A Thanksgiving Troll From The New America Foundation

The New America Foundation’s article, “Income-Based Repayment Tops Repayment Plan Choice for First Time,” is such blatant policy trolling that you might wonder if it’s still Halloween and not Thanksgiving.

The NAF discovered that income-based-repayment program-enrollment efforts have borne fruit: It’s now the most popular plan among direct loan borrowers. (I haven’t checked myself, but let’s roll with it.) But the NAF’s response is confused: On the one hand, it likes low-income people enrolling in IBR, and it wants IBR to be the default repayment plan. This position is neither unusual or, superficially, disagreeable.

But on the other hand, growing IBR hordes keep the NAF awake at night:

Policymakers have to ask themselves, if college is a good investment, why are borrowers flocking to this insurance program? And why are those trends occurring while other economic indicators, like unemployment rates, are looking pretty good?

The easy answer is that college is not a good investment and “other economic indicators” are not looking pretty good. For one, the unemployment rate isn’t such a good measure of work when so many people leave the labor force.

Here’s the percent of 25-34-year-olds with zero earnings by education.

Percent of 25-to-34-Year-Olds With Zero Earnings by Education

(More here.)

In 2014, 13 percent of college-educated young ‘uns weren’t working; in 1997 that was 7.1 percent, equivalent to 640,000 people. It’s possible many of these folks are back in school, but that just tells us the opportunity cost of education is low—because there aren’t any good jobs. And yes, incomes are down too.

The NAF then trots out (trolls out?) the discredited IBR deadbeat after linking to the GAO finding that only a fraction of IBR enrollees have high incomes:

Maybe IBR enrollment is not a good proxy for borrowers falling on hard times — at least not since the Obama administration … [changed the program] from what was a safety net in 2009 to a heavily subsidized loan program for even well-off borrowers if they borrow for graduate school.

Except the NAF’s research on the changes to IBR didn’t show anything of the kind. Its “Safety Net or Windfall” report never documented a single IBR deadbeat. Instead it crafted nothing other than hypotheticals: Its “narrated borrower examples” even included a law grad who went to California Western, a law school with bad employment outcomes, yet managed to start a job at $65,000 per year. After ten years “Robert” miraculously switched to a job that paid him more than $100,000 per year, and after 25 years, he was make more than $200,000.

Why not just say that he inherited $40,000,000,000 from his wealthy uncle who also happened to be the pretender to both the Qing dynasty’s and Ottoman Empire’s thrones? It’d still fit the NAF’s definition of research.

In truth, only 14 of California Western’s 219 graduates in 2014 found full-time, long-term work at law firms with more than 25 lawyers. 58 were either unemployed or couldn’t be found. The Pay-As-You-Earn changes to IBR benefited these people quite a bit because they will never repay their loans anyway. Income is the independent variable, not debt, and it’s pretty unlikely that after 30 years any California Western grads will be earning $240,000 annually like “Robert”—unless you live in the NAF’s world where one can pass off fantasy as policy analysis.

Because the economy is improving, the NAF reasons, there must—must—be another reason those folks are signing onto IBR:

Borrowers may be enrolling in IBR because they know a good deal when they see one. And as word gets out, more and more students are likely to borrow larger sums to pursue graduate school because they plan to use IBR. That is especially true if they qualify for earlier loan forgiveness under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness benefit. [Emphasis original.]

If this were true, then we’d expect law-school enrollments to swell, even at schools where the credential leads nowhere. Hey, who are students to argue if the government gives Grad PLUS dollars toward their living expenses and not demand they pay it back?

Except that’s still not happening, even three years after the NAF’s Kevin Carey predicted it would. It’s more likely that prospective applicants are sensitive to whether graduate programs lead to jobs at the other end, not whether they can get free money today. Here’s law school applicants:

Applicants, Admitted Applicants, 1Ls

(More here.)

I’ve asserted elsewhere that the law-school applicant crunch has slowed because of articles blathering about how now is the best time ever to go to law school. IBR is a secondary concern, if at all. Really, it’s bizarre that anyone would think that applicants are sophisticated enough to base their decision to go to law school on the existence of IBR but shallow enough to overlook evidence suggesting that J.D.s do not lead to long-term professional careers.

Moving on, the NAF then appears to argue that the Obama administration is wrong to characterize IBR as an insurance policy against student-loan defaults because defaults are still increasing. The NAF says this is a “strange trend” even though it offers no reason to believe that savvy borrowers might be signing on to IBR instead of defaulting, while others haven’t received the message. Maybe both types of borrowers have low incomes and can’t otherwise repay their loans in full, but this assumption negates the NAF’s position that the economy is improving. Oh well.

Finally, the NAF worries that outstanding student loans are growing despite falling issuances because either (a) debtors’ incomes are alarmingly low, or (b) IBR is too generous. Again, only a few paragraphs earlier, the NAF cited the GAO study that found 80 percent of IBR enrollees earn $20,000 or less. Incredible. The ghoulish IBR deadbeat lives on.

So there you have it: In one post the NAF starts by arguing that more people should enroll in IBR to avoid default and then concludes that we should be troubled by … more people enrolling in IBR to avoid default. If it’s (a), then the problem is underemployment and low-wage jobs, not IBR; if it’s (b), then the problem is excessive government lending for unneeded education, not IBR.

That’s enough troll, I’m ready for turkey now. Enjoy your Thanksgiving, too.

**********

Post-script: In case any of you were wondering, Congress can change or revoke IBR at any time because the Higher Education Act is incorporated by reference into student-loan promissory notes. Because the number of IBR variants is increasing, it’s probable that the government is hoping to simplify all of them into one that will probably not be so generous to graduate students as PAYE is. This is a compelling reason to stay away from grad school just because IBR is around. (More here.)

3 comments

  1. This graph is about right. For the last few years as a solo, my schedule C has not risen above 40K no matter how hard I hustle and work. Appointed fees are low and there are too many attorneys that the work is spread too thinly. Having a volume practice no longer cuts it. We are begging for crumbs and I have been out over 25 years! I am not unique. One of my colleagues, a very skilled practitioner, works retail to make ends meet. Every law job opening sees the same applicants and more. A senior PD job for 32K was deluged with applications.

    1. anon, normally I thank my readers for directing me to articles relevant to my writing, but in this case, I’m shooting the messenger. That article was awful. Really awful: “People have always had a difficult relationship with debt.” It was all anecdote and offered zero value for either policy or illumination. We are all dumber for having read it. Thank you, but please keep reading; I love my readers.

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