held by the ABA, which regularly supports increased lending to law students,[iii] and calls for ending the DLP are often met with hostile responses that the legal profession would only be accessible to the wealthy. I disagree. With the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting a surplus of law school graduates into the indefinite future, I see no justification for the government to lend money to people to buy degrees for which jobs are unavailable.[iv] Nor am I convinced that legal education is a public good requiring government support. I further believe the often-made claim that legal education is versatile and opens job opportunities beyond law practice to be unsubstantiated and fallacious.[v] Cheaper lawyer training is possible, and the current system does not open doors to the poor but in fact creates poverty by saddling law students with large loan burdens.

Consequently, many of the people who will graduate law school in the future, to say nothing of those from the past, will have very large debts and no place in the legal profession commensurate with the effort they put into law school. Although the government’s Income-Based Repayment (IBR) plan will rescue these students from destitution, it will still require them to pay essentially an additional, regressive tax on their earnings for twenty years, which will be acutely felt if they are not working as professionals. IBR’s loan cancelation privilege (if it is not abolished in the near future)[vi] coupled with excessive loan burdens persuade me that the federal government will lose billions of dollars canceling money lent to law students. Law schools and the ABA ignore the approaching confrontation with legislators at their own peril.

The ABA’s most-recent response I know of to existing student loans is to advocate requiring private lenders to extend IBR-like protections to debtors.[vii] I think instead the ABA should shift its position towards reforming the bankruptcy code to restore full bankruptcy protections to all student loans and ending the DLP. It can also encourage state governments to require their public universities to offer, instead of debt financing, an equity option called “human capital contracts,” which obligate graduates to pay a certain portion of their incomes for a fixed time period back to their universities. Unlike IBR, this type of policy forces universities to internalize the costs of their own programs, and if their programs become insolvent, universities should terminate them.[viii] Embracing these policies would signal to the public that the ABA understands the causes of factors enabling law school tuition increases and excessive student debt, and it would begin to heal the generational rift forming between new law school graduates and the profession from which they are increasingly alienated.

As for the law schools themselves, the student loan system animates many of their frequently discussed inefficiencies, such as competition over U.S. News rankings, overcompensation of employees, needless new buildings, funding positions for graduates to improve their employment statistics, over-focusing on GPA and LSAT scores at the expense of other factors,[ix] and using fees from some students to attract well-credentialed students with scholarships. If possible, rather than regulating bad behavior, the ABA should address the incentives that encourage bad behavior.[x]

Even other reforms such as easing accreditation requirements or reducing the required number of credits for law school[xi] might not affect how law schools operate so long as their students are fully financed by the government. For example, many private law schools that do not rank very highly on U.S. News are nevertheless very expensive. Also, the lure of federal loan dollars is so powerful that many law schools in states that license graduates of non-ABA institutions forgo the option of delivering cheaper legal education in favor of national accreditation and the DLP loans that accompany it. For these reasons I believe the Task Force should take student loan reform as the most urgent priority for law licensing and legal education reform.

The Task Force Should Encourage Bar Authorities to Reduce Remaining Entry Barriers to the Profession

Student loans, however, are not the only problem the profession’s entry system faces. In recent years critics have used the discontent directed at law schools as an opportunity to advocate for deregulating the legal profession entirely. Many of their arguments are poorly researched, particularly those demanding reform by claiming without evidence that doing so would cure an attorney shortage in the United States.[xii] They are correct that the profession’s entry barriers are arbitrary, and the longer the profession defends them and the DLP, the more likely outside forces will unilaterally rescind its autonomy. Outside of the risk of incompetent practice, this might not be a bad thing, even if done for the wrong reasons, but rather than resisting calls for change, the Task Force should acknowledge the weaknesses in most states’ lawyer-licensing rules and encourage efforts to change them.

For instance, bar exams in their current form are not defensible entry barriers. They almost always occur long after bar petitioners have sunk enormous costs into legal education,[xiii] they are too hard for some people who might otherwise make fine lawyers (“false negatives”), they test many obsolete legal doctrines, and they also omit entire substantive practice areas to which many attorneys dedicate their entire careers. Although I agree that some showing of legal knowledge (especially of ethics and constitutional law) is justifiable, demanding too much is not. Streamlining bar exams along practice lines would greatly reduce the incidence of false negatives among bar petitioners and conserve resources for all test-takers.

Simplifying the bar would also reduce the possibility of law schools knowingly accepting applicants who probably lack the aptitude to pass the exam because of the correlation between LSAT scores and bar passage.[xiv] Perhaps between five and ten percent of ABA law school graduates who take a bar exam never pass. Some test-takers might take more than one exam, passing one and not another, but the ABA should do everything in its power to prevent law schools from enrolling students who will waste precious time and money for a license they probably will not obtain, even if it means tightening bar passage requirements for accredited law schools. It’s unfair to deny people a place in the profession because the exam wasn’t calibrated to the knowledge they need as practicing attorneys. It’s also unfair to the clients they could have served.

