The Massive Scam of Income Based Repayment

CNBCIn response to this article on CNBC today:

https://www.cnbc.com/2018/11/07/rehabilitation-gives-student-loan-borrowers-a-second-chance-at-a-cost.html

Let’s review a few of the important points of our main character, Scott:

1.) Scott graduated with $35,000 in total debt. OK! NOT BAD.

2.) Scott made payments for 10 years, but the balance went up to $55k. NOT GREAT, BOB.

3.) Scott couldn’t make payments for a while, then “rehabilitated” his loan. MAKES SENSE.

4.) Scott now pays $6,300 a year, the balance is going UP every month, owes $130k, and declared bankruptcy which will not help his loan situation at all. WTF!

This story highlights the massive scam of income based repayment. We’ve looked at this problem before:

https://graduatefree.com/2014/11/21/income-based-repayment-and-debt-forgiveness/

and

https://graduatefree.com/2015/09/16/is-the-public-service-loan-forgiveness-plan-a-good-idea/

In that last linked article I said:

These plans often have payments lower than the interest accruing, so the balance on your student loans can actually GO UP over time. This essentially makes you dependent on loan forgiveness as your only way out of debt.

This was one reason why these student loans reminded me of the “negative amortization loans” of the mortgage meltdown.

Even if Scott gets his loans forgiven, he will have paid many multiples of his original borrowed amount ($6k a year x 10 or 20 years, plus the payments he made for 10 years, plus the income tax hit). And again, there isn’t any way out. If you default, the government will withhold basic social safety nets designed for the poor.

This is the payday lending industry re-imagined.

This is indentured servitude.

Please be careful out there.

 

#TheAdultStudent

hands-girl-vintage-student.jpgOne thing we’ve noticed is that grad students are often bifurcated into students recently out of undergrad (in their early/mid 20’s) and second career students that are typically 15-20 years older. This is one reason the average age of a Denver Seminary student is 32 years old.

This segment of “Adult Students” is getting more attention then they have in the past, including an article in the Wall Street Journal, for a couple of reasons:

  • We’ve documented that older students are more vulnerable to high levels of student loan debt: Students over 31 years of age are significantly (almost 3x) more likely to borrow high levels of debt (over $50k)
  • It’s a larger pool then we thought: Some 41% of students enrolled in higher education are 25 or older.
  • 38% of these older students drop out in their first year. Students that borrow money then fail to earn their degree are among the biggest fatalities of the student loan programs.

Goldie Blumenstyk is a leading voice in this area. A couple of her resources to highlight:

Additional Layer of Risk

parents defualt rateI believe one of the most important ideas in understanding debt is what we call “Layers of Risk”. One layer that I have not taken the time to fully consider was brought to my attention in an article today. That layer of risk is student borrowers with children, and specifically single parents:

  • Nearly 50% of undergrad students borrowers defaulted
  • Of those, 70% were single parents
  • 10% of borrowers are single parents, but they represent 40% of all defaults

These stats also include additional factors and layers of risk. For example, as the article points out if you’re a parent of a child under 3, a person of color, or enrolled in a for-profit school your default rates are even higher.

Additionally, many of these defaulted loans are for students that were unable to complete their degree so they are stuck with a non-bankruptable debt and no degree with which to increase their earning potential.

Any system that disproportionately penalizes the most vulnerable needs to be reformed.

Student Loan Reform in Future?

forbesAn article passed along to me this week with a lead that caught my attention:

A growing number of student loan borrowers — nearly one in three — aren’t making headway in paying down their loans five years after leaving school.

A couple of brief observations:

1.) 2/3 Borrowers with more then $50k in debt aren’t paying down their balances. It’s ‘compound interest’ in reverse – if you owe a lot, the minimum payments just barely – or in some cases don’t – cover the accruing interest. I noted this has a striking similarity to Negative Amortization Mortgages that contributed to the financial meltdown a decade ago.

2.) One of my major concerns two years ago was that the government could change it’s rules anytime on loan forgiveness. This article mentions several proposals that are on the table to do just that including eliminating the Public Service Loan Forgiveness plan altogether. It’s one of the main reasons I don’t think using any version of the loan forgiveness plan should ever be your primary payoff strategy.

