A better Bulletin
I want to compliment all of you for the substantial improvement in the appearance, tone and content of the Harvard Law Bulletin. It is much more informative than in years past. It also appeals to the eye. Good work!
Michael Polelle ’63
Fraud is not everywhere in the private sector
Your “Collecting on Dreams” article in the Summer 2019 issue was quite well done and reflects very well on HLS students and alums who so fervently pursue their commitment to public service. Without a doubt, the subjects of the article are making a positive difference for many when redressing demonstrated fraud, and have earned my respect and admiration. However, the express and implicit premises of the article demand a response.
First, the statement regarding the “defunct” for-profit colleges is incomplete insofar as it neglects to mention the schools’ demise as resulting in large part from the intense hostility of the Obama administration toward for-profit education. Reasonable minds can differ as to whether this hostility was justified by the particular schools’ practices, but the situation begs the question of whether the aggrieved students benefited in any way from the effort to bring down the schools. Whether or not the schools were issuing “worthless” degrees to start with, there can be no doubt that the demise of the schools further undermined the value of the degrees as a result of the stigma which was created (or at least increased). Is this an example of a government policy hurting those it is intended to help?
Second, the use of the class action approach raises questions about various issues of individual responsibility. While it is undisputed that there was some fraud perpetrated by these institutions, the inherent premise of a class action, that there is great similarity among the class members, is a troubling one. I cannot accept that in the case of every student of these institutions, their problems result from fraud. Surely, there were some students who received a legitimate education and have encountered problems in their lives for reasons unrelated to their education. Blaming everything on business fraud becomes an overly convenient crutch for far too many and interferes with fundamental incentives.
The broader debate in society regarding forgiveness of student debt in general reflects this mentality, that any difficulty in repayment is the fault of the proverbial “someone else.” It is quite apparent that many students who obtained degrees from traditional schools and are nevertheless struggling, failed to pursue worthwhile studies or sufficiently apply themselves to fields that do have value. There is no reason that society—i.e., taxpayers—should presumptively or conclusively foot the bill for every struggling person. The importance of individual responsibility is also a fundamental theme.
Third, an implicit premise of the article is that for-profit education is inherently bad. Many would disagree, and the existence of the student-debt problems with respect to graduates of traditional colleges and universities bespeaks reason for concern about the value of education provided in that sector. We must insist upon lawful, ethical behavior from for-profit institutions, but for many, their model is a useful alternative to the traditional one and is well worth preserving.
The Project on Predatory Student Lending serves a commendable purpose in redressing individual fraud, but it is essential for the clinic managers to keep in mind that fraud is not everywhere in the private sector and that individual choices and implementation also have a large role to play in individuals’ life experience and satisfaction. Not all lending to students, or otherwise, is predatory lending.
Martin B. Robins ’80
Toby Merrill ’11, Director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending replies:
We represent over 1 million former students of for-profit colleges. Our perspective is naturally different from the letter writer’s, and we strongly disagree with several of his contentions. Notably, we do not see a failure of personal responsibility amongst the thousands of students whose stories we have learned. To the contrary, not enough responsibility is taken by actors with the power and obligation to do better. Where the incentives are misaligned is in the distribution of risk-free taxpayer money to institutions without any meaningful check on the value or quality they deliver.
Kudos for the latest Law Bulletin. It makes HLS seem like the great place it is. Wow.
Professor Emeritus Alan A. Stone