It’s also probable that the law licensing system allows too many “false positives,” people who by virtue of their LSAT scores and GPAs appear to make good lawyers but don’t.[xv] I’m not knowledgeable of data on firm associate retention rates or similar topics, but front-loading the legal education requirement makes it too easy for people who do not know if law practice suits them to enter the profession. It also widens the information asymmetry between law school applicants and law schools, which the latter has greatly used to their advantage by admitting applicants who serve law schools’ reputational goals before their students’.

The mandatory legal education requirement doesn’t serve potential lawyers well either. For instance, the aforementioned correlation between LSAT scores and bar passage rates disserves those on the opposite end of the bar exam aptitude spectrum as well, which raises the question: Why require someone who will likely pass the bar exam by self-study anyway to attend law school? If the principal benefit law school provides these individuals is signaling their competence for good job opportunities, then I believe the Task Force should consider eliminating the formal legal education requirement altogether.

Conclusion

Declining applications and hostility towards law schools and law practice are teaching the public that demand for legal education (or, rather, law licenses) is not connected to demand for legal services. If the near-term solution to many of legal education’s problems is curbing the government’s lending to law students, the longer-term solution is to align the profession’s licensing system to the public’s need for legal services. I believe adopting my suggestions will accomplish both goals.

Thank you for considering my thoughts.

Regards,

Matt Leichter


[i] For information on the theoretical basis of my beliefs, I recommend, Andrew Gillen’s “Introducing Bennett Hypothesis 2.0,” from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. http://centerforcollegeaffordability.org/uploads/Introducing_Bennett_Hypothesis_2-1.pdf (PDF). I have yet to see a convincing author discredit Gillen’s analysis.

[ii] [Update: This is incorrect. Grad PLUS loans were authorized separately from bankruptcy reform by Congress in February 2006.]

[iii] See e.g. ABA president Carolyn Lamm, “Law School Debt Has a Manageable Solution,” 2009. http://www.americanbar.org/groups/law_students/initiatives_awards/advocacy/debt_solutions.html

[iv] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Lawyers,” Occupational Outlook Handbook. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/lawyers.htm

[v] Matt Leichter, “The Juris Doctor Is ‘Versatile’ Thanks Mainly to Numerous Logical Fallacies,” The Am Law Daily, August 14, 2012. http://www.americanlawyer.com/PubArticleALD.jsp?id=1202567415810&The_Juris_Doctor_is_Versatile_Thanks_Mainly_to_Numerous_Logical_Fallacies

[vi] One bill that may make its way through Congress proposes to end the loan forgiveness portion of IBR for future students, which will condemn many law school graduates to a lifetime of debt. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-04/student-loan-collection-targeted-for-overhaul-in-congress.html

[vii] ABA Resolution 111A, Young Lawyers Division, http://www.abajournal.com/files/111a.pdf (PDF).

[viii] Similar ideas have been proposed by a student organization advocating reform of the University of California systems, called “FixUC,” which I wrote about here: http://lawschooltuitionbubble.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/fixuc-stumbles-onto-human-capital-contracts/.

[ix] One comment to the Task Force that illustrates law schools valuing incoming student credentials over applicants’ strengths is by non-traditional law student Elizabeth Paskiewicz, who has significant experience in the legal profession as a non-lawyer and performed very well in her paralegal education, but most ABA law schools overlooked her because of their mechanistic decision-making processes that exclude applicants with low undergraduate GPAs.

[x] For example, even without the student loan system, law schools still have an incentive to compete over their magazine rankings, which is fine, but they may still falsify student data they send to the ABA. If so, then auditing them is a good idea.

[Update: This sentence didn’t come out right. Something more like “If possible, rather than regulating bad behavior, the ABA should address the factors that aggravate bad behavior.” My point is that we might not be able to live in a world where law schools don’t engage in needless competition (over their U.S. News rankings, for example). Regulations like auditing make more sense if addressing the loan program is insufficient.]

[xi] Although there have been growing calls (most recently in New York) to reduce the education requirement from three years to two, I discourage the Task Force from endorsing such proposals simply because the third year is expensive and not useful. This ignores the root cause of tuition increases, and one private law school in five has raised its tuition by 50 percent or more since 1999, meaning two years in 2011 buys a full degree then. Rather, I recommend the Task Force address the DLP but flip the question of usefulness around: How much formal legal education is necessary and why?