3.) We’ve noted before about how the government makes over $50 Billion in profit from the student loan program each year. That enormous cash cow for those in power is the primary reason I don’t predict significant student loan reform for the benefit of the borrowers. In fact, this article says the proposed reforms will earn the government an additional $104 Billion over the next ten years. Incredible.

4.) If the government was actually serious about reform for the benefit of the American citizen, there are a number of options. For example they could put a hard cap on total student borrowing at the median household income ($55,775 in 2017), limit borrowing to the cost of tuition, or financially involve the educational institutions.

Interview: David Hyams

david_hyams.jpgI had a chance to interview David Hyams, a Denver Seminary graduate and current practicing attorney. You’re really going to enjoy his wisdom – especially his personal story of navigating student loan debt.

David, you have a unique background – you are a practicing attorney but you also attended and graduated from Denver Seminary. Why did you pursue those seemingly very different directions?

The short answer is, because I was trying to follow God’s call on my life. What this looked like in reality, of course, was a serpentine path to law shrouded by fog, marked by stints of clarity. My undergrad degree is in Sport Medicine, which was never a good fit, but when I chose that major as a freshman, like most 18-year-olds, I didn’t know myself and certainly was not considering career options in terms of God’s calling on my life. Toward the end of college, I fell in love with Jesus and apologetics, which led to seminary. While at D. Sem., I learned my giftings trended more academic, so I pursued the M.A. in Philosophy of Religion. Upon finishing that degree, despite numerous red flags cautioning me otherwise, I was convinced a Ph.D. in Philosophy was what God had for me. Toward that end, I picked up another M.A. in Philosophy from Georgia State University. Eventually, in a most unfamiliar and uncomfortable act of humility, I surrendered to what the Lord had for my career instead of imposing on Him what I thought “made sense.” That led to law school, which wound up being a perfect complement for my background and giftings. In fact, I’ve met quite a few seminarians over the years who’ve entertained the prospect of attending law school, and lawyers who’ve wanted to go to seminary. Few have had the privilege of doing both. Thus, becoming an attorney was not the product of a planned career path, but was the result of my (highly imperfect) attempts to daily follow the Lord’s whispers.

 

You and I have talked briefly about your personal interaction with student loans. I know you have really sacrificed to pay those down – what has your journey looked like?

I’m not proud of my journey. Had I to do it over again, it would look very different. Nonetheless, if through my weaknesses and the ensuing suffering Christ’s power may rest upon me and others may be comforted (see 2 Cor. 12:9; 1:3-4), I gladly share it.

Thankfully, my personal interaction with student loans stemmed solely from my law degree. My parents paid for the B.S. We paid for seminary through a combination of work (my wife and I both worked, though she was the primary breadwinner), scholarships, and church contributions. The second M.A. was paid for through work (again, my wife mainly supported us, though I worked as well), and grants from the university.

By the time I started law school, however, we were burned out on school and were ready to cast off the shackles of financial restraint we had worn for the years of student life and start living like “grown ups.” Thus, despite having very good jobs for the duration of law school, instead of using our income to actually pay for tuition, we financed the entire degree with student loans. (For brevity’s sake, I’ll skip over the multitude of other financially-ruinous decisions we made over the next several years and focus on the loans.) I thus graduated from law school in 2008 with approximately $125,000 in student loan debt.

Aside from the sloth, prideful sense of entitlement, and utter foolishness that informed the decision to borrow all that money, I never once stopped and put pen to paper to determine the answers to such basic questions as:

How much money am I going to have to make each month in order to pay these loans back in x years?

If I don’t pay at least $x per month, what is the interest going to do to the principal?

What sort of jobs am I either going to need to apply for or walk away from because of my obligation to service this debt, and how does that align with God’s call on my life?

What sort of opportunities am I not going to be able to pursue because of the commitment I’m making to my lender?

Instead, in repeated acts of cowardice, I stuck my head in the sand and, semester after semester, took on more and more debt. Of course, I never abandoned my faith along the way, so, on those rare occasions when I’d actually entertain post-law school financial realities in a general sense, I would sanctify my naivety with such theological quips as, “I don’t know how, but God will provide.” (All the while ignoring that God was actually providing the entire time, I was just choosing to squander his provisions.)

