August 15, 2014


There are only a small number of for-profit law schools nationwide. But a close look at them reveals that the perverse financial incentives under which they operate are merely extreme versions of those that afflict contemporary American higher education in general. And these broader systemic dysfunctions have potentially devastating consequences for a vast number of young people—and for higher education as a whole. . . .

These investments were made around the same time that a set of changes in federal loan programs for financing graduate and professional education made for-profit law schools tempting opportunities. Perhaps the most important such change was an extension, in 2006, of the Federal Direct PLUS Loan program, which allowed any graduate student admitted to an accredited program to borrow the full cost of attendance—tuition plus living expenses, less any other aid—directly from the federal government. The most striking feature of the Direct PLUS Loan program is that it limits neither the amount that a school can charge for attendance nor the amount that can be borrowed in federal loans. Moreover, there is little oversight on the part of the lender—in effect, federal taxpayers—regarding whether the students taking out these loans have any reasonable prospect of ever paying them back.

This is, for a private-equity firm, a remarkably attractive arrangement: the investors get their money up front, in the form of the tuition paid for by student loans. Meanwhile, any subsequent default on those loans is somebody else’s problem—in this case, the federal government’s. The arrangement bears a notable resemblance to the subprime-mortgage-lending industry of a decade ago, with private equity playing the role of the investment banks, underqualified law students serving as the equivalent of overleveraged home buyers, and the American Bar Association standing in for the feckless ratings agencies. But there is a crucial difference. When the subprime market collapsed, legislation dedicating hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to bailing out the banks had to be passed. In this case, no such action will be necessary: the private investors have, as it were, been bailed out before the fact by our federal educational-loan system. This situation, from the perspective of Sterling Partners and other investors in higher education, comes remarkably close to the capitalist dream of privatizing profits while socializing losses.

From the perspective of graduates who can’t pay back their loans, however, this dream is very much a nightmare. Indeed, it’s easy to make the case that these students wind up in far worse shape than defaulting homeowners do, thanks to two other differences between subprime mortgages and educational loans. First, educational debt, unlike mortgages, can almost never be discharged in bankruptcy, and will continue to follow borrowers throughout their adult lives. And second, mortgages are collateralized by an asset—that is, a house—that usually retains significant value. By contrast, anecdotal evidence suggests that many law degrees that do not lead to legal careers have a negative value, because most employers outside the legal profession don’t like to hire failed lawyers. . . . It would be comforting to think that the crisis is confined to for-profit schools—and indeed this idea is floated regularly by defenders of higher education’s status quo. But it would be more accurate to say that for-profit schools, with their unabashed pursuit of money at the expense of their students’ long-term futures, merely throw this crisis into particularly sharp relief. . . . The only real difference between for-profit and nonprofit schools is that while for-profits are run for the benefit of their owners, nonprofits are run for the benefit of the most-powerful stakeholders within those institutions.

Well, it’s not as if this hasn’t been pointed out before, but it bears repeating.