As we reported on Tuesday, Qorvis Communications, a top public relations firm in Washington, has taken the lead in the student loan industry's efforts to manufacture grassroots student opposition to legislation that would eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program. But getting students to rally behind an unpopular industry that profits from their indebtedness has not proven to be an easy task. The firm's desperation has become all too evident in recent weeks.
Take, for instance, the case of Patrick McBride. In a press release announcing the launch of its "Protect Student Choice" public relations effort, Qorvis officials listed McBride, a student at Vanderbilt University, as one of four "local campaign members" -- with the others being leaders of non-profit student loan agencies.
But who is McBride? A former colleague of ours, the enterprising Ben Miller of Education Sector, sought to find out. In an interview he conducted with McBride, Miller learned that he was a first-semester freshman who got interested in the issue while doing research on the Internet. McBride, who would not say whether or not he had taken out student loans (although he added that he "did not have a stake" in the issue), was initially "ambivalent" about the student loan reform legislation. But after talking to David Mohning, the university's financial aid director and a longtime supporter of the FFEL program, he was convinced that the bill was a bad idea.
At Higher Ed Watch, we have made clear our opposition to a provision in the pending student loan reform legislation that would provide a set aside for all existing non-profit student loan agencies to service up to 100,000 borrowers in their home states. But we have also said that if Democratic Congressional leaders insist on keeping the provision in the bill -- because they believe that they can't pass a bill without it -- they should at least bar from participation non-profit lenders that have broken the law or acted in ways that are harmful to students.
Case in point: the Iowa Student Loan Liquidity Corporation (ISL), the state-affiliated non-profit student loan provider. As both federal and state investigations have shown, ISL's aggressive pursuit of market share and financial rewards over the last decade has been damaging to students and taxpayers alike. According to these investigations, the loan agency has done the following:
The student loan industry must think we all have very short memories. As part of their effort to derail legislation that would eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program, lenders have been sharing talking points with Senators and staff arguing that the “pay for play” scandals that engulfed the student loan industry in 2007 were much ado about nothing.
“After thorough investigations by Congress and various state Attorneys General, there were no findings that any employee or a lending institution or school broke any laws, nor were there any criminal penalties levied,” lenders wrote in talking points -- which
While that statement may have been technically true at the time it was first made, it’s a brazen sweeping under the rug of a scandal that outraged the American public, particularly college students and their parents. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo did charge about a dozen colleges and lenders, such as loan giants Sallie Mae and Nelnet, with violating federal and state laws, and filed lawsuits against them. But instead of fighting Cuomo, the student loan companies and schools quickly reached settlement agreements with his office that required them to change their conduct. In other words, they were not confident enough about the legality of their practices to defend them in court.
The lenders’ claim is particularly cavalier given that they were only able to avoid being penalized because of who was guarding the henhouse. Bush Administration appointees at the U.S. Department of Education with strong ties to the student loan industry simply looked the other way while lenders and college financial aid offices engaged in kickback schemes.
Legislation that the U.S. House of Representatives approved last week would make landmark changes to the federal student loan programs -- changes that we have advocated at Higher Ed Watch for the last three years.
We can not overstate the significance of this achievement. Despite fierce opposition from the deep-pocketed student loan industry and their allies on Capitol Hill, the House moved forward with a bill that would eliminate unnecessary middlemen from the process of originating and guaranteeing federal student loans, and would have the government make all federal student loans directly. If this change is enacted into law, it will overwhelmingly simplify the federal student loan program and redirect a massive amount of federal funds out of the pockets of lenders and into the hands of the students who need the help the most.
Having said that, the House bill is far from perfect. The measure contains one provision that we believe is extremely misguided and will, if enacted, harm the cause of student loan reform, and another that would gut a key consumer protection provision in federal law that aims to safeguard students from unscrupulous trade schools. It also has other provisions that are well-intentioned but, as written, are unlikely to achieve the lofty goals the bill's authors have set for them.
Attention will soon shift to the Senate, where the leaders of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee are expected to release their own version of the student loan reform legislation shortly. While the Senate committee will likely stick to the same broad outlines as the House, it could make a few key changes that would significantly strengthen the measure.
If nothing else, the False Claims lawsuit that Jon Oberg has filed against the main perpetrators of the 9.5 student loan scheme should help resolve at least some of the unanswered questions surrounding the scandal -- a goal we have been pursuing at Higher Ed Watch over the last year.
While the lawsuit seeks the return to the federal government of $1 billion in excess student loan subsidies these lenders improperly obtained, it also sheds more light on the origins of the lenders' strategy to gain windfall profits at the government's and taxpayers' expense, and the unwillingness of the U.S. Department of Education's political leaders at the time to put a stop to it.
Here are some of the most interesting tidbits included in the complaint:
- The lawsuit identifies the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) as having been the "first, or among the first, to employ the 9.5 scheme," and estimates that it received approximately $92 million in overpayments.
- PHEAA's success employing the strategy had a domino effect, encouraging other loan companies, like Nelnet, to "emulate what it was doing." Nelnet, which was created in 1998 when Nebraska's non-profit student loan agency converted to for-profit status, became the most active participant in the scheme, making about $407 million in improper 9.5 student loan subsidy claims, the complaint states. In turn, the Kentucky Higher Education Student Loan Corporation (KHESLC) "observed Nelnet's activity" and decided "to increase its own 9.5 claims." According to a recent Inspector General's report, KHESLC engaged in a massive loan and bond refinancing and recycling project over the course of four days in January 2004 so that it could claim 9.5 subsidy payments on "nearly all of its loan portfolio."