After narrowly avoiding personal bankruptcy following law school, we went through a major life overhaul and (finally) started living on a budget. After eight years of attacking debt, belt-tightening, and the selling of two houses in 2016, we are, praise be to God, debt-free. The student loans had ballooned to ~$165,000, for I had put them in deferment and had entered into a federal “repayment program” while I repaid other debts. And while we’re now starting over in some ways, we’re finally complying with the Lord’s command in Romans 13:8 to owe no one anything except love. It feels amazing.

 

Financially, what word of advice would you give to someone just entering into seminary?

Generally speaking, you need to understand that, while the degree you’re about to earn is extremely valuable and worthwhile from a kingdom perspective, the world does not place the same value on it. And, by and large, the world’s value metrics determine the amount of money you will earn upon exiting seminary, regardless of your place of employment. And while it may feel a little “dirty” to the seminarian who is dutifully following the call of God on his or her life, they need to get comfortable talking about money and the financial realities that come with it. The last thing you want to do is in one breath say, “God, I will go anywhere and do anything you call me to do,” and in the next breath say, “so long as it pays at least $x per month because I’ve got to pay these student loans back!” At its most basic level, taking on student loans is taking on the yoke of another master, and the Lord has warned us about the feasibility of serving two masters (Lk. 16:13)—especially when that other master is Caesar himself (i.e., the federal government)). Moreover, many (most?) of the life crises of the people you’ll be ministering to involve finances in some capacity.

Moreover, you have no idea what will happen in life. Yes, God will provide for your needs. And yes, He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. But this world we live in is fallen and suffering and persecution is a part of the path of righteousness. Why purposefully compound that by fiscal irresponsibility?

Accordingly, I’d advise the seminarian to avoid student loans at all costs. If need be, take your time getting through seminary. (For most of you, being older and wiser upon exiting seminary will only help your future ministry.) Get creative by working multiple jobs (even jobs that might be “beneath” you), take night or weekend classes, check your textbooks out from libraries, live on a budget, beg, pinch, scrape, whatever, just stay indebted only to the Lord.

 

 You have a unique background in Bankruptcy law. I believe one of the biggest issues with large amounts of student loans is that personally you can’t bankrupt out of them. That makes it almost impossible to escape them should you become overly indebted or should life change radically. Obviously bankruptcy has been abused by some people over the years, but can you help us understand why it’s important to our economic process and what risks someone takes by taking on non-bankrupt-able debt?

In its simplest form, bankruptcy is about the unmerited forgiveness of voluntarily-incurred debt. As people of the gospel, we should be able to appreciate this, especially given bankruptcy’s biblical roots in the year of jubilee (see Lev. 25). By allowing a debtor—whether an individual or a company—to make a “fresh start,” risk-taking activity is encouraged. Starting a business, pursuing an idea, investing in something you believe in—all of these are risks. If failure would result in a lifetime of inescapable debt, fewer people and companies would be willing to take risks. Thus, fewer jobs, inventions, and fulfilled dreams, i.e., less human flourishing. Bankruptcy allows the risk-taker to minimize her risks by providing a means to discharge or reorganize her debts in the event of financial calamity. Likewise, creditors are encouraged to invest in the risk-takers, for their rights are protected under the Bankruptcy Code as well. Of course, certain types of debts are offered very little protection, but most creditors will work the prospect of bankruptcy into their pricing and they understand the risk of participating in the market.

By taking on debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, such as student loans, the debtor is taking on the risk that, despite Jesus’ promise that we will face trouble in this world, “everything is going to work out.”  Unlike other debts where the debtor and creditor share the risk and therefore want to see the debtor succeed, student loan creditors bear virtually no risk by extending the loans to the particular student. The student bears all the risk, the debt is completely unsecured, i.e., the debt does not attach to any collateral that can be liquidated to satisfy the debt, and it will follow the student all the way to the grave.

 

What have you learned from your unique background working with religious institutions about how occupational ministry and finances collide?

