An Open Letter to Josh Mitchell of the Wall Street Journal

Dear Mr. Mitchell,

After reading your article entitled, “Grad-School Loan Binge Fans Debt Worries,” it became clear that you are misinformed regarding the reality that millions of graduate students face when deciding to pursue a master’s or professional degree in the United States. Whether your misinformed view of this crisis is a result of willful ignorance or lazy reporting will remain a mystery.

In the media-biased world we all live in, The Wall Street Journal is still revered as a reliable and relatively unbiased news source. The Wall Street Journal provides sophisticated readers with some of the most pertinent business and political news in America. In fact, in 2007, ABC News reported that three-quarters of your readers have earned a college degree and have a median household income of $234,909. And it will come as no surprise that higher education levels lead to higher news readership.

When your customers are overwhelmingly educated beyond high school, the bar for reporting is raised. As such, I feel it is my obligation to illuminate the truth behind the assertions in your article in the hope that after reading my analysis of your missteps, you might be inclined to be more empathetic and thoughtful about the American student loan crisis as it specifically relates to graduate and professional students. My goal is that you are reminded that each of the millions of students that you have vilified are living, breathing humans, many of which are struggling to make ends meet because of their student loan debt. Every American will be affected by the student loan crisis, including you and your readers.

The long-term implications of the perpetual economic hardship of millions of Americans will have a dire effect on every facet of our economy. Studies show that students with substantial debt are delaying or foregoing buying a home, purchasing cars, and in some cases, deciding not to have children because of their student loan payments.

This crisis has ripple effects the likes of which we have never seen. People have even resorted to ending their lives—or deciding not to end their lives—because of student debt. Your cavalier approach to this crisis is insulting to, as you noted, millions of Americans (and their families) struggling with student loan debt.

To err is human; to forgive, divine. ~Alexander Pope

First things first. You stated, “Federal student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.” This is false. Although it is a difficult process, and discharge is the exception rather than the rule, student loans can be discharged in bankruptcy.  Research, read, revise—it is kind of your job.

One of the most harmful impediments to realistic student loan and higher education reform is the borrower-blaming rhetoric that you and countless other journalists have perpetuated. By blaming student borrowers you do nothing more than obfuscate the reasons for the student loan crisis and stir a divisive (and frankly poorly-informed) conversation.

When you describe Virginia Murphy’s student loan story, you categorize her—and others like her—as an “expanding breed of American borrower: those who owe at least $100,000 in student debt but have no expectation of paying it back.” I can guarantee that the reason Ms. Murphy has “no expectation” of paying off her student loan balance is not because she wants to cheat the government or the taxpayers. I speak from experience.

I am a student loan borrower. I have earned an MBA and a JD. I never needed a student loan until I entered graduate school (I was one of the few fortunate athletes in this country that earned an athletic scholarship to cover the cost of my tuition). I only attended state schools and I never took out a private loan. I also never received a scholarship even though I was at the top of my respective classes. Yes, I am of the same breed as Ms. Murphy.

You are correct that the public service forgiveness program will allow a student who commits his/herself to 10 years of public service, and by default, lower salaries than their counterparts in the private sector. You note that Ms. Murphy’s loan balance of $256,000 will “swell” to $300,000 in the next seven years it will take her to have her loans forgiven through the public service forgiveness program. To qualify for the forgiveness program, she must maintain her $330 monthly payments for the next seven years. Assuming her monthly obligation stays the same, she will have paid $27,720 over a seven year period. Yet, the obscene interest rates on her loans (mine range from 6.5-7.9%) will ensure that the $27,720 she pays will never touch her principal because it will have ballooned by over 17% in just seven years.

If you know of any seven-year bonds that have a 17% rate of return (2% compounded monthly, to be specific), sign me up.

Private sector workers, however, are not in an even similar position when it comes to “forgiveness” of their loans. You stated that private sector workers “can generally have balances forgiven after 20 years.” While you used the appropriate verbiage to characterize the federal income based repayment plan, the word “forgiveness” is not accurate.

If you still have a balance on your loans at the end of what could be a quarter of a century of crushing monthly student loan payments, you are taxed on the remaining balance, plus your income. This is not how the public service repayment plan works. Here is a great explanation of this phenomenon by Jantz Hoffman of Advantage Group, “Let’s say your debt has grown to $180,000 over 20 years, and by that point, you’re making $120,000[.] If $180,000 is being forgiven, then you are looking at paying taxes on $300,000 in total income in one year. At that point, you’re over the $250,000 income category, my friend.”

