What If The Gainful Employment Rule Were Applied to All Law Schools?

The first draft of my latest article on The American Lawyer about the gainful employment rule asked that question, but I realized that reporting on the for-profits alone was more important. The broader question is much more appropriate for a blog post, and since another federal court upheld the rule, it appears it’ll stick around. So, here you go.

To recap, the Department of Education’s gainful employment rule applies two debt-to-earnings tests to a college’s debtors: one based on their total annual incomes and the other their annual discretionary incomes. The tests create three results: passing, falling “in the zone,” or failing. Passing either test gives the school an overall passing grade for that year, not passing either test but not failing puts them “in the zone,” but failing is failing. Sorry if there’s some equivocation among these terms; I blame the rule.

Failing in a given year won’t kill a school’s access to federal loans, but certainly four years of failing or being in the zone will do the trick.

So:

  • Passing either debt-to-earnings test means debt payments are less than or equal to
    • 8 percent of total annual income, or
    • 20 percent of annual discretionary income.
  • The “zone” means debt payments are greater than
    • 8 percent of total annual income but less than or equal to 12 percent of annual income, or
    • 20 percent of annual discretionary income but less than or equal to 30 percent of discretionary income.
  • Failing occurs when debt payments are greater than
    • 12 percent of total annual income, or
    • 30 percent of annual discretionary income.

Got it? Good. If not, reread the article. I hate explaining this rule.

Rather than giving the numbers for both tests, I’m going to display the class of 2014’s mean debt (weighted with non-debtors (because I’m fair)), the minimum income (discretionary or total) needed to pass either test or at least stay in the zone, and the unemployment rate (“seeking” and “not seeking” employment, but excluding “deferred start dates”). The numbers will differ slightly from what I published in the article last week.

As for which test you’re seeing, since it’s somewhat important, the annual income test is the lesser test until about $43,000. After that, you are seeing the minimum discretionary income graduates need to be earning for the school to pass the test. That means they need to be earning even more money than what’s stated.