There are of course numerous and beautiful exceptions I’ve seen, but here are a few trends I’ve noticed.

Often, ministry leaders are incredibly gifted at relationships, but they do not have a very keen business sense.  This can have the effect of a poorly run organization that is out of tune with realities its donor base grapples with on a daily basis, even if the leader has good intentions and the doctrinal statement is sound. Of course, there are problems that come with unreflectingly adopting “secular” business principles, but at a minimum, a basic understanding of budgeting, business, and economics (and law) would help ministry leaders.

By embracing a negative mindset toward finances, pastors contribute to the sacred/secular divide, and stymie their flocks’ ability to think Christianly regarding money and work.

Many younger evangelicals who do not feel called into pastoral ministry come to the conclusion that in order to faithfully serve God, they must start or work for a non-profit, because, in their mind, they cannot work for a for-profit company because “profit equals greed,” which is, of course, a sin. But profit and greed are distinct concepts that are not necessarily correlated. This mindset has deprived us of thoughtful Christians in the marketplace and given us too many non-profits, which has had the concomitant results of draining kingdom resources and increasing ministry redundancy. (Not to mention the sympathies toward Marxism this general disdain toward capitalism has engendered—an economic philosophy whose utter failure to actually work in reality has only been surpassed by the torrents of blood that have flowed everywhere it’s been implemented.)

Many believe that by getting too far into the details of finances, they aren’t trusting God or would be idolizing money. A quick survey of Proverbs should put that fear to rest. (See, e.g., Prov. 27:23.)

There is also the risk of the pendulum swinging the other direction toward the “health and wealth” prosperity gospel, which also prevents thoughtful, biblical engagement with finances.

Jesus rightfully warned of the dangers of money. But by failing to help move their flocks beyond “money is bad” (except when the offering plate comes around), the church is left ill-equipped to expose the idols of the age and model a biblical counterexample.

Thank you for your wisdom, vulnerability, and leadership in this area. We are deeply grateful.

 

If you’d like to learn more about David in is own words you can visit a longer bio here: www.sdglawllc.com and if your organization has any legal needs feel free to reach out to him here or 703-771-4671.

 

My 600lb Life – 8 financial observations

600lb-lifeMy wife and I fell into a rabbit hole mini-binge watch of TLC’s “My 600lb Life”. Besides being very motivating, the show is a fantastic look into human behavior. It isn’t a coincidence that many financial teachers have used weight loss as a picture of getting our personal finances under control.

As I watched these episodes, I noted a couple observations:

  1. Real change takes two years

The show follows a subject’s story over an extended period of time, generally about 2 years. It’s obviously not easy to lose 300-400lbs, but it’s easy to forget that a huge change can take a long time. For people in large amounts of debt, I’ve also noticed it takes about 2 years to get out of a massive financial hole. This could be discouraging – but I choose to think of it as encouraging. No matter how big your problem, there is a decent chance that two years from now you could have a completely different life.

  1. Surgery doesn’t fix it

The people on the show are there because they’re seeking to get a lap band surgery to help them lose weight. It’s interesting that the doctor doesn’t let them get the surgery unless they lose a significant amount of weight first. He understands that surgery isn’t the solution – the patient has to be willing to change first. The first step is always a change of the heart and mind. It’s helpful to remember that there isn’t any financial fix (more money, better job, lower interest rate, rich uncle) that will ‘fix’ your life. Instead…..

  1. It always starts with a choice

Any big life change will always be initiated by being ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired’. It’s being ‘mad as hell and not going to take it anymore’.

  1. Caused by trauma

It’s heartbreaking to hear the back story of the people on this show. Nearly all of them can trace their physical problems back to a major trauma – often being abused (physically, sexually) in some fashion. It seems obvious to this amateur physiologist that there is a direct connection between an event that caused the victim to hate their body and the ensuing weight gain. Finances aren’t always like this, but often we can trace our attitudes and behaviors back to the way we were raised to understand money. Often students I counsel will start our conversation with some version of “My parents weren’t very good with money”.

  1. A million small choices

Nobody gains 400lbs in a day, week, month, or year. Similarly, most of us got into debt over a period of time through a lot of small choices.