If this is “one of the nation’s fastest growing entitlements,” I must be confused as to what you consider an entitlement to be. To the millions of student borrowers out there, the entitlement seems to rest with those college students that have the financial means to avoid the student loan trap. And make no mistake; we do not blame these students. We envy these students. They, unlike us, will have the time and the grace to make mistakes—the kind of mistakes one makes by virtue of growing up. They have more financial leeway to change careers, buy homes and cars, and raise children.  Judging by the tone of your article and the comments that followed it, students without debt are entitled to one more thing. . . Your respect.

The Predators and the Prey

As you noted, in 2005, Congress lifted the limit on how much a student could borrow in federal loans for graduate school by creating Grad PLUS loans, “which cover any expenses after graduate students hit the Stafford [Loan] ceiling.” Before 2005, a graduate student was limited to borrowing a total of $138,500 including their undergraduate debt.

You state, “The measure helped students bypass private lenders, which student advocates said charged high interest rates and did too little to protect borrowers who fell on hard times.”

In the same piece, however, you also state, “The program also helped lawmakers in their quest to cut the federal deficit, because the government charges grad students higher interest rates than undergraduates. Grad PLUS was included in a deficit-reduction package passed by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2005 and signed [into law] by President George W. Bush in 2006.” And, “The federal student-loan programs are designed to generate revenue for tax payers, and they do.”

To summarize, you obviously acknowledge that graduate student loans were effectively de-regulated in order to make money for the federal government. This is the same government that ballooned the national deficit through the “Bush tax-cuts” and borrowed trillions of dollars to maintain the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Watson Institute at Brown University reports, “The United States federal government has spent or obligated 4.4 trillion dollars on the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.” The estimated interest payments due on this debt by 2053 will be $7 trillion.

Confusingly, though, you seem extremely concerned about the tax payers’ comparatively paltry burden from the “forgiveness” of federal student loans: “But the surging enrollment in the debt-forgiveness programs recently prompted the government to increase by $22 billion its estimate of the long-term cost of the provisions;” “And a recent move to expand the most generous repayment program to millions more borrowers will cost an estimated $15.3 billion.” “Generous” is a huge overstatement and these figures are dwarfed by the long-term tax-payer burdens set into motion during the Bush presidency. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported:

Just two policies dating from the Bush Administration — tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — accounted for over $500 billion of the deficit in 2009 and will account for nearly $6 trillion in deficits in 2009 through 2019 (including associated debt-service costs of $1.4 trillion).  By 2019, we estimate that these two policies will account for almost half — over $8 trillion — of the $17 trillion in debt that will be owed under current policies.

What concerns me more than your feigned interest for the welfare of the tax payers is that you unabashedly ignore the elephant in the room: the United States Government, after borrowing $4.4 trillion for two wars, also unilaterally decided to commit $700 billion of taxpayer dollars to fund the Wall Street bailout. But the actual cost of the bailout has been estimated to exceed $14.1 trillion.

Start two wars in the Middle East with borrowed money? Forgiven.

Use tax payer money to bail out major banks that gambled with peoples’ homes and retirement accounts leading to the worst American financial crash in recent history? Forgiven.

Lower the tax revenues realized by the federal government each year by giving unprecedented tax cuts to millionaires and large corporations at the expense of the middle class? Forgiven.

Went to law or medical school to try to improve your future financial and professional prospects, save lives, or preserve freedom? Unforgivable.

We are not the predators in this jungle of higher education. Regardless of your flawed analysis, students attending graduate school did not cause the student loan crisis. Our financial struggles and our exploding student debt is the result of a system designed by our nation’s leaders that commodifies and preys on the integrity of higher education and our most financially-vulnerable students.

The Rising Cost of College

Throughout your article, you emphasize that the swelling student loan debt burden of law and medical students, in particular, has been something that has grown at a record-setting pace.   For example:

  1. “The effects of loosened credit are most evident among graduates of medical and law schools . . . whose debt burdens have skyrocketed in the past decade.”
  2. “As graduate-school enrollment swelled over the past decade, the number of Americans owing at least $100,000 in student debt more than quintupled to 1.82 million as of Jan. 1 . . .”
  3. “The typical medical-school graduate owed $161,772 in student debt at graduation in 2012 . . . That figure rose an inflation-adjusted 31% over eight years. Debt growth was even sharper among law-school graduates. The typical student who borrowed left law school owing $140,616 in 2012, up 59% from eight years earlier.”
  4. As of 2012, “Those earning a master’s [degree] typically owed between $50,000 and $60,000; law degrees, $141,000; and medical degrees, $162,000.” Only “0.3% of undergrads owed six-figure debts,” “[b]ut among graduate and professional school students, 15% owed at least $100,000 upon graduation—more than double the share just four years earlier.”

