Considering college or law school?
Ann Aiken, U.S. District Court of Oregon chief judge, has some strong words of warning.
In an extraordinary March 5 opinion, Aiken departed from the particulars of a student debt collections case to rip the U.S. higher education system in general and the nation's law schools specifically for burdening a generation of graduates with oppressive debt.
"Students with advanced degrees, specifically juris doctorates, are facing a quagmire," Aiken wrote. "