  1. This will change your life

Losing 400lbs over 2 years will change your life. The show’s participants are always so grateful to have made the journey. Nobody loses that much weight and says “You know, my life is pretty much the same just with smaller jeans.” When I’ve felt the crushing burden of too much debt, it expands into my mental and spiritual spaces. I’ve found myself thinking about money throughout the day, or trying not to think about it and feeling guilty about ignoring my problems. Getting out of debt will change your life. Once you’re out of debt, your life won’t be “pretty much the same just without any payments”. No, I think you’ll find it affects lots of decisions and emotions that you never considered.

  1. Takes a team

The story of the show isn’t just the main character, it’s always the supporting cast.  There is usually a massive enabler or two that helped the protagonist get to their current state. Once they are ready to change, a team of doctors, nurses, personal trainers, nutritionist, friends, and family all come along side the person and help them toward their goal. Finances are similar – if you can build a team of encouragers around you it is wildly helpful. Here’s some more info on working toward a goal with a team.

  1. A persistent spark of Hope

When things are dark, we need to remember that it will be worth it. In “The Pilgrims Progress”, Christian is helped in his darkest times by his companion Hopeful. When we’re ready to quit, what we really need is Hope. Hope that all the sacrifice will ultimately be worth it. Watching the TV show I’m reminded what Paul taught:

“We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

Loan Forgiveness and PSLF

Tnythis article surfaced in The New York Times a couple weeks ago:

They Thought They Qualified for Student Loan Forgiveness. Years Later, the Government Changes Its Mind.

I’ve written several times including this long post in September of 2015 that I thought the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program was risky and I did not think it was wise to plan on the PSLF program to be your primary loan repayment strategy.

The risk that the government could change the rules at any time was one of the original reasons I wrote that I didn’t like the program. That is exactly what happened to the subjects of that NY Times article and we’ll see how the pending litigation plays out.

There are other alternatives. If you’d like some help working through those then hit me up.

Vampire Problems

draculaWhat kind of problems require faith?

David Brooks has highlighted a problem he calls a Vampire Problem. Say you are thinking about becoming a vampire, but you’re on the fence. The drinking blood, sleeping in a coffin, no playing golf during the day…it’s a tough decision. Adding to the problem, once you become a vampire there isn’t any going back. Brook’s point is that the most important decisions in life, who to marry, when and how many kids to have, what job to take, these types of problems are ‘vampire problems’ – they have two main characteristics:

1.) There isn’t any way to fully know what life will be like if you make that decision.

2.) Once you make the decision, you can’t go back.

These type of problems can’t be solved with logic, knowledge, analytics, research, or education. As the article points out: “’You shouldn’t fool yourself…You have no idea what you are getting into.’” These type of problems require faith.

Following Jesus is certainly this type of problem. He promises that (1.) You’re spiritually dead right now and you can’t know what it’s like to be alive but (2.) you can be alive with a life that’s better than you can ever imagine and once you are alive you won’t ever be the same.

A lot of financial problems are like this as well. There isn’t any way to fully know the outcome of a decision you need to make. Can I afford to have a child right now? If I take this 2nd job, will I have enough time and energy for my friends and family? If I commit to paying off debt will I still be able to have fun? Will this investment pan out? Which of these two jobs should I take? Is it worth it to move to a new city to go to grad school? Should I fix this old car or buy a new one?

The good news is that faith isn’t blind. It’s an action in the direction of my hope. That’s why all my financial (and life) choices need to start with an act of the will. I need to have hope in my heart that I can be debt free and that it will be worth it before I can start taking actions in that direction.

Faith is the action toward the thing I’m hopeful for. What are your financial hopes for 2017? How about 5 years and 10 years from now? Let’s write those down as we head into a new year. Do you hope to be debt free? To pay off your student loans? To have a fully funded emergency fund? To pay for graduate school? To land a specific job? To start a business?

Two Causes of Poverty

powell-poverty-quoteWhat causes poverty? Thinking about this question can teach us a lot about how to create personal economic mobility. Those are big words for get out of debt, build an emergency fund, save for retirement, and create stability for our children.

