Higher Education

A Simple Equation: Huge Debts + IBR = -(-(Default))

Simple, that is, for everyone but the letter-writers responding to the NYT editorial from two Sundays previous.

The objective of today’s outing isn’t to defend the Times as such but rather to draw attention to the sad rebuttals to it.

Argument #1: Law students are less likely to default on their student loans than undergrads.

Law students borrow more than undergrads, but most are able to repay, and do. The graduate student default rate is 7 percent versus 22 percent for undergrads.

[O]nly about 1.1 percent of alumni at Florida Coastal are in default.

[D]ata shows that law school graduates have lower default rates than other professional degree holders.

Response: It is true that the Times accused law schools of, “sticking taxpayers with the tab for their [students’] loan defaults,” but the line between “default” and “certain IBR/PAYE/REPAYE/PSLF loan cancelation” is hazy. Arithmetic tells us that with $130,000 of debt at current student loan interest rates, law-school debtors earning about $70,000 from day one cannot even dent their student loans’ principal. Because it’s unlikely these debtors will ever find high-paying jobs, it’s all but certain that large portions of their loans will be canceled.

It may not be default, but it’s only “repayment” in the technical sense. Better to call it “not-not-default.”

Argument #2: Thanks to scrupulous admissions practices, law school enrollments have declined.

Many law schools are downsizing to maintain standards. Since 2010, first-year enrollment has dropped from 52,500 to 37,900, a level last seen in 1973.

Since 2010, law schools have responded to the changed legal job market by dramatically cutting first-year enrollment by 28 percent.

Response: This is the most astonishing bit of revisionist law-school history I’ve seen. Remember five years ago (!) when Richard Matasar cited record law-school enrollments as evidence that applicants understood their job prospects? Well, surprise, surprise, surprise! Only 53,500 people applied to law school in 2015, down from 87,900 in 2010, and there’s evidence that fewer people applied in 2010 than the number of LSAT takers would’ve predicted. Law school admissions policies are not responsible for prospective applicants’ decision not to go to law school.

Applicants, Admitted Applicants, 1Ls

(Sources: LSAC, ABA)

Also, law schools are admitting higher proportions of their applicants since 2010.

Dispersion of Full-Time Law School Applicant Acceptance Rates

(Source: Official Guide, author’s calculations)

Argument #3: Declining interest in law school will [create a disastrous attorney shortage/equalize supply and demand for lawyers].

[Due to falling enrollments] the rule of law may begin to fray. Our country needs lawyers, prosecutors, defenders and judges, not only lawyers in big cities and big law firms.

[A] law degree continues to be a sound investment over the course of a career. … [Falling enrollments] will bring supply more into line with demand.

Response: I lump these arguments together because they entail the same prediction: Job outcomes and wages for law grads will improve in the near future. Testing this belief with NALP data, it’s clear that law grads are much more likely to find themselves in J.D.-advantage jobs than in the past. If the job market for lawyers tightens, we’ll see graduates shift from these jobs to lawyer jobs. Instead, while the number of unemployed grads fell in 2014, so did the number of grads in 2-10-lawyer firm jobs. Meanwhile J.D.-advantage jobs rose. This doesn’t speak highly to the value of law school.

No. Grads Employed by Status (Incl. FT-PT) (NALP)

Additionally, based on various measures, including those provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are hundreds of thousands more law grads than there are lawyers. Many of these people left law voluntarily, e.g. they didn’t like law practice or they moved on to post-law professional careers (like the judiciary). Alternatively, they didn’t have opportunities for careers at the bar at all. As more lawyer jobs open up, presumably many of these people would come out of the woodwork. However, there are few indicators that demand for lawyers—which is what really matters here—is improving. Moreover, graduates reporting full-time, long-term employment might not stay in the law for long due to the profession’s high attrition rate.

Also, one letter-writer asserted that a law degree is “a sound investment” and that declining enrollments will “bring supply more into line with demand.” These statements contradict each other, albeit mildly. Although it’s possible the 5,000 class of 2013 graduates who were reported as unemployed will embark on professional careers in the future, it can’t be to their advantage if they graduated when supply was higher than demand could absorb.