[xii] The primary example that springs to mind is Clifford Winston’s, Robert W. Crandall’s, and Vikram Maheshri’s book, The First Thing We Do, Let’s Deregulate All The Lawyers, 2011. A blurb from their Wall Street Journal article on the subject can be found on TaxProfBlog: http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2011/08/its-time-.html. I’ve written more on the topic: http://lawschooltuitionbubble.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/wsj-op-ed-brings-shock-doctrine-to-law-practice/, http://lawschooltuitionbubble.wordpress.com/2011/09/02/the-economist-has-never-heard-of-the-bureau-of-labor-statistics/.

[xiii] One influence for this section are the sentiments expressed in the comment to the Task Force by Nicholas L. Georgakopoulos.

[xiv] Here are two examples documenting the connection: http://www.unc.edu/edp/pdf/NLBPS.pdf (PDF); http://academic.udayton.edu/thewhitestlawschools/2005twls/chapter2/Legaled04.htm (more recent, but hearsay).

[xv] I believe the “26 factors of lawyer effectiveness [plus one]” cited in Nancy B. Rapoport’s comment to the Task Force are the definitive factors for “true positive” lawyers.

A Bitter Boxing Day Op-Ed for Private Student Loan Debtors

John Hupalo, “Discharging Private Student Loans Is Counterproductive,” U.S. News & World Report.

Tagline: “For an overwhelming majority, it will impair their future ability to borrow.”

Hupalo is the CEO of Invite Education, LLC, which appears to be a college planning resource for prospective applicants and parents, but his cred comes from decades of experience in education finance.

Unfortunately, the arguments he makes in his op-ed do not benefit from his experience. He even contradicts himself within the same sentence early on:

Turning bankruptcy courts into turnstiles for the discharge of the least common form of student loan debt may temporarily assist some distressed borrowers, but the overwhelming majority will not be helped.

How does benefiting “some distressed borrowers” with the least common form of student loan debt who are not in the overwhelming majority of student debtors turn bankruptcy courts into “turnstiles”? Also, bankruptcy is not “temporary,” a discharge order is permanent.

Hupalo’s piece is concise, but I’m going to summarize the arguments and provide brief responses:

(1)  Bankruptcy appears on your credit report for 10 years and ruins your creditworthiness.

Defaulting on a loan is much worse for your creditworthiness (and sometimes job eligibility) than bankruptcy, and plenty of banks love lending money to people who can’t obtain another discharge for eight more years. They also know how to collateralize cars and houses for auto loans and mortgages. The credit hit from bankruptcy is a factor to weigh, but (a) it does recover, and (b) if the loan is large and unpayable, bankruptcy does more good than harm.

Also, I’ll add right now that debtors aren’t stupid, and moral hazard arguments are always overblown. People use the bankruptcy system as a last resort. Most of the time they file because they’ve lost their jobs, gotten divorced, or aren’t insured so they have to pay for their own radiation therapy. Included in the 2005 law that extended the “undue hardship” exception to dischargeability of private student loans was a provision that required Chapter 7 petitioners to show that their incomes were below their state’s median household income. If it’s above the median, they have to file in Chapter 13, which will require them to repay some of the debt in a 3-5-year repayment plan. With bankruptcy protections on their side, debtors can negotiate with their lenders and avoid using the courts, and bankruptcy fraud is very, very rare.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we continue:

(2)  Bankruptcy protections increase interest rates for private student loans.

Good.

Seriously, this is how lending works: Those who make large unsecured loans to people who can’t repay them should charge higher interest rates, demand co-signers, and not offer in-school deferments. If the loan is too risky, don’t make it. The alternative is a human capital contract, which may or may not work, but it’s a compromise option.

(3)  It’s not fair for the government to shield its loans from bankruptcy while not doing so for private loans. It’s also confusing to borrowers.

(a) Borrowers will always be confused. The federal lending system alone is very complicated, much less the bankruptcy code. (b) Aside from people who take out Parent PLUS loans, to my knowledge all other federal loans are IBR-eligible. Debtors who are on Social Security Disability can also petition the Department of Education for a hardship discharge, which the “Pay-As-You-Earn” rule-change made easier. Private loans don’t offer these options. (c) Honestly, I have slight sympathy for the fairness argument: Yes, the government is unfairly undercutting the private sector (and not even doing a good job of it). However, I think bankruptcy protections should be returned for federal loans too, and I won’t lose any sleep if the Direct Loan Program is repealed. I just don’t find Hupalo’s argument that incrementalism is unfair to be persuasive.

(4)  The seven percent private loans of all student loans are underwritten; the other 93 percent of federal loans aren’t. This is unfair.

It sure is. That’s a problem with the Direct Loan Program, but how is it relevant to private loans in bankruptcy?

(5)  Private student loan debtors can discharge their debts via the “undue hardship” exception, which is reasonably high to protect from moral hazard.

