Jerry Falwell Jr. at Liberty University’s convocation in Lynchburg, Va., on Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Since his inauguration, Donald Trump has dominated news cycles with chaos. It was easy to miss his new task force charged with deregulating higher education. The leader is Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University.
“The goal is to pare it back and give colleges and their accrediting agencies more leeway in governing their affairs,” said Falwell, an evangelical leader with a law degree.
Heaven help us all.
Falwell’s father founded Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. It thrives on federal student loan and grant dollars—$347 million for undergraduates alone in 2015, according to The New York Times. Liberty’s nominal student loan default rate within three years of graduation is nine percent. But only 38 percent of Liberty borrowers are paying down at least one dollar on their student loan principal amounts within three years of leaving the school. The Times also reports that six years after entering college, 41 percent of Liberty students earn less than $25,000 a year. That’s about what a typical 25-year-old with only a high school diploma earns.
For years, law schools have been the leading edge of this crisis. Falwell’s Liberty University has one of those, too. Tuition is $32,000 a year. Twenty percent of first-year students entering in 2014 left for academic reasons. Of 61 students who graduated in 2015, only half got full-time long-term jobs requiring a J.D.—including one graduate who went to work for Liberty. There was some relatively good news: the average debt load for Liberty’s class of 2015 students who borrowed for law school was $68,000—a lot lower than the $112,000 average for all law schools.
Reversal of Fortune
Any progress that the Obama administration made to increase accountability in higher education seems destined for Trump’s dustbin. The Department of Education had put heat on schools that were exploiting students who incurred enormous educational debt for degrees of dubious value. Last summer, one of the department’s advisory committees took the American Bar Association to task for allowing law schools to run such scams. In November, the ABA put Charlotte Law School on probation while the school tried to work out its problems. In December, Charlotte lost its eligibility for federal student loans and its death spiral accelerated.
At long last, someone noticed that federal money was allowing bottom-feeder law schools to stay in business. But the legal profession’s accrediting agency—the types of organizations that Falwell says he wants to vest with greater decision-making power—hadn’t pulled the trigger on Charlotte. The DOE had.
President Obama also moved the vast majority of student lending from the private sector to the federal government. The expectation is that Trump will move it back. Since the election, the stock prices of private student lenders and loan servicing companies have soared. They’re a good bet. Federal guarantees protect lenders; borrowers can’t discharge educational debt in bankruptcy.
The end result is that marginal schools still have no financial skin in the game. They keep filling classrooms with students who borrow huge sums for degrees that aren’t worth it. Income-based repayment programs may provide some relief, but eventually someone will figure out that the U.S. Treasury will wind up footing that bill, which could become a very big number. When loan forgiveness programs shrink or disappear, an entire generation will live—and, in many cases, die—with educational debt incurred to pay the big salaries of people like Jerry Falwell, Jr.
How much damage could Falwell’s task force do? Plenty. The ABA is institutionally incapable of cracking down on law schools that should have closed long ago or never opened at all. Watch out for this: If the federal student loan spigot reopens for Charlotte Law School, there’s no bottom in sight.
What Would Jesus Do?
Falwell was an anchor of Trump’s evangelical constituency. As president of Liberty, he earns $900,000 a year. In fact, Falwell said Trump offered him the Secretary of Education position that DeVos now occupies, but he turned it down. Trump wanted a four-to-six year commitment; Falwell reportedly said he couldn’t afford to work at a cabinet-level job for more than two years.
As Falwell and others like him prosper, their students suffer. Now that Falwell is in charge of deregulating higher education, Trump’s victory speech after winning the Nevada primary last year takes on new meaning: “We won the evangelicals… We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.”
I suspect Falwell loves the poorly educated, too. When it comes to selling a dubious degree from a marginal school, they’re especially inviting targets.