CLASS OF 2014 ON GAINFUL EMPLOYMENT
SCHOOL WTD AVG DEBT MIN PASS MIN ZONE TOT UNEMP
Howard $23,060 $20,178 $13,452 12.4%
Brigham Young $39,026 $34,148 $22,765 7.2%
Hawaii $39,949 $34,955 $23,304 15.5%
Alabama $45,830 $40,102 $26,734 3.5%
Lewis and Clark $47,014 $41,137 $27,425 15.4%
Arkansas (Fayetteville) $48,927 $42,811 $28,540 7.0%
Nebraska $49,758 $43,538 $29,026 6.0%
North Carolina Central $49,932 $43,691 $29,127 14.1%
District of Columbia $51,954 $44,434 $30,307 25.2%
Tennessee $52,961 $44,786 $30,894 14.6%
Wyoming $52,999 $44,800 $30,916 23.9%
North Dakota $55,743 $45,760 $32,517 13.2%
Connecticut $56,813 $46,134 $33,141 9.1%
Arkansas (Little Rock) $58,407 $46,692 $34,071 12.8%
Missouri (Columbia) $58,541 $46,740 $34,149 8.9%
Georgia State $58,650 $46,778 $34,213 5.6%
Mississippi $59,132 $46,946 $34,494 12.3%
Kentucky $60,629 $47,470 $35,367 5.6%
Wisconsin $61,117 $47,641 $35,652 7.6%
Kansas $61,410 $47,743 $35,822 8.4%
SUNY Buffalo $61,568 $47,799 $35,915 9.9%
New Mexico $61,795 $47,878 $36,047 3.6%
Liberty $63,917 $48,621 $37,285 25.0%
Georgia $63,954 $48,634 $37,307 13.6%
Texas Tech $64,047 $48,666 $37,361 18.8%
Northern Illinois $64,061 $48,671 $37,369 9.1%
Montana $64,094 $48,683 $37,388 11.3%
City University $64,284 $48,749 $37,499 20.7%
Oklahoma $64,613 $48,865 $37,691 7.7%
Florida $65,104 $49,036 $37,977 9.4%
Memphis $66,326 $49,464 $38,690 18.3%
Akron $66,681 $49,588 $38,897 8.7%
Cincinnati $66,697 $49,594 $38,906 10.4%
South Carolina $66,826 $49,639 $38,982 7.4%
Northern Kentucky $67,221 $49,777 $39,212 9.6%
Arizona State $67,227 $49,780 $39,216 1.5%
Florida State $68,319 $50,162 $39,853 6.0%
Wayne State $68,698 $50,294 $40,074 11.2%
Michigan State $69,711 $50,649 $40,665 1.2%
Houston $70,931 $51,076 $41,377 7.4%
South Dakota $71,067 $51,123 $41,456 6.2%
Boston University $71,181 $51,163 $41,522 6.5%
California-Davis $71,993 $51,448 $41,996 10.1%
Temple $72,019 $51,457 $42,011 9.1%
Washburn $72,555 $51,644 $42,323 8.9%
Indiana (Bloomington) $72,726 $51,704 $42,423 6.8%
Southern University $73,214 $51,875 $42,708 23.0%
Louisiana State $73,366 $51,928 $42,797 3.1%
Texas A&M [Wesleyan] $73,485 $51,970 $42,866 18.5%
West Virginia $73,712 $52,049 $42,999 8.5%
Utah $74,002 $52,151 $43,168 8.1%
Duquesne $74,172 $52,210 $43,267 13.5%
Arizona $74,516 $52,331 $43,468 4.9%
Texas $74,642 $52,375 $43,541 6.8%
Boston College $74,695 $52,393 $43,572 6.6%
North Carolina $74,905 $52,467 $43,694 11.9%
Maryland $75,615 $52,715 $43,894 8.8%
Illinois $76,374 $52,981 $44,071 5.9%
Campbell $76,555 $53,044 $44,113 13.6%
Iowa $76,670 $53,084 $44,140 2.3%
Washington University $76,828 $53,140 $44,177 1.2%
Drexel $77,209 $53,273 $44,265 11.3%
William and Mary $77,805 $53,482 $44,404 8.4%
Indiana (Indianapolis) $78,287 $53,651 $44,517 7.9%
Florida International $79,037 $53,913 $44,692 6.5%
Villanova $79,097 $53,934 $44,706 9.5%
Nevada $79,742 $54,160 $44,857 10.1%
Ohio State $80,527 $54,435 $45,040 1.4%
Pittsburgh $80,700 $54,495 $45,080 12.7%
Cleveland State $80,891 $54,562 $45,125 13.9%
Rutgers-Newark $81,451 $54,758 $45,255 8.4%
Idaho $81,604 $54,811 $45,291 8.1%
Louisville $82,077 $54,977 $45,401 7.1%
Baylor $82,833 $55,242 $45,578 11.8%
California-Irvine $83,342 $55,420 $45,696 10.8%
Tulsa $83,416 $55,446 $45,714 5.1%
Washington $83,732 $55,556 $45,787 14.0%
Maine $84,452 $55,808 $45,955 14.7%
Minnesota $84,834 $55,942 $46,045 6.9%
Cardozo, Yeshiva $85,151 $56,053 $46,119 15.3%
Toledo $87,232 $56,781 $46,604 17.9%
St. Thomas (MN) $87,349 $56,822 $46,631 8.4%
Washington and Lee $87,538 $56,888 $46,675 12.6%
Richmond $88,304 $57,156 $46,854 7.4%
Detroit Mercy $88,604 $57,261 $46,924 16.9%
St. John’s $89,567 $57,599 $47,149 8.9%
Yale $90,162 $57,807 $47,288 3.9%
Brooklyn $90,813 $58,035 $47,440 9.9%
Notre Dame $91,274 $58,196 $47,547 3.9%
Oregon $92,133 $58,497 $47,748 14.1%
Chicago-Kent, IIT $92,311 $58,559 $47,789 8.9%