(a) The “undue hardship” standard is not defined in the bankruptcy code, leaving the statutory interpretation up to the federal appellate courts and the factual application to the caprice of bankruptcy judges. If you were worried about “confusion” before, how many people do you think know off the top of their heads if their federal circuit uses the Brunner test, the “totality of the circumstances” test, or some other one? How many people even know anything about the federal circuit they’re in? (b) Admittedly, many people who might have a shot at discharging their student loans don’t even bother trying to file an adversary proceeding against their student loan creditors, which leads the public into believing the loans are as nondischargeable as child support payments, but again, it comes down to the bankruptcy judge’s opinion. (c) When the “undue hardship” exception was first inserted into the bankruptcy code, it coincided with a five-year time limit on dischargeability, so the urgency for legislative clarity didn’t exist. With the time limit removed for federal loans in 1998, the law pretty much put debtors’ fates in bankruptcy judges’ hands. Hupalo doesn’t appear interested in discussing whether that’s a good idea.

FixUC Stumbles onto Human Capital Contracts

Nanette Asimov, “Plan Would Eliminate Tuition to UC’s Benefit,” in SFGate.com

Leanne Maxwell, “UC Considers Students’ ‘Delayed Tuition’ Proposal,” in sfist.com

News outlets are reporting on a proposal (PDF) produced by a student organization, FixUC, which operates out of University of California-Riverside. More importantly, the university is actually considering it. The proposal is essentially the kind of human capital contracts plan endorsed by economists from Richard Vedder to Robert Reich: instead of paying tuition up front, students pay after they graduate (or drop out). In this incarnation, graduates will pay 5 percent of their incomes over 20 years; FixUC argues that graduates earning $50,000 on average over 20 years will pay the current four-year tuition, $50,000, back to the university. Tuition, though, isn’t total cost of attendance, including living expenses, textbooks, etc.

As readers know, I’m a fan of these kinds of proposals. With good enforcement, they provide clear data on the value of specific degrees, encourage efficient education, and prevent the drain on college graduates’ incomes to interest payments on student debt. I’ve written in more detail on the potential benefits of human capital contracts before.

As of now, the proposal only applies to undergraduates, so UC will still be able to loot its law students’ future incomes at $40,000 – $50,000 per year to pay for other programs, excessive administrators, and pepper-spraying security. If it were applied to legal education, UC’s programs would be able to offer cheap national-level education, though it’s doubtful it’d still be worthwhile.

I have two concerns to write about:

(1)  From a practical standpoint, “graduates’ income” here isn’t defined. Is it gross income? Net income? Net income above the poverty line, which Income-Based Repayment uses? Much rests on the assumption that the premium of a college degree over a high school degree is sufficient to make the endeavor worthwhile for students, including forgoing four years of full-time income, which FixUC doesn’t discuss. If the premium of opportunity costs plus five percent more income plus one dollar doesn’t materialize, then it’s still a drain on the economy going to the university.

(2)  One point in the proposal reads:

“Campuses will be encouraged to refrain from giving preferential treatment to departments and majors that lead students to more traditionally lucrative careers.”

I fail to see the problem with investing in lucrative education. As much as I enjoyed reading Theaetetus, that doesn’t mean I think electrical engineers should subsidize it. Doing so promotes education as consumption rather than investment. People should take a Plato seminar because it’ll enrich them, not because someone else is paying for it.

As a caveat, I’ve written elsewhere that I’m acclimated to a worldview of downward mobility for young adults, but FixUC’s proposal boldly promises to be revenue positive for the university. Thing is, I’m not sure that on net UC’s college degrees are really worth $50,000 given the corruption EduBubble routinely accuses of UC. Human capital contracts are generally better than student loans, but while universities have an incentive to maximize graduates’ employment, they still get paid if graduates ultimately lose money in the long run. “Better than student loans” isn’t the same thing as “revenue positive for students” and society.

Two Worlds, Side by Side: ABA Journal & Letter from Law School

I received a letter from my law school subtly informing me that my name would be placed on “the permanent donor wall located near the entrance” if I gave a gift or commitment of $5,000.

The same day, the ABA Journal published Bill Henderson’s article titled, “The Law School Bubble: How Long Will It Last if Law Grads Can’t Pay the Bills?” in which the author writes in a section called, “ENDGAME”:

“Given the likelihood of some form of curb in federal student lending, there are gut-wrenching times ahead for law schools—even those that continue to enjoy a surplus of applicants … [T]he U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics acknowledges a shortage of [doctors and dentists] and a growing glut of lawyers. Further, the Bureau projects that these shortages and surpluses will continue over the next decade.”

I don’t bring this up to attack my law school specifically—mine’s not alone in asking for alumni donations—and it’s no secret that my dollars are better spent on rent, groceries, and Screaming Trees’ discography than to have my name placed on a wall for vanity’s sake. Rather, I wonder aloud if lawyers who do have the disposable income and the class/professional/generational identity will gift their law schools money after reading Henderson’s argument that law schools are over-enrolled, overbuilt, yet devouring excessive amounts of federal debt money nonetheless.