In my post-election reading, I came across this long interview (actually made and posted before the election).  The author makes a case that endemic poverty is caused by two main factors:

  • Social Structures That Harm. These are cultural forces that are weighted against the poor and against upward mobility. These aren’t unique to our society, the author of Proverbs 22 points out as a matter of fact that the “The poor are always ruled over by the rich.” In the past I have used the term “Risks” to bring personal awareness to some of these structures. Examples of these cultural forces include redlining neighborhoods, the town factory closing, poor educational systems, payday lenders, having bad parents, and corrupt governments. You might call these “Things that happen to you.”
  • Personal Choices. The interviewee calls this “helping people make better moral choices.” This is the personal responsibility that is required to change your life. Proverbs also address this in a number of says such as “Wealth from get-rich-quick schemes quickly disappears; wealth from hard work grows over time.” Examples of “Things you do to yourself” include substance abuse, not living on a budget, spending on wants vs needs, not deferring gratification, a poor work ethic, and having a negative attitude.

Here are two personal questions to ponder:

Do my thoughts and beliefs lean one way or the other?

One of the points the interview makes is that Liberal leaning folks tend to over-emphasize the social structures and those that bend Conservative tend to over-emphasize the personal responsibility.* This makes me think that you and I probably overemphasize one side or the other in our thinking and beliefs:

Do I think poor people are lazy? Do I believe it’s impossible to get out of debt in today’s society? Do I tell people that there aren’t any good jobs out there? Do I complain about my lack of money while wearing these sick new Jordans? Do I define my employability by the time I was laid off? Do I believe that employer really isn’t looking for someone of my age, sex, or color?

The biases and beliefs I carry will dramatically affect my ability to change my story.

Where is my personal greatest return on investment?

If you are called to change the social structures, I encourage you to go for it. I believe these are evil institutions of oppression and that Jesus was directly addressing these when he said the Kingdom of Heaven is advancing and the “Gates of Hell” won’t prevent good from eventually breaking these down.

However, practically for us today complaining and worrying about these cultural forces isn’t helpful. To personally change, we need to First recognize the cultural forces so I can artfully navigate around those to the best of my ability and Second accept the moral responsibility for that which God has entrusted me, managing my life.

———————————–

*Footnote:  An interesting side note on this I heard this week. The fundamental difference between a liberal and conservative world view is the condition of mankind. A liberal worldview leans humanist, meaning that given the right circumstances humans will move toward goodness. A conservative worldview lends itself toward humans in their nature doing the wrong things.

As I understand it, the Biblical worldview is more centric, that humans are created good and to do good (“In the image of God”) but that because we are infected with the virus of sin we will inevitably do what we don’t want to do (Romans 7:15-20).

Change (Part Two)

grip golfI have been teaching my son to golf over the past few years. Unfortunately he inherited his dad’s aversion to authority so taking direction hasn’t always gone well. Despite the people that want to help him get better, he pushes back. As we have noted, change is hard.

One reason he pushes back: It doesn’t feel right.

The vast majority of golf teachers in the world will tell you that you need to hold the club in your fingers (not palms) with the “V” of your index finger and thumb pointing at your right shoulder. Often Zeke’s grip will get too “weak”, with the “V” pointing at his chin or left shoulder instead of right shoulder.  This is a critical fundamental to hitting the shots he wants to hit, so I’ll reposition his hands on the club and say “Try it this way”.

But he hates it. He says it doesn’t feel comfortable. He won’t be able to hit the ball the way he’s practiced. After I’ve placed his hands on the club the correct way he even re-grips it back to the old way right before he swings.

Of course he’s right. It doesn’t feel natural. It doesn’t feel comfortable. He legitimately doesn’t like it.

But a good golf teaching professional will tell you “what you feel isn’t real”. If you will stick with the change and hit a couple hundred golf balls, the new grip will become your “normal” grip and anything else will start to feel weird. It will become your new normal fundamental.

I don’t need to make the applications to life for you, but I just want to encourage you. If you’re struggling with an area of change – especially around your personal finances – stick with it. It won’t feel comfortable. That’s ok. Trust the process. Hit a couple hundred balls and you’ll look back and not recognize that old crappy golfer.