Vanderbilt $92,969 $58,789 $47,943 2.6%
California-Los Angeles $93,221 $58,877 $48,002 6.3%
Emory $93,473 $58,966 $48,060 2.6%
Massachusetts — Dartmouth $93,819 $59,087 $48,141 16.0%
Fordham $94,187 $59,215 $48,227 9.8%
Baltimore $95,222 $59,578 $48,468 11.5%
Wake Forest $95,703 $59,746 $48,581 7.0%
St. Mary’s $95,761 $59,766 $48,594 17.9%
Southern Methodist $95,955 $59,834 $48,640 6.7%
Seton Hall $96,075 $59,876 $48,668 6.3%
Case Western Reserve $96,159 $59,905 $48,687 9.5%
Pennsylvania $96,201 $59,921 $48,697 0.4%
South Texas $96,686 $60,090 $48,810 9.2%
Dayton $97,598 $60,409 $49,023 11.4%
Colorado $97,675 $60,436 $49,041 4.2%
Quinnipiac $99,563 $61,097 $49,481 14.2%
Stanford $99,947 $61,231 $49,571 2.7%
Duke $100,325 $61,364 $49,659 2.8%
Samford $100,526 $61,434 $49,706 13.2%
Oklahoma City $100,825 $61,539 $49,776 5.6%
Mississippi College $101,946 $61,931 $50,037 21.1%
Syracuse $102,107 $61,987 $50,075 11.4%
Drake $102,326 $62,064 $50,126 9.2%
Suffolk $102,844 $62,245 $50,247 14.4%
Southern California $102,872 $62,255 $50,254 5.1%
William Mitchell $102,986 $62,295 $50,280 7.3%
Virginia $103,102 $62,336 $50,307 2.3%
Ohio Northern $104,531 $62,836 $50,641 18.1%
Loyola (LA) $104,924 $62,973 $50,732 19.3%
Pace $105,075 $63,026 $50,767 14.3%
San Diego $105,351 $63,123 $50,832 18.3%
Harvard $105,951 $63,333 $50,972 2.4%
Michigan $105,978 $63,342 $50,978 2.6%
Mercer $106,506 $63,527 $51,101 13.3%
Capital $106,628 $63,570 $51,130 31.3%
Tulane $107,133 $63,747 $51,248 9.7%
Hamline $107,514 $63,880 $51,337 8.7%
George Mason $107,715 $63,950 $51,383 2.7%
Gonzaga $107,940 $64,029 $51,436 16.0%
Chicago $108,521 $64,232 $51,572 1.9%
Penn State (Dickinson) $108,981 $64,393 $51,679 14.8%
New Hampshire $109,322 $64,513 $51,758 10.3%
New York University $109,331 $64,516 $51,760 1.3%
Western State $109,519 $64,581 $51,804 11.6%
DePaul $109,529 $64,585 $51,807 18.9%
George Washington $110,250 $64,837 $51,975 5.3%
Roger Williams $110,547 $64,941 $52,044 17.9%
Pepperdine $110,599 $64,960 $52,056 18.2%
Albany $110,656 $64,980 $52,070 14.2%
St. Louis $110,737 $65,008 $52,089 10.1%
Miami $110,761 $65,016 $52,094 7.7%
California-Berkeley $111,966 $65,438 $52,375 2.4%
Cornell $112,050 $65,468 $52,395 1.0%
Loyola (IL) $113,373 $65,931 $52,704 8.0%
Santa Clara $113,702 $66,046 $52,780 33.0%
Elon $113,902 $66,116 $52,827 27.9%
Denver $114,912 $66,469 $53,063 8.3%
Hofstra $114,917 $66,471 $53,064 7.9%
Ave Maria $115,045 $66,516 $53,094 33.6%
California-Hastings $116,260 $66,941 $53,377 22.1%
Regent $116,397 $66,989 $53,409 12.3%
Creighton $116,459 $67,011 $53,424 9.0%
Columbia $117,098 $67,234 $53,573 2.1%
Chapman $117,259 $67,291 $53,610 19.6%
Nova Southeastern $117,347 $67,321 $53,631 11.1%
Northeastern $117,379 $67,333 $53,638 14.4%
Marquette $118,389 $67,686 $53,874 9.8%
Georgetown $118,918 $67,871 $53,998 5.0%
Western New England $119,714 $68,150 $54,183 20.4%
John Marshall (Chicago) $121,990 $68,947 $54,714 8.8%
Valparaiso $122,769 $69,219 $54,896 20.9%
Catholic $123,026 $69,309 $54,956 13.4%
Stetson $123,167 $69,358 $54,989 7.2%
Widener $123,914 $69,620 $55,163 8.1%
Charleston $124,976 $69,992 $55,411 24.0%
Pacific, McGeorge $125,060 $70,021 $55,431 22.5%
Loyola (CA) $125,546 $70,191 $55,544 17.9%
Seattle $126,157 $70,405 $55,687 18.0%
Willamette $126,572 $70,550 $55,783 13.9%
St. Thomas (FL) $128,135 $71,097 $56,148 17.6%
Golden Gate $128,733 $71,307 $56,288 33.3%
Northwestern $130,452 $71,908 $56,689 7.2%
Touro $131,627 $72,319 $56,963 19.9%
Vermont $131,639 $72,324 $56,966 16.9%
American $132,232 $72,531 $57,104 15.2%
San Francisco $135,802 $73,781 $57,937 32.5%
California Western $137,589 $74,406 $58,354 23.7%
Whittier $137,958 $74,535 $58,440 24.2%
New York Law School $138,296 $74,654 $58,519 13.3%
Barry $141,716 $75,851 $59,317 17.7%
Florida Coastal $151,390 $79,237 $61,574 14.9%
Thomas Jefferson $156,925 $81,174 $62,866 29.0%