I have four thoughts on Henderson’s article.

(1)  The law graduate surplus is not new. Here’s how Henderson characterizes the situation:

“Youthful overoptimism, bleak job prospects for college grads and the entry of several more universities and for-profit businesses into the legal education business are some of the root causes for the supply-and-demand imbalance in entry-level lawyers.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics wrote in 1996:

“During the 1970s, the annual number of law school graduates more than doubled, outpacing the rapid growth of jobs. Growth in the yearly number of law school graduates tapered off during the 1980s, but again increased in the early 1990s. The high number of graduates will strain the economy’s capacity to absorb them.”

I repeat this point once again because (a) it still shocks me, and (b) it not only illustrates the scope of the law school bubble, but it also speaks to the ABA’s carelessness. Although I wrote last week that the Association’s Section of Legal Education’s accreditation system doesn’t cause tuition hikes, that doesn’t mean it’s blameless for the situation the profession is now in. The ABA was in the best position to inform the public that there were too many law graduates and it could’ve encouraged existing law schools to taper enrollments while dissuading universities from initiating new programs on frivolous justifications. It may’ve even been able to hamper enrollments by requiring more undergraduate prerequisites the way medical and dental schools do. These steps might not’ve worked, but contrast them to the ABA’s current ideology, which to this day has been to encourage access for anyone at any cost.

Now, the costs are coming in, and worse, otherwise excellent economists tell us that the ABA is greedily engineering a lawyer shortage contrary to the evidence. Catastrophe and ignorance do not combine for effective solutions, and the ABA will now have to manage both.

(2)  Speaking of the ABA, Henderson hints at the question that’s been slowly festering: Will the ABA, ED, and Congress throw indebted law grads under the bus?

“Although IBR may be viewed as a boon to law students, law school graduates may view it differently—15 percent of their monthly income paid over more than half of their career span is a severe burden, especially if the sought-after gains in earning power fail to materialize…”

“Still, scrutiny by the scamblogger movement and legal and mainstream media may speed up the process. One plausible outcome has the Education Department using its accreditation authority to force law schools to demonstrate, as a condition of receiving federal loan money, a minimum threshold of employability and income upon graduation.”

I’m more in the boon category than Henderson. When I enrolled, law school debtors had to make the monthly payments or watch the interest capitalize onto principal forever, so I still see IBR as better than the world without it. Plus, it’s now 10 percent of disposable income, and I’m guessing that a lot of people who have a few kids will see their monthly payments drop to the level of a utility bill they don’t discuss. They’ll worry about the income tax issues later, but that’s a long way off and there is an insolvency exclusion in the tax code.

Still, his is a fair point: there is no justice in forcing someone to pay a debt for something they cannot directly use. The whole point of student debt is to increase human capital more quickly so the economy can benefit from it sooner. If there is little human capital created or it’s unnecessary, then it’s morally wrong to force people to pay a cent for their degrees. Such is the risk of making unsecured loans.

However, look at Henderson’s prediction of ED more rigorously regulating law schools. What does this do for “Andrea,” the twice laid-off 2009 law school graduate the article uses to illustrate the problem? Sure, fewer law grads in the future shrinks the bottleneck and increases the present value of her law degree, but even if that were to happen tomorrow, are we really supposed to believe that lawyer salaries will rise to the point that she’s making payments on a 25-year monthly plan and not on IBR? It’s unlikely to happen, which is why we should be leery of partial fixes. Unfortunately, I doubt the ABA will start advocating for those it’s effectively abandoned. It should.

(3)  Speaking of solutions, we have a law school dean who does not like them:

“Mark Grunewald, interim dean of the law school at Washington and Lee University, thinks any blanket restrictions on federal student lending would be disastrous and unfair. ‘There are real differences among prospective law students’ economic circumstances, and new blanket restrictions on lending could hurt those most in need of financial support,’ he says. ‘It’s also unclear what the legal employment market might look like after a general economic recovery. Market forces may ultimately prove to be a better corrective.'”

Washington and Lee’s tuition has grown 35 percent over the inflation rate since 2004, above $40,000. Three years then buys two years today with no discernable increase in quality. Between 2004 and 2010, its full-time student-faculty ratio dropped roughly 18 percent to 9.5. Washington and Lee could easily provide cheaper legal educations without risking its accreditation, but it chooses not to. If Dean Grunewald were serious about ensuring access, he could persuade W&L’s Board of Trustees to invest in its students by giving them free legal educations conditioned on them paying 10 percent of their salaries back for 10 years. If this causes Washington and Lee to lose money or close, so be it. It’s not the federal government’s problem if a law school doesn’t increase human capital.

But the part that riles me is the “blanket restrictions on federal student lending” being “disastrous and unfair.” Does Dean Grunewald also think the blanket restriction on discharging student debt is “disastrous and unfair”? I bet not.