“According to data from the Labor Department, the price index for college tuition grew by nearly 80 percent between August 2003 and August 2013. That is nearly twice as fast as growth in costs in medical care, another area widely recognized for fast-rising prices. It’s also more than twice as fast as the overall consumer price index during that same period.”

widemodern_collegechart_102313

The combination of tuition hikes and the depletion of state spending for higher education made paying for one’s college tuition without loan assistance exponentially more difficult. Unemployment was high, retirement accounts had been carelessly squandered by Wall Street, and kids’ whose parents may have had savings intended to put students through college, now needed that money to live.

The solution? First, increase tuition. Second, charge graduate and professional students more to get an advanced degree. Then, blame those same students who have been caught in a lifelong financial trap created by a group of mostly white, rich men—most of whom have graduate and professional degrees. They never needed a student loan to get a degree, after all. How fortunate for them, and how very unfortunate for us.

Warning: Moral Hazard

“Critics say offering unlimited loans to students, with the prospect of forgiveness, creates a moral hazard by allowing borrowers to amass debts they have little hope or intention of repaying, all while enriching institutions and leaving tax payers to pick up the tab.”

Wow.

Other than the atrocity that is this sentence, I noticed that you failed to provide any information or attribution to these so called “critics” you are paraphrasing. Journalism fail.

To be clear, the moral hazard of the American student loan program is not the borrower’s ability to amass enormous debts in order to fund an education. Rather, the “moral hazard” is sentencing our best and brightest to 20-25 years of financial atonement for the crime of trying to pursue their American Dream through higher education.

I must pause here and thank you. When you say, “. . . postgraduate borrowers . . . now account for roughly 40% of all student debt but represent just 14% of students in higher education[,]” you have helped me make my point.  If this statistic did not shock you, it should have. You assert that student loan debt has doubled since the recession to a total of $1.19 trillion.

In addition to common sense, the numbers you cite in your article tell us that the more expensive college is, the number of students needing student financial aid increases. At the same time, the amount of financial aid that these students need to cover higher fees increases as well.

Forty percent of $1.19 trillion is $476 billion and we have thrust this burden on 14% of our best and brightest students—the doctors who save our lives and the lawyers who preserve our liberty, for example. And just like your uninformed reporting, that is the real moral hazard.

The Real World

You discuss Bonnie Kurowski-Alicea. Bonnie is a 40-year old woman with a $209,000 student loan balance. “She pays $1,060 per month but plans to take advantage of the . . . proposal to allow borrowers with older loans to set payments at 10% of discretionary income.” She stated, “I’ll be the retiree that’s getting Social Security garnished[.]”

This is horrifying. You state that Ms. Kurowski-Alicea makes $80,000/year at her job. Most people would agree that $80,000 per year is a strong salary in a moderately-priced market. She pays $1,060 per month toward her student loans—$12,720/year—leaving her with $67,280 of gross income before taxes. Her student loan payments account for approximately 16% of her gross annual earnings. Still, she has to find room in her budget to support at least two people (her and her husband), save for retirement, pay for housing, insurance, vehicles, gas, etc. I am sure even you can agree, that this presents a number of logistical and budgeting concerns for her family.

Yet, you continue. “But a number of recent studies show the benefits are largely going to people who need them the least—doctors and many lawyers who will end up making six-figure salaries[;]” “Critics of the system say it makes it easier for graduate schools to raise tuition, and for some high-earning graduates such as doctors to escape debts they can afford to pay.” Once again, you have provided no citation or support for these assertions and they are patently false in light of real data.

Salaries in the United States, when adjusted for inflation, have been stagnant or declining across the board for decades.

Per_capita_US_income

Lawyers and doctors are not immune from this particular economic trend even though you seem to believe that the majority of lawyers and doctors earn six-figure salaries. I cannot speak for the doctors, but I can speak for the lawyers.

Attorney salaries have been tumbling for some time. In 2014, CNN reported,

 Back in 2008, associates at big firms made $125,000 straight out of school. But by last year, that had dropped to $95,000. And the vast majority of lawyers actually work at small firms for much less money. Local prosecutors, for instance, make about $50,000 in their first year, while those with 15 years of experience only earn $80,000.

Most of us are not wealthy. Most of us are just like you. We pursued higher education to create a better life for ourselves. While you specifically are not the problem, your aloof approach to reporting on this particular issue is a problem. Your article’s inability to clarify the root cause, and by extension, assign blame to the appropriate parties responsible for the student loan crisis is a problem. It is a problem to continue to deny, either implicitly or explicitly, that the American approach to financing higher education is predatory and unjust.

I leave you with this quote by John Adams:

“Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

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8 comments

  1. That Josh Mitchell failed to properly research his article makes the Wall Street Journal look unprofessional and smacks of National Enquirer quality of journalism. The WSJ should hold it’s writers to a higher standard of accuracy than what Mr. Mitchell managed to accomplish.