Note: Howard almost certainly published its graduates’ annual debt and not their total debts as it was asked, and this table excludes law schools that reported debt levels but not the percent of their graduates with debt.

I reckon that any law school whose graduates would need make $50,000 in discretionary annual income would probably fail the gainful employment rule in short order unless they were elite law schools with low unemployment rates. That’s about $100,000 in mean weighted debt, coincidentally—before interest. That’s at least 50 schools.

Kicking these law schools out of the federal loan program would be in keeping with the Department of Education’s stated goals for crafting the rule—accountability for student outcomes—but Congress won’t let it, which is why I found the comments to the department so galling. Some people claimed that graduate programs should be excluded from the rule because they didn’t face the same “employment challenges and return-on-investment considerations” compared to lower levels of higher education.

Looking at the above table … Right.

Graduate Student Loan ‘Horror Stories’ Are the Point

Most of what Jordan Weissmann writes in “A Sign That Washington Might Be Charging Too Much Interest on Their Student Loans,” is correct. Okay, the title should use “Its Student Loans,” but that’s trivial.

Weissmann argues that startups targeting high-income graduate student debtors for student loan refinancing probably aren’t much of a threat to the federal loan program’s profitability (assuming there is any). The example he cites from a Bloomberg article isn’t very inspiring. The debtor has an MBA earns $140,000 per year, and has a scant $45,000 of debt. A 31 year old, the debtor’s 6.55 percent interest rate indicates that he probably has only unsubsidized Stafford loans from back when the interest rates were fixed rather than Grad PLUS loans at a floating rate. He is totally ineligible for income-based repayment. Rhetorically speaking, so far so good.

As for that assumption about that the federal loan program’s profitablity, we’ve already been down that road. (In a related article, Weissmann implies that anyone who disagrees with accrual accounting is a conservative—ha.) The government may have lower borrowing costs, but that doesn’t mean it always lends money wisely. Anyone who disagrees is free to argue why we shouldn’t socialize the entire credit system—and not just postal banking, I mean everything.

Where Weissmann gets tangled up is when he writes, “[W]hile there are certainly plenty of horror stories out there from underemployed and overindebted law grads and Ph.D.s, advanced degree holders are generally high earners who rarely default. Their reliable payments help subsidize lending to low-income undergrads, who are generally far less of a solid bet for the government.”

First of all, graduate debtors’ low default rates are probably due to selection bias, not high incomes. Presumably, highly educated people are savvier, more conscientious, and therefore more likely to contact lenders when they start running into financial problems, so they sign up for hardship deferments rather than default. Now they have IBR. In short, not being in default isn’t the same thing as being in full repayment.

More importantly, however, is that the characterization of law debtors and others as “horror stories” is misleading. In the past I’ve estimated that about 30 percent of Grad PLUS loan dollars go to students at private law schools. More go to public law school debtors. Weissmann should know that a sizeable proportion of these debtors will never repay their loans in full. Even if they’re a minority of graduate debtors, they still owe more than the average, but that’s where the profits are supposed to come from! Consequently, that minority matters quite a bit.