(4)  Henderson writes:

“Unless the government’s actuarial assumptions on student loan repayments turn out to be correct, federal funding of higher education is on a collision course with the federal deficit.”

It’s worse than this: the government knows its actuarial assumptions are wrong. The Congressional Budget Office directly told Congress that its accrual accounting methodology overstated the revenue of student loans, and when it used fair-value accounting it found the government loses 12¢ on the dollar on average over the next decade. This is without including IBR in the mix, so we’re looking at somewhere around $120 billion in losses on top of the drain on the economy that comes from zombie-debtors making good on bad debts rather than spending on houses and kids toys.

The CBO adds:

“The costs of income-contingent repayment, or of loan forgiveness or forbearance, are generally higher on a fair-value basis than under [accrual] accounting, because borrowers are more likely to take advantage of those opportunities in economic downturns, when the value of the forgone payments is greatest. (Page XI)”

I hope the student debt write-down Henderson writes about isn’t far off, but until then our lawyers are left with two worlds, side by side. In the one hand, the dean’s letter and the name on the wall near the door? Or in the other, Bill Henderson’s shameful law school debt factories?

I choose Screaming Trees.

(Oh, and this is my 200th post. Yay!)

Federal Student Loan Debt Will More Than Double by 2021; GDP, Not So Much

A few weeks ago I painstakingly projected where the federal government’s Direct Loan Program was going, and for the last several months I’ve been tracking growth in government holdings of nonrevolving debt as a proxy for the government’s Direct Loans balance to prove that. Here’s what I projected:

Then a reader directed me to the Office of Budget and Management’s (OMB) Mid-Session Review (MSR), which has been doing this all along. The following data come from the 2012, 2011, and 2010 MSRs. The 2009 MSR doesn’t have Direct Loan balances (but amusingly, it fails to predict the recession, which doesn’t bode well for OMB’s credibility).


What’s neat is that my projections were largely accurate. The Direct Loan Program will cause student debt to grow from 1% to 8% of GDP yet never crest it. The loan balance is growing linearly, thankfully. However, there are two potential flaws. One, the GDP growth the government is projecting may not come to pass. Sure, recovery will eventually come, but refusal on Congress’s part to increase spending and the Fed’s inaction suggest that we are taking the slowest, most painful path to recovery. Slow growth implies a higher debt-to-GDP ratio of Direct Loans.

Two, here’s a table of the numeric growth in Direct Loans:

YEAR DL NUMERIC GROWTH ($ Billions)
2009 293
2010 179
2011 110
2012 126
2013 173
2014 148
2015 138
2016 123
2017 107
2018 101
2019 96
2020 94
2021 96

The numeric growth includes a combination of newly originated loans less defaulted and repaid loans. Notice how the numeric growth declines below $100 billion per year by the end of the decade. Assumedly, this decline is due to loans originated now being repaid. Although, there’s good reason to suggest they won’t be. The government uses “accrual accounting” to determine the value of the loans, which excludes the actual market risk caused by a poor economy. If the economy is depressed, the government will receive a lower return on its loans due to defaults and Income-Based Repayment (IBR), which is effectively a twenty-five (and soon twenty)-year Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan. Student loans are the only type of consumer debt increasing in this depressed economy, and their nondischargeability reduces debtors’ purchasing power, which further hampers economic growth.

By contrast, we know that when we apply fair-value accounting rules to Direct Loans, the government loses money. Meanwhile, we don’t know if the government is taking tuition increases into account. There’s zero evidence that higher education will cost less in the future, so as tuition increases, so will debt loads, and by extension the amount the government is willing to give to ED to loan out.

Doubling the amount of debt on the government’s books makes sense if the gains materialize, i.e. the graduates’ educations transform them into more productive workers than had they not gone. This would be signaled—not proven—by significant growth in wages for college graduates, which we haven’t seen for many, many years. Whether college degrees alone actually transform students into better workers has not been established, and I believe it to be false.

Loaning a trillion dollars over a decade for higher education when the returns are doubtful is not something the private sector would do without loan guarantees. Thus, ending the guaranteed loan program in 2010 was a good idea as it was costly to the government, but doing so gave the federal government a pyrrhic victory because it’s now essentially guaranteeing the loans to itself. Ultimately, we will have to choose between letting the private sector finance higher education with some combination of fully dischargeable student loans and human capital contracts, or the government will have to pick up the tab and assume the risk of buying educations for people who may not use them productively.