On Monday, a federal court in Virginia unsealed a whistleblower lawsuit filed by Jon Oberg, the U.S. Department of Education researcher who uncovered the 9.5 student loan scandal, against 10 student loan companies that participated in the scheme. The lawsuit, which Oberg filed in 2007 under the federal False Claims Act, seeks the return to the federal government of $1 billion in excess student loan subsidies these lenders improperly obtained.
The roots of the 9.5 student loan case go back to the 1980s when Congress guaranteed non-profit lenders, which use tax-exempt bonds to finance their loans, a minimum rate of return of 9.5 percent on federal student loans made with these bonds. As interest rates on all other student loans fell in the 1990s, policymakers became concerned that these nonprofit student loan providers were making a killing. So in 1993, Congress rescinded that policy, but grandfathered in loans made from the old bonds, believing that the volume of 9.5 loans would decline as they were paid off and the bonds retired.
Instead, beginning in 2002, a small group of lenders devised a strategy to aggressively grow the volume of loans that they claimed were eligible for the 9.5 guarantee. This was a goldmine for lenders in the existing low interest rate environment (at the time, the borrower interest rate on regular loans hovered around 3.5 percent.) They accomplished this scheme by transferring loans that qualified for the 9.5 subsidy payment to other financing vehicles and recycling the proceeds into new loans that they claimed were then eligible for the subsidy. The lenders repeated this process over and over again.
[This is the eighth in the Higher Ed Watch series "Revisiting the 9.5 Student Loan Scandal." The series takes a closer look at the origins of the scandal with the purpose of trying to resolve unanswered questions and dispel lingering myths surrounding it. Links to earlier parts of the series are available here, here, here, here, here, here, and here]
According to the report, which was released on Monday, Sallie Mae improperly obtained $22.3 million in excess student loan subsidies from the federal government between Oct. 1, 2003 and Sept. 30, 2006. The actual amount that the company over-billed the government is probably substantially higher -- as the IG looked only at how the student loan giant handled the 9.5 loans it obtained through its purchase of Nellie Mae [NLMA], the Massachusetts non-profit student loan agency. Between 2000 and the end of 2004, Sallie Mae bought three other non-profit lenders, including the Arizona-based Southwest Student Services Corporation, which had increased the volume of federal loans that it claimed eligible for the 9.5 percent guarantee by 135 percent in the years immediately preceding the sale.
To be clear, Sallie Mae does not appear to have engaged in the type of loan and bond manipulations that other companies, like Nelnet and the Kentucky Higher Education Student Loan Corporation, did to massively grow their 9.5 loan holdings. Instead, the loan company violated the law by submitting 9.5 claims on loans financed by tax-exempt bonds that had matured and been retired, the IG report states.
The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor took a huge step forward today by approving, on a mostly party line vote, landmark legislation that would eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP) and use a large share of the savings to significantly increase spending on Pell Grants. The bill would require that as of July 1, 2010, all federal loans be made by the federal government through the Direct Loan program.
We can not overstate the significance of the committee leaders' accomplishment. Despite fierce opposition from the student loan industry and their allies in the financial aid world, the committee passed a bill that would eliminate all of the unnecessary middlemen from the process of originating and guaranteeing federal student loans. This change would substantially simplify the federal student loan program and redirect federal funds out of the pockets of lenders and into the hands of the students who need the help the most.
The measure is far from perfect. We have already stated our dissatisfaction with a provision in the bill that would provide a set-aside for all existing non-profit student loan agencies to service the loans of up to 100,000 borrowers in their home states. Non-profit lenders that wish to continue to service loans in the future should have to compete for a contract from the U.S. Department of Education, like all other student loan providers.
The House Education and Labor Committee has taken up a bill today to eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program and use the savings in part to significantly boost spending on Pell Grants. The legislation includes a provision that would provide a set-aside for all existing non-profit student loan agencies to service the loans of up to 100,000 borrowers in their home states.
Last week, we stated our opposition to this provision, which was crafted by a trade association for non-profit lenders, the Education Finance Council, and shopped behind closed doors on Capitol Hill. But if Democratic leaders insist on keeping it in the bill, they should at least bar lenders found to have deliberately overcharged the government or acted against the best interests of students from participation.
Case in point: The South Carolina Student Loan Corporation. Should the bill become law, it would give the agency, known as SCSLC, a guaranteed direct loan servicing contract in the state. But according to a recent Higher Ed Watch investigation, SCSLC appears to have used its ties to the state student loan guaranty agency to obtain excessive taxpayer subsidies from the federal government. The loan agency has allegedly done this by helping the state guaranty agency exploit an emergency program the government has in place to ensure that all eligible students are able to obtain federal student loans. The U.S. Department of Education is carrying out its own investigation of these allegations and is expected to issue a report soon.
At Higher Ed Watch, we have spent most of the day eagerly awaiting the release of legislation that the Democratic leadership of the House Committee on Education and Labor has written to overhaul the federal student loan programs. Based upon news releases and press reports we had read over the last 24 hours, we had very high hopes for the bill.
Unfortunately now that we have begun to read the legislative text, we have decidedly mixed feelings about it. We are very pleased that Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat in charge of the committee, has followed President Obama's lead in proposing to end the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program and thereby eliminate unnecessary middlemen from the process of originating and guaranteeing federal student loans. Instead, as of July 1, 2001, all new federal loans would be made by the U.S. Department of Education through the Direct Loan Program.
We are also happy to see that a substantial share of the savings produced by shutting down FFELP would be used to significantly increase spending on Pell Grants and other high-need and chronically underfunded education programs.
However, we are sorely disappointed to see that the committee has included a set-aside for nonprofit student loan agencies to service federal student loans that is nearly identical to a proposal that the Education Finance Council (EFC), which represents these lenders, has been quietly shopping to a select group of Congressional offices in recent weeks. The legislation would essentially give each and every one of EFC's members a no-bid contract to service the loans of up to 100,000 student loan borrowers in their home states.