What’s needed is a cross-section of Grad PLUS dollars (not debtors) by degree, then repayment status, and then repayment type. If a minority of debtors owes a greater proportion of the debt and is on IBR because it has a low income, then startups poaching a few MBAs will be the least of ED’s problems.

A Day at the Races

Many of my posts focus on what I consider horse-racing in the law school context (LSAT tea-leaf reading, applicant counts, etc). Because I’m a fair-weather fan of thoroughbred racing, I figured it’s time to indulge myself and write about it for real in deference to American Pharoah’s Triple Crown victory at the Belmont on Saturday.

Personally, I didn’t think I’d see a Triple Crown winner in my lifetime given the disappointing losses I’ve witnessed, like Real Quiet in 1998 and Charismatic in 1999. Maybe it’s changes in breeding practices, increased frequency of fresher horses challenging the leader at the Belmont, or bad luck.

Nevertheless, I thought it’d be fun to look at the winners since 1931, when the track distances and the spacing between the three races were finally standardized. Years with vertical black lines denote Triple Crown winners.

Winners' Fastest Times

(Forgot to mention, the units are minutes, the source is Wikipedia.)

Observations:

(1) Each of the races took longer on average before 1950. The phenomenon is especially pronounced for the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. For example, American Pharoah’s 2015 Preakness victory was about one second faster than the pre-1950 average but three seconds slower than 1950-forward average. The difference: There was a rain storm before the race this year, softening the track and dampening the atmosphere.

(2) Secretariat (1973) was a monster. It helps visually that the 1970 Belmont was also dumped on. I have no idea how often a horse like that comes along, but it’s rare.

(3) Consequently, it’s surprising that Seattle Slew (1977, and also a beast in his own right) and Affirmed (1978) occurred back to back, much less at all.

I’d need to look at the dispersions of the results for each year and each race and figure out how to account for weather, which I don’t feel like doing, so the results here suffer from substantial sample bias. Three races per year with different horses running them in different conditions can’t really tell you much. (Bad) luck factors heavily in these races, and assuming that something unobvious changed in 1950, there aren’t many good predictors for which horse will go three for three.

I guess that’s why people bet on it.

Demos: Denominators Don’t Matter for Subsidies to Public Universities

Last week Demos published a paper that carefully apportions the causes of tuition cost hikes at public universities over the last decade (2001-2011). Authored by Robert Hitonsmith, it finds that 79 percent of the increases are due to cuts in state subsidies, about $3,000 on average at four-year public universities. Hiltonsmith is known for a paper ominously titled, “How Student Debt Reduces Lifetime Wealth,” which estimates the lost lifetime personal savings due to student loans.

Reconciling these two papers might cause confusion because it’s easy to misinterpret Hiltonsmith’s first paper as arguing against widespread college attendance. It plainly says otherwise: College pays off, but the costs should be socialized. I’m not fond of this line of reasoning as it showcases a large pecuniary loss for college education without explaining where the offsetting public benefits come from. It’s hard to see an adverse selection problem in higher education as with health care or national defense.

Something similar goes on in Demos’ more recent paper, “Pulling Up the Higher-Ed Ladder: Myth and Reality in the Crisis of College Affordability.” There’s no reason to dispute Hiltonsmith’s findings: State’s aren’t subsidizing higher education as much as they used to on a per student basis, hence the tuition cost increases.

However, a quick glance at Bureau of Economic Analysis data tells us that state government spending on higher education has risen overall:

S&L GCE and GI (Higher Ed., 2009 $)

(Table 3.15.16)

…And here’s a chart of state and local higher education expenditures as a share of state spending and receipts.

S&L Higher Ed. Expenditures Share of--

(Table 3.15.5 and Table 3.3)

In constant dollars, state and local governments spent 22 percent more on higher education in 2011 than they did in 2001, and states spend about the same percentage of their budgets on higher education, so why is tuition increasing?

Answer: Fractions have denominators. College attendance grew substantially in the 2000s.

Looking at Digest of Education Statistics data, in 2011 the number of public university students was 23.5 percent higher than in 2001 (Table 303.10). Meanwhile, the total U.S. population only grew 9.5 percent between those two years. (Speaking of fractions, that’s a blunt comparison, but it’ll do.)