The Law School Problem Is Vertical, Not Horizontal as Most Law Professors Believe

I take [the LawScam critique] to be that legal education is hoodwinking prospective law students into law school and conspiring to produce an oversupply of lawyers that face diminished job prospects and crippling debt loads. –Usha Rodrigues (Associate Professor of Law, University of Georgia), “ScamLaw: The Master’s Forum,” The Conglomerate

So, if I’m right, then the argument is: third and fourth tier schools are misleading students, it’s criminal, shut them down. I take it that this is a clean solution to the LawScam: remedy the oversupply of new lawyers by cutting it in half.  I’m not advocating this solution, but just observing that it seems like that’s where you end up if you follow the LawScam argument to its logical conclusion. –Rodrigues, “ScamLaw: Paternalism or prudence?” [emphasis original]

Rodrigues’ statements are a significant step ahead of mainstream legal media coverage of scambloggery, exemplified by Karen Sloan’s editorial on Lucille Jewel’s scam blog article:

It’s difficult to gauge the effect the scam blogger movement has had on the larger debate over the transparency of law school employment data. The American Bar Association recently moved to require law schools to report more detailed job information in its annual questionnaire. However, that push involved a number of more traditional advocates, including law professors and Law School Transparency, a nonprofit group formed by two former Vanderbilt University Law School students.

To which I observe that few if any of the scam blogs I know of prioritize transparency over discouraging people from applying, closing superfluous law schools, and obtaining justice for student debtors. Indeed, I believe scam blogs have been successful in their first objective. Specifically, the wrecked economy did not contribute to as significant a rise in law school applicants as in the past, and according to the LSAC’s preliminary estimates, 2011 is witnessing a law school applicant nosedive. The LSAC’s preliminary number of applicants per law school has dropped to what it was in prosperous 1998, and when compared to Official Guide estimates and Census data, the number of law school applicants per capita is at an all time low going back to 1984, though it’s just one hundredth of a point lower than 1985. Such is the power of the Internet.

The relentless reality presented by scam bloggers persuaded LawProf to begin Inside the Law School Scam (ITLSS), which in turn prompted Rodrigues and her colleagues, the The Conglomerate’s “Masters,” to hold a forum titled, “ScamLaw.” In my opinion, the Masters’ views by and large speak for the legal academy’s understanding of the situation, including what solutions will work. The results discourage me. Here are my criticisms.

I. ScamLaw Misses the History of the Scam Blog Movement

Alarmingly, ScamLaw attempts to reset the clock, setting ITLSS to Year One. This is a wrong move because scam blogs are not a new phenomenon and have existed since at least 2007 with WSJ Law Blog’s Loyola 2L, Temporary Attorney: The Sweatshop Edition, and gifted satirist Scott Bullock’s Big Debt Small Law. Aside from a brief mention of the “burgeoning field of law scam blogs” by Brett McDonnell, ScamLaw brazenly ignores the scam blog movement’s history, which I think contributes to the Masters’ disappointing discussion.

II. ScamLaw Misses Other Academics’ Discussions on the Topic

Sanitizing history, though, is only one of ScamLaw’s problems. Its lack of rigor is more unfortunate, and by focusing on LawProf and ITLSS, it misses an excellent discussion of the legal education system’s pathologies, conducted not even by scam bloggers but between Washington University’s Brian Tamanaha and Loyola Los Angeles’s Theodore Seto. I summarized Tamanha’s and Seto’s discussion and recommend readers skip ScamLaw’s corpus and read that instead, both because it’s better and their discussion illustrates the problems as I see them, making it a good reintroduction to the LSTB for newer readers.

III. Horizontal and Vertical Perspectives

The problem with the ScamLaw Masters’ perspective is that they see the problem as horizontal, as between and among law schools. They do not see it as vertical in terms of the interests of the various parties: prospective students, current students, graduates, lawyers, law schools, the ABA, the profession, and the financers (banks and ED). I see it as vertical, so do scam bloggers and a handful of law professors whose absence ScamLaw sorely missed.

For example, Christine Hurt, whom I should add helped birth the LSTB with her 2010 essay, “Bubbles, Student Loans and Sub-Prime Debt,” presents the Masters with the following two questions:

1. So, what are law schools supposed to do? … [A]t some point we need to talk about the solution, besides “more transparency,” which seems to be on the road to happening.

2. Relatedly, what are law professors supposed to do? … [H]ow do we “withdraw from the conspiracy” (besides just blogging about it).

I find these questions’ assumptions bold. Do universities have the power to change their behaviors? Do law schools? Do these questions even address the situations of alienated graduates and lawyers? What about all the law school debt? Once you assume legal education can be fixed by law schools, then transparent post-graduate employment data promptly follows as the obvious solution. To her credit, Hurt wrote this before the ABA Section of Legal Education decided against asking law schools whether their graduates are employed full- or part-time and whether their positions preferred a J.D. or bar passage. However, I have voiced my doubts about transparency, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

Next, ScamLaw spends an inordinate amount of time discussing entry barriers, such as when Alan Meese wrote, “A system built on subsidized debt and expected perpetual growth in legal employment may not be sustainable. I welcome this debate, particularly its focus on the barriers to entry bolstered by the ABA’s accreditation requirements.” I see this as a psych-out. If the problem is subsidized debt and expected perpetual growth, aren’t the subsidies the problem? Sure, licensing practices are calibrated for an archaic mid-20th century legal profession that idolizes generalized solo practitioners, but the debt problem initiated the discussion.