    Congrats on doing Josh’s job for him.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have no idea why the federal government doesn’t stop tuition increases by requiring that federal loans can only be used at institutions that raise tuition by no more than X% per year. For grad school in particular, costs keep rising because there is no cap on the students’ means.

    That said, so many people I graduated with had a lot more debt than me at the end. There isn’t enough consideration of costs of higher education up front, and because they have basically unlimited means (by way of government loans) there is no incentive to economize. There were few students who worked while in school, or who hesitated to take the more expensive apartment in the more popular neighborhood, or to go out on a weekly basis. The idea that these costs may eventually be forgiven, when I did my best to minimize my expenses in school, is offensive to me. But maybe I’m just ranting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Blonderbetterfasterstronger, thank you for your comment. You bring up a great point. Why is it that the federal government does not condition its disbursement of student loans on the premise that the school is not gauging its students through tuition and fees? I can only hypothesize, but since the federal Grad PLUS loan program is intended to make money for the government, where is the incentive to force schools to lower costs? The higher the tuition, the larger the loan, the more interest income the government realizes. In light of all of the evidence, it seems clear to me that the government prioritizes short-term profits over the long-term sustainability of our economy, democracy and freedom. Without an educated populous, democracy fails. The little guys get left behind and forgotten because without other little guys who become big guys (most traditionally through higher education), entire generations and socioeconomic classes get left out of the political conversation. It is said that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but without representation, the wheel gets removed from the political machine.

      Additionally, I understand that you worked hard to either pay off or avoid taking out student loans. Whatever the case may be, that is a daunting task. However, we must guard ourselves against blaming each other. Every student borrower has a story, a set of circumstances, that put them in the position to need to borrow money to afford to go to college. Although I am sure that there are students out there who borrowed irresponsibly, I would venture a guess that they are the minority. Every person I know who has student loan debt accumulated that debt out of necessity to attend school, pay rent, buy books, etc.

      For those students working toward the public service loan forgiveness program, they are committing themselves to a decade of public service work. These jobs are not glamorous. In fact, most of these jobs are grueling, low-paying and thankless. For example, public school teachers, police officers, and public defenders. I believe that after 10 years of serving the public, they have earned the right to finally be free from crushing debt.

      If you do not mind me asking, what degree(s) did you earn and when did you graduate?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have a law degree, and graduated in 2011. Don’t mistake me, I absolutely have plenty of student loan debt from law school, and have been working hard at paying it off (I don’t work in BigLaw, worked for the first year out making $15 an hour, then $30 as a temp for the next 2 1/2 years–the former being less than I made out of college and no benefits). But most of the people I knew in school took out the cost of attendance (or the difference between their award and the cost of attendance). I think I spent at least $5,000 less than that on the covered items each year. This meant finding a cheap place to live, buying only used books, etc. I also used my loan money exclusively for tuition and rent. I worked for money to pay utilities, food and any entertainment. I was fortunate in that I could keep working part time in a professional setting (and therefore wasn’t making a work study hourly wage), but I also tutored for the SAT and worked at a small law firm, which many of my classmates would be qualified to do. This $5,000 a year (which doesn’t include “fun money”) for three years would probably have been $20,000 by the time I had to start paying it back if I had gotten a Grad PLUS loan. Why did I bother scrimping and saving, when my classmates get forgiven. I absolutely don’t think this was everyone, but I do think it was the majority of students using loans as their primary way of paying for school, because once you have $100,000 in debt, what’s another $20,000?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the info and sharing your story. I cannot blame you for feeling slighted. You achieved something that is next to impossible for the majority of law students graduating with significant student debt. You obviously are a VERY hard worker and very determined. Nobody with half a brain would say otherwise.

      What I want you to consider, though, is how hard it was for you to keep your head above water. It was so hard that you probably lost immense amounts of sleep. I’m sure you also worked more hours than you would ever wish on anyone else. Why should it be such a challenge to graduate from law school without debt?

      You should be proud of your accomplishments and I tip my hat to you, but it should not have been that hard for you. You were also victimized by a broken student loan system. In a perfect world, a law student would be able to intern for free, clerk with a judge, or participate in law review without having to worry about how they will pay for the roof over their head.

      I still hope that we can change the conversation for all of us regardless of the circumstances that got us into this position in the first place. If we are going to be angry, I propose we are angry with the bureaucrats and politicians that put us ALL in a bad position and not our peers that, for whatever reason that we will never truly know, owe a crushing amount of student debt.

      I am so grateful for your input!

      Like

  4. Thank you for taking the time to address both this major issue that effects us all as well as the importance of informed, factual works of writing. It is very crucial to be unbiased and knowledgeable when you write for such a publication. I really enjoyed the read, thanks again.

    Like

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