This is the drawback of Demos’ per-student spending analysis (and of fractions generally): It misses the systemic shift in demand for college credentials and states’ responses to it. Demos sees no diminishing marginal return to sending more and more people to college, so everyone should be subsidized equally no matter the economic conditions. Therefore, any cuts are wrong irrespective of what goes on in the denominator aggregate. In reality, people treat public higher education like unemployment insurance, except there’s a big difference: At some point higher education becomes mostly about getting ahead of everyone else. At least with unemployment insurance, marginal recipients get to stay alive and are better off finding work when it’s available.

But Demos isn’t ready to reach that insight. Indeed, the paper’s opening sentence is, “In today’s competitive economy, nothing is more important than getting a college education.” On the contrary, today’s economy isn’t competitive. If it were, then employers would bid up workers’ wages. The kind of competition that goes on in today’s economy is zero-sum squabbling. Thus, rather than advocating for positive competition, Demos is promising everything to everyone, as though we can all get ahead of everyone else simultaneously.

I have a few more points worth making in passing. One, the average inflation-adjusted full tuition price at private four-year institutions rose 36 percent from 2001 to 2011 (Digest table 330.10). I am not studious enough to figure out what the net tuition is, but I’m skeptical that this increase hasn’t affected public universities in some way. If the big private research universities spend more money on superstar faculty, for example, I’d be surprised if their public counterparts did not try to keep up. This goes on in law schools all the time. Likewise, I would also not characterize this Demos article as falsifying the Bennett hypothesis just because state subsidies per student play a larger role for tuition price increases at public institutions. I don’t think anyone ever said that.

Two, there are other arguments in favor of public higher education I haven’t addressed. For example, running a large research university in a large metropolitan area can be a magnet for young people and supporting private sector innovation. The for-profit world isn’t all Thomas Edison stuff.

Finally, I’m a fan of the soft, lovey-dovey, bleeding-heart humanities. (They’re also super cheap to produce.) The point here is not that higher education is solely positional competition. It’s that when Demos decries rising public college prices when incomes are stagnant, it’s not seeing a causal relationship. Stagnant incomes are motivating people to go to college, which strains public higher education systems, and state and local governments don’t want to cover everyone. Much of this is undoubtedly due to ideological Scott-Walkerist anti-intellectual budget arsonism, but what’s important are the causes of stagnant incomes. Funding everyone’s college degrees will not create college jobs for everyone.

2015-05-03 Site Update

There are three pages or posts that I’ve updated recently.

(1)  Everyone’s favorite: Lawyers Per Capita by State, thanks to the ABA’s new data on state-level lawyer counts.

(2)  The “leaked” edition of the class of 2014’s employment report has been updated with the ABA’s newer data. I figured it wasn’t worthwhile to post on that twice. The original version is at the bottom but is struck out. (Sorry to e-mail subscribers for accidentally spamming your inbox with the separate updated post. I meant to delete it, not publish it.)

(3)  Finally, the Student Debt Data page is the beneficiary of a long overdue overhaul. It now leans more on the New York Fed’s research.

That’s all.

Michael Simkovic Has a Big Fan on Wikipedia

Wikipedia readers interested in higher education, student loans, and related topics in the United States might be interested to know why so many Wikipedia pages rely so heavily on law professor Michael Simkovic’s paper “Risk-Based Student Loans.” The same goes for those interested in the future of legal education, given Simkovic’s prominence in that field.

A few examples:

  • The page on the “National Defense Education Act” cites “Risk-Based Student Loans” as evidence that the act “followed a growing national sense that U.S. scientists were falling behind scientists in the Soviet Union, catalyzed, arguably, by early Soviet success in the Space Race, notably the launch of the first-ever satellite, Sputnik, the previous year.”
  • The first paragraph of “Bankruptcy Discharge” ends with the statement, “Discharge is also believed to play an important role in credit markets by encouraging lenders, who may be more sophisticated and have better information than debtors, to monitor debtors and limit risk-taking,” and then cites “Risk-Based Student Loans.”
  • The “Higher Education Act of 1965” ends with a citation to Simkovic’s work as well. “The HEA has been criticized for establishing statutory pricing of federal student loans based on political considerations rather than pricing based on risk.”
  • In “Human Capital,” “Risk-Based Student Loans” tells us, “According to signaling theory, education does not lead to increased human capital, but rather acts as a mechanism by which workers with superior innate abilities can signal those abilities to prospective employers and so gain above average wages.”
  • Student Loans in the United States” contains six references to “Risk-Based Student Loans.” Here’s one:

Both subsidized and unsubsidized loans are guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Education either directly or through guaranty agencies. Nearly all students are eligible to receive federal loans (regardless of credit score or other financial issues). Federal student loans are not priced according to any individualized measure of risk, nor are loan limits determined based on risk. Rather, pricing and loan limits are politically determined by Congress. Undergraduates typically receive lower interest rates, but graduate students typically can borrow more. This lack of risk-based pricing has been criticized by scholars as contributing to inefficiency in higher education. [Emphasis added.]

A variation on the higher education bubble theory suggests that there is no general bubble in higher education—that is, on average, higher education really does boost income and employment by more than enough to make it a good investment—but that degrees in some specific fields may be overvalued because they do little to boost income or improve job prospects, while degrees in other fields may in fact be undervalued because students do not appreciate the extent to which these degrees could benefit their employment prospects and future income. Proponents of this theory have noted that schools charge equal prices for tuition regardless of what students study, the interest rate on federal student loans is not adjusted according to risk, and there is evidence that undergraduate students in their first 3 years of college are not very good at predicting future wages by major. [Underlined & italicized emphasis added.]

As of Sunday, April 19, 2015, I’ve found at least 13 pages on Wikipedia that cite “Risk-Based Student Loans.” I don’t intend to find them all.

I discovered the edits after one of them popped out to me. Readers will probably agree that many of the citations appear to be either (a) statements for which “Risk-Based Student Loans” at best serves as a tertiary source, or (b) interpolations into the articles that promote “Risk-Based Student Loans” more than inform the reader on the topic. After sleuthing one of these page’s history sections, and then using Wikipedia’s cruelly titled “WikiBlame” feature to establish who altered these pages, I traced them to two anonymous IP addresses: 108.46.277.251 (May 5, 2012, through May 10, 2012, by my interpretation) and 71.190.187.89 (May 15, 2012, through June 11, 2012). Both are located in Midtown Manhattan, and the links include lists of the altered pages. Most of the edits occurred by May 15.

The current pages have benefited from nearly three years of improvement (although it’s troubling that so many of the pages’ headers carry content alerts given the topics’ importance), but the initial edits evidenced surprising devotion to Simkovic’s work, especially since he wasn’t so prominent then. For instance “Student Loan” received as many as twenty-one citations to “Risk-Based Student Loans,” and twenty were added to Student Loans in the United States. Sometimes it appears as the very first authority listed.

Here’s “Student Loan” early on May 5, 2012:

Click to enlarge. It's unclear why the citation date is 2013.

Click to enlarge. It’s unclear why the citation date is 2013.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

The intensity of the edits quickly caught the eyes of some Wikipedia editors. On the evening of May 5, 2012, editor ElKevbo contacted whom I’ll call “Simkovic’s Fan” to inform him (yes, he’s a dude) that using an unreviewed, “self-published source” ran afoul of Wikipedia policies. At the time, “Risk-Based Student Loans” had not been published in an academic journal. Simkovic’s Fan defended his namesake, claiming Simkovic was “an established bankruptcy and credit scholar” with numerous prominent publications to his name. ElKevbo asked to continue the discussion on the Talk page for “Student Loans in the United States,” and added, “I object to widespread use of an unpublished work that has not undergone any sort of peer review.”

There, the dialogue resumed with ElKevbo reiterating that if “Risk-Based Student Loans” stood for the propositions for which Simkovic’s Fan claimed, then more appropriate sources would be available. ElKevbo also condemned “the manner in which this unregistered editor is attempting to ram these edits through without consensus.” Editor Nstrauss also criticized Simkovic’s Fan for un-reverting the restored article to replace his numerous citations to “Risk-Based Student Loans.” (Nstrauss refers to Simkovic’s Fan as “the anon Virginia editor.” I believe that’s a reference to the location of Simkovic’s Fan’s Internet service provider, Verizon, which is in Virginia. The IP address was in New York City.)