Argument #4: Capping federal loans restricts the profession to the wealthy.

Capping graduate federal loans as the editors suggest would fall hardest on students from modest circumstances who will not be able to attend law school or will need to resort to private loans, which are typically more expensive, and repayment is not income-contingent.

[C]utting federal loans will only narrow the pool of people who can pursue a legal career and decrease the availability of lawyers to serve this need.

Response: Even with unlimited federal loans the legal profession isn’t accessible to the poor, but supposing these consequences are true, state governments could just make it easier for people to become lawyers, e.g. by reducing law to an undergraduate major. We have had lawyers without law schools—good ones even, and we’ve had bad lawyers with law schools.

Argument #5:

[T]aking loan money from law students is both bad economics and bad policy.

Response: No evidence is given to support these claims, but the existence of not-not-defaults discussed above disproves them. Also, we had lawyers with fewer loans to law students and dischargeability for private loans. This isn’t the distant past; it’s pre-2005.

Argument #6: Florida Coastal School of Law’s graduates rocked the February bar exam.

In February 2015 we had a 75 percent first-time bar pass rate, third best out of 11 law schools in the state, and an institutional ultimate pass rate of 87 percent.

Response: Fewer people typically sit for the February bar exam than the July one, so we have a sample problem. Also, don’t let FCSL’s 509 report fool you: Its graduates may pass the Florida bar at about a 75 percent rate, but at least 30 percent of its students don’t report at all. Florida State’s non-report rate is about 15 percent; U of Florida’s is less than 10 percent. Both of those schools have higher pass rates too.

Paul Campos addressed some of the other arguments by Florida Coastal’s dean.

Argument #7: The editorial ignores improvements to legal education, like more clinical courses.

[Law schools have] sharpened academic programs to provide the training employers seek.

In recent years, many law schools have been overhauling their programs to provide more hands-on skills training. Clinics cost more than big lectures, but they prepare lawyers for practice and teach them about their professional responsibility to serve people unable to pay for services.


Better training does not create jobs.

Better training does not create jobs.

Better training does not create jobs (except for the trainers).

The one letter I’ll call out specifically is New York City Bar Association president Debra L. Raskin’s because … it leveled a coherent argument.


I’ll not exhaustively nitpick everything here, but by focusing on law school debt the Times editorial is bringing out the kinds of arguments we can expect to see from academics defending the subsidies that ultimately flow to them. Some of the points I read here are novel, so it’s not an opportunity to waste.

Speaking of Grad PLUS Loans…

This weekend, the Times both accepted the Bennett hypothesis and chose not to condescend to us about the “paradox” of how underemployed law grads can refuse to work for people who can’t afford to pay them. That’s really remarkable. What more can I say?

Okay, one point, an emphasis. When I wrote that applying the gainful employment rule to all law schools would cause fifty to close in short order, I was clearly being conservative. $50,000 in discretionary income is a lot of money, even for law school graduates.

And since we’re on the topic of student lending, the Department of Education updated its student loan data through the 2014-2015 academic year. I’ve updated the Student Debt Data page accordingly.

The big findings are that (a) people are borrowing less money from the federal government:

Amount of Federal Loans Disbursed

…But (b), Grad PLUS borrowing hasn’t changed much in the last year.

In the last two years though, the number of Grad PLUS borrowers has grown (+2,540) while the total amount borrowed has fallen (-$140 million). It only amounts to about $500 per borrower, but who knows, maybe it’s due to fewer law students? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Finally, in the same week that I bought my first car I realized after years of listening that Galaxie 500’s “Blue Thunder” is about a man’s love for his car, and the Route 128 reference indicates it’s an homage to the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner.” (I’m terrible at discerning lyrics; it’s usually not what I listen for in music.) I really dig how “Blue Thunder” denies the listener the chorus until the very end.

I prefer the album version, but how could I not post an ’80s video?