So, we return to Rodrigues’s aborted suggestion: unilaterally close the bottom half of the law schools. The problem? Whose bottom half? U.S. News’s?? Why should the profession ratify a magazine’s rankings? There are two more problems:

(1)  There are no sacred cows:

For instance, public law schools use the following line of reasoning to justify their existence:

(i)  We need lawyers

(ii)  Lawyers are expensive

(iii)  Government can subsidize expensive things so we can have them

(iv)  Government can subsidize public law schools along these lines

(v)  Public law schools can make inexpensive lawyers

(vi)  We have lawyers

Except (i) is false. We have enough legally educated people to serve the country’s needs. (ii) is debatable. Plenty of paralegals could probably stand before a court and argue a motion just by watching their bosses do it. Moreover, given how much of legal education is memorizing theory and applying it in a blue book, much of that can be self-taught or learned via distance learning. (v) makes no sense when state governments are slashing subsidies to public law schools. What’s the point of UVA or U of Michigan if their students are paying private school tuition rates? The California schools, ASU, and U of Minnesota are coming up behind them. Rather than cut the subsidies, governments might as well do everyone the favor of just closing unneeded programs. Does anyone really think the subsidies will return when the economy starts growing again?

Also, why should we believe that highly regarded law schools provide more value than lesser ones? Just because they charge more? More likely, graduates from top-flight programs could probably pass a bar exam by self-study and learn the trade via apprenticeship. Arguably, the best law schools sell prestige more than substance.

(2)  There is no free lunch.

Behold the Law School Tuition Bubble’s mantra:

The onus is solely on the law schools to demonstrate that they are adding value for the privileges society gives them. If they fail, then we take away their national accreditation, non-profit tax status, grants and subsidies, and access to any student loans that are not dischargeable in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceeding.

I’m perpetually nonplussed that the presumption is on reformers to generate solutions. Rather, university officials should be explaining to legislators why they should have access to student debt or why the state government should support public legal education programs, much less secondary campuses. I doubt it will be long before they will.

I don’t think law schools can change themselves so long as they have easy access to government student loans, irrespective of income-based repayment. Even deans of public law schools must toe their institutions’ lines lest they be asked to resign like Baltimore’s Phillip Closius. Neither public nor private law schools seem capable of organizing a boycott of U.S. News, which would help. Perhaps private independent law schools—the ones facing lawsuits from their students—could forgo student loans and offer their students human capital contracts, for example giving them free educations in exchange for ten percent of their income for ten years. If they did that, they’d fail. The jobs are simply not there to keep the financing model viable.

IV. Vertical Solutions

The scam blog movement emerged because law schools took the lead position for the profession by promising careers they couldn’t warrant existed yet charged too much to obtain. The causes of “law career decay” were not wholly in law schools’ power nor in the profession’s (e.g. increased income inequality over the last thirty to forty years). However, scam bloggers are acutely aware that they do not directly benefit from increased transparency, leaving the Masters’ discussions frivolous to them.

While I don’t think internal solutions are possible, here are a few things the profession should do as the problem worsens.

1). Bankruptcy protections must be restored to student debtors, and the Direct Loan Program must be terminated. The ABA’s annual summer resolutions avoid this, further alienating recent graduates. If law professors like Christine Hurt want to help, they can use their government connections to effect this change, and the public will support those who incorporate student debt into reform discussions.

2). The profession must admit that it stood by as the law schools overenrolled students and that many recent graduates will never meaningfully see the inside of the profession. Brian Tamanaha and LawProf have both written on this; they are on the right track.

3). The profession needs to update its licensing system to accommodate the reality that much of law practice is specialized along practice lines. Ultimately, this means the question of legal education will have to be rehashed from the ground up, making suggestions of reducing law school to two years arbitrary.

The truth is that law degrees have been unable to provide long-term career stability for many, many years. Now, the legal academy has twisted into one of the most ossified institutions in American society, a force of inequity and deflation in the economy, transforming prosperity into debt. Contrary to Rodrigues’s cautiousness illustrated above, no solution involves 150,000 law students spending 3-5 billion dollars per year to attend 199 law schools that employ 22,000 people by the end of the decade. That means law faculty who today passively share the views of The Conglomerate’s Masters will tomorrow lose their jobs. Some scam bloggers might delight in this. I will not.

The ray of hope? Separate from the prospective law students who forgo legal education and student debt activists, law students have the power to act. They can walk out and demand tuition reductions and accreditation reform. They have little to lose.

And they will be heard.

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