Income Based Repayment

How Many PSLF Deadbeats Are There?

Answer: Don’t Ask The Wall Street Journal.

According to Josh Mitchell’s, “U.S. Student-Loan Forgiveness Program Proves Costly,” 295,000 people are signed up for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which cancels federal student loans after 10 years of payments with no tax liability afterwards, unlike other income-based repayment plans.

But before going further, a few compliments:

(1) The WSJ is correct that PSLF is a “forgiveness program,” in contrast to at least one past instance when the WSJ called IBR a “student-debt forgiveness program.” More accurately, IBR is a monthly-payment-reduction program.

(2) Moreover, I don’t think I’ve ever defended PSLF, so the WSJ’s examples of doctors taking advantage of the program, even though there’s a good chance they could repay their loans, are more believable than past reporting.

(3) Again, it’s nice to see the spotlight turned away from law grads.

However, the WSJ still doesn’t answer the question: How many of the 295,000 debtors (and projected 600,000 over the next decade) on PSLF will earn high enough incomes to compromise PSLF? Does the program work on net? If the IBR deadbeat is a myth, then shouldn’t we be just as critical of the PSLF deadbeat?

I don’t really have a dog in the PSLF fight, and it should be fairly easy to reform it to take the advantages away from the deadbeats, but the right questions still aren’t being asked. If the unfair beneficiaries are few in number, then they shouldn’t be sensationalized. (Amusingly, the New America Foundation argues that PSLF should be eliminated entirely because the WSJ made it look so bad that it could lead to further backlash against IBR, which, of course, the NAF has never engaged in.)

Speaking of asking the right questions: Is the problem PSLF, or is it the Grad PLUS Loan Program?

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.

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.

WSJ: Grad Debts That Can’t Be Repaid … Can Be?

Josh Mitchell of The Wall Street Journal does some good reporting in, “Grad-School Loan Binge Fans Debt Worries.” There are, as one should expect, some errors.

One, after interviewing a handful of professionals with high incomes and unpayable debts, he writes:

But a number of recent studies show the benefits [of IBR] are largely going to people who need them the least—doctors and many lawyers who will end up making six-figure salaries. The benefits are less meaningful for undergraduate borrowers, because their average debt burden is roughly $30,000 and income-based repayment plans aren’t likely to lower their bills by much.

This is not true. There is no study that estimates the number of IBR freeloaders out there, otherwise the WSJ would’ve named it and cited the statistic. At best all we have is fear-mongering by the New America Foundation. Nor is there a study that estimates the total number of Grad PLUS loan debtors by course of study, median income, and proportion on an income-sensitive repayment plan. Such a study would probably find that the handful of people gaming the system are outweighed by professionals who aren’t earning much. This is the point of IBR.


Of the 5,686 hospitals in the U.S., 73% are nonprofits or government owned, according to the American Hospital Association, thus qualifying their employees to have loan balances forgiven after 10 years.

Do we have freeloading doctors? Response: No! It’s not their fault there are so few for-profit hospitals. If you want them to pay, charge them less. (By the way, one reason I like this article is that it doesn’t obsess over the handful of law grads who have spectacular earnings coming out of law school; it’s nice to beat up on the M.D.s for a change.)

I’ll close:

The collection of incentives—passed in separate measures over several years—weren’t intended to work together to help so many grad borrowers.

Very true, but the issue is what the harm is and where it’s coming from. IBR and its like are not the cause, Grad PLUS loans are. Without IBR, there would’ve been widespread graduate debtor defaults (or at best hardship deferments). This is how the WSJ can find real people who can’t repay their loans without IBR but then say there are studies somewhere out there finding that debtors are making cash sacks.

Or, to butcher Michael Hudson: Debts that can’t be repaid, can be.

ABA Task Force Dodges Student Debt Reform

Oh you knew I would not ignore the results of the ABA Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education. It was a long time in coming, but it required a careful read. My review is at The American Lawyer.

I would’ve told y’all sooner, but I just got back from vacation, which got an extension thanks to a thunderstorm in New York grounding planes in Chicago. Grr.