Everything I Ever Needed to Know: The Middle School Premium

I recently wrote on the Census Bureau’s awaited annual update to its “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage” data for 2014. I editorialized on the decline in median earnings for 25-34 year-olds since the turn of the century. Today, I thought that rather than emphasize the negative, as I often do, I would point to the positive: For two decades, things have been getting better for people who don’t even finish the ninth grade. Way better.

Don’t laugh. This is serious social science.

Consider: If you think education increases earnings then you’d look at aggregate earnings of all persons (for the youth bracket, in this case) by education. You’d expect to see the aggregate earnings grow with an increasing proportion of the gains going to educated people. Instead you get this:

Aggregate Personal Earnings by Education (25-34, Both Sexes)

…Increasing proportions of the total going to the educated but no aggregate growth. This means average productivity isn’t improving; maybe the unenlightened are getting dumber or maybe educated workers aren’t really benefiting from more schooling.

How do you separate these factors when productivity and population (by education) are multiplied together and then added up to illustrate the aggregate above? In an unlikely parallel, Paul Krugman leads the way when trashing Jeb! Bush’s economic record as governor of Florida: Just compare the average aggregate growth rate to the average per capita growth rate. If the average per capita growth rate is higher than the average aggregate growth rate, then you’re looking at improving productivity rather than positive population shifts, which is bad.

We can do the same thing with education: average growth in aggregate earnings and average growth in per capita earnings.

Get ready…

Earnings Growth Rates by Education for 25-34 Year Olds (1991-, 2014 $)

Boom. Since 1991, the cumulative per capita growth rate for middle schoolers’ incomes has been 28 percent but for college grads (and above!) it’s been a scant 9 percent. In 42 years, both categories’ earnings will be identical.

Presumably, in about twenty-five years, young people will begin retarding their educations to avoid wasting their time learning ancillary subjects like geometry, science, literature, history, and—ungh—drama.

And if you thought law school scamblogs were bad, wait until you see Third Tier High School. Many a commode will be flushed that day, that’s for sure!

But aside from that massive finding, I direct your attention to the blue bars in the chart. As with Krugman’s argument on Jeb!’s governorship, they show exactly what we’ve feared all along: Any growth in college graduates’ productivity is overwhelmingly swamped by population shifts. In other words, more people are getting degrees, but overall they aren’t earning much more.

I wouldn’t read too much into the fact that dropping out of college is worse than not going in the first place. The stagnation of associate’s degree candidates, by contrast, is disturbing.

In truth, though, much of the growth in per capita earnings is probably attributable to college grads, so I wouldn’t completely discount them. However, most of that occurred in the 1990s. We’re in a very different place today.

Ponder that when your kids start the square-dancing unit in P.E.

GAO Report: RIP High-Income IBR Deadbeats

We are alerted to the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s latest report, “Education [Department] Could Do More to Help Ensure Borrowers Are Aware of Repayment and Forgiveness Options” (here). The report asks one of the questions I’ve always had of income-based repayment plans: How much are people on them earning?

The answer, as of September 2014, is squat—even less than I would’ve guessed.

(I suspect the GAO chose September because it’s the end of the fiscal year.)

GAO Report--Figure 4 (Income)

Out of 11.2 million borrowers in repayment, 13 percent were in IBR and 2 percent were in PAYE (1.46 million plus 0.22 million). If you play with the numbers right that means about 2 percent of all IBR-plus-PAYE borrowers earned more than $80,000 annually. That’s about 30,000 people. By contrast 72 percent (1.2 million) earned $20,000 or less.

Other fun facts: One, about two-thirds of all IBR/PAYE borrowers are women, so we can predict that the REPAYE plan of the future, which will essentially require debtors’ spouses to pay their debts, will be an anti-dowry. Two, within the IBR group, 13 percent were paying the equivalent of a 10-year repayment plan, and for the PAYE people, it was only 5 percent, implying that perhaps some high-income debtors are not going to require loan forgiveness anyway. Three, only one-third of IBR borrowers went to grad school; for PAYE it was only a fifth.