Undaunted, Simkovic’s Fan continued inserting citations to “Risk-Based Student Loans” in various related articles. No other Wikipedia editors appear to have noticed the widespread changes.

I’ll be upfront, I suspect Simkovic’s Fan is in fact Michael Simkovic, given the location of the IP addresses and the fact that it’s highly implausible that anyone would have read “Risk-Based Student Loans” in mid-2012 and been so convinced by it as to regard it as a comprehensive, Wiki-worthy treatise on higher education, student loans, bankruptcy, etc. I also think only Simkovic would exaggerate his prominence as “an established bankruptcy and credit scholar.” I’m open to alternative candidates.

There are a few reasons I’m raising this discovery.

One, I have no desire to become an expert on Wikipedia policies, but “Risk-Based Student Loans” is probably inappropriate for nearly all the statements it purports to validate. Wikipedia prefers its articles to be based on secondary sources. Going by its title and abstract, “Risk-Based Student Loans” is not, for example, a secondary source on the National Defense Education Act or signaling theory. In these contexts, “Risk-Based Student Loans” is a tertiary source and it should be substituted for better ones. Moreover, as tertiary sources go, it may not be a neutral one.

Two, many of the remaining citations use passively voiced or weasely worded phrases that just advance Simkovic’s arguments in “Risk-Based Student Loans,” as in “Student Loans in the United States” or “Higher Education Bubble.” When properly rephrased these aren’t “scholars'” or “proponents'” consensus opinions; rather, they’re Simkovic’s, and his positions on these issues are probably too specialized to be relevant to the articles’ topics.

The only place “Risk-Based Student Loans” really ought to be cited is in articles on risk-based lending, and arguably Simkovic is not a sufficiently noteworthy scholar for his opinions to appear there—and certainly not as the first citation. Again, it may not pass Wikipedia’s neutrality requirements.

Three, Simkovic’s Fan has disserved Simkovic’s research efforts by concealing the sources “Risk-Based Student Loans” relies on to make its arguments. To the extent that those authors’ points are relevant to the altered articles’ topics, they are the ones who should be cited, not Simkovic. Simkovic’s Fan should not have treated “Risk-Based Student Loans” as a comprehensive secondary source on anything.

Four, it’s more believable than not that Simkovic himself is the one who in 2012 edited Wikipedia to promote his own expertise and scholarship. If so, he certainly overstepped Wikipedia’s conflict of interest policies on self-citation in a shamefully vain and unprofessional manner, particularly for the reasons stated in the previous point and given ElKevbo’s objection that “Risk-Based Student Loans” hadn’t even been published yet. If true, Simkovic should apologize, and Wikipedia’s editors should reevaluate all references to his article.

Five, I’m not knowledgeable about law schools’ or universities’ policies regarding their instructors’ activities on Wikipedia or similar venues, but even if Simkovic’s Fan happens to not be Simkovic, I really hope academics absorb the lesson established here of watching how their work is used in publicly available Web sites like Wikipedia. Hopefully Wikipedia will also do a better job of monitoring wanton edits to its articles and tighten its requirements on secondary and tertiary sources so other academics’ works aren’t misused this way again.

Finally, I acknowledge that this post might be construed as an “off-wiki attack” of Simkovic that Wikipedians may perceive as harmful to their community. I believe, however, that the harm is minimal given that the edits are nearly three years old and Simkovic’s Fan was not a registered user. I also will not edit any of Simkovic’s Fan’s citations myself.

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Even though I’m not the topic of this article, I stipulate that I have never and do not intend to alter any Wikipedia pages to promote this blog, my articles on The American Lawyer, or anything else I have written or will write. I also take this time to thank those who have linked to my work in Wikipedia pages. It means a lot to me that my readers consider my work noteworthy enough for citation for the masses.

Moving On

Well folks, after nearly five years of blogging on legal education and the economy in general, I’ve decided to end this project and take a job (at greatly reduced pay) as the chief copywriter for J.D. Premium Loan LLC’s Web site. Thank you all loyal readers, and I hope you’ll invest in my new project.

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