The low-income finding is important because there have been some articles about how IBR and the changes to it confer vastly unfair benefits to high-income deadbeats who could repay their loans if loopholes were closed. For example, earlier in September, The Wall Street Journal shrieked about studies showing how IBR and PAYE are sops to doctors and lawyers (not M.D.s and J.D.s apparently), and my personal favorite occurred last February when The Washington Post ran an op-ed by the New America Foundation’s Jason Delisle and Alexander Holt, who argued against PAYE based on a lopsided hypothetical of a law grad who made $70,000. Thanks to the GAO study, this person was not only lucky as law grads go but also totally unrepresentative of IBR/PAYE borrowers.

So going forward, I fully expect media outlets and the NAF to report on how the changes to IBR broadly favor low-income debtors, and that there aren’t so many high-income debtors taking advantage of the system.

But what did the NAF actually say about the study? It appears to be shifting its focus away from IBR deadbeats to graduate debtors on PSLF specifically. That’s not really a topic I’m interested in exploring today, but those hoping the authors would apologize for wasting so much of our public-policy mental bandwidth up until now will have to wait. The IBR deadbeat might be dead, but I’m sure they’ll resurrect it fairly soon.

In the meantime, the NAF attacks IBR by blaming students for earning too little money. I’m not kidding. Consider their closing line:

Given that borrowers in IBR and PAYE have such low incomes and high debt levels, the plans look much more like very long-term programs for borrowers, not sources of temporary relief.

What does the NAF expect? The economy is still depressed. It won’t really recover without fiscal, trade, and labor reforms. It’s not the borrowers’ faults they don’t have high-paying jobs, nor is it IBR/PAYE’s. So what’s the solution? Making them pay more? It’s unclear where the NAF will go from here, but more debt, more education, and tougher repayment plans aren’t going to work. Given that the NAF took a wide swing and missed over the IBR deadbeats, I discourage optimism.

Speaking of pessimism for college grads, the Census Bureau has updated its “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage” data for 2014. As with last year, I won’t delve too deeply into the analysis, but here are median earnings by education level for the 25-34 bracket.

Median Earnings by Education (25 - 34)

Okay, the median college grad earned $1,000 more in 2014, but it’s still way below the peak in 2000.

Meanwhile, the percent of college grads who weren’t working is still 3 points higher than in 2008, and 6 points higher than 1997. That amounts to more than half a million college grads who could be working. Moreover, it’s noisier, but there’s been an upward trend since the 1990s in professional-degree holders who don’t work.

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

The best we can say is that things didn’t get worse last year, but it’s much too soon to say things are getting better.

Why Debtors With the Smallest Incomes Have the Larger Problem

…Is how The New York Times meant to title Susan Dynarski’s Upshot piece, which was instead titled, “Why Students With Smallest Debts Have the Larger Problem.”

The article makes other odd or incorrect statements. For example, it says that 7 million borrowers are in default, but looking at its sources that probably includes some debtors who have both direct student loans and guaranteed student loans. (The link in the article doesn’t help.)

It then claims that debtors with high debts are less likely to default because they tend to be high-income professionals. In fact, those debtors are more likely to be sophisticated enough to sign on to a hardship deferment when trouble arises, or more commonly use IBR and its friends.

The statement also commits what’s rapidly becoming the cardinal sin of student debt reporting: using debt as the independent variable and not income. People can’t decide how much money they make, so if they have high debts, then they’re hosed. It’s not all sunshine and roses for high-income, high-debt workers either, as the interviewees from The Wall Street Journal illustrated a couple weeks ago. debtors with small balances and high incomes don’t default on their loans.

I won’t beat up on the piece too much. Its main point is that the average defaulted balance is fairly low, and given that I regularly report on that as the student debt crisis, I acknowledge that the NYT has gotten to the right place despite some staggering. It’s also correct to say that reducing balances won’t reduce defaults, as the author states.

One thing that will reduce defaults is increasing borrowers’ incomes and discouraging people who have little chance of completing college from attending. The latter policy, of course, contravenes the well-established view that everyone can get ahead of everyone else simultaneously thanks to credentials. Instead, the author argues for extended, income-based repayment, which essentially normalizes default—but we won’t call it that.

Someday the media will discover that job creation and higher pay will reduce defaults, but that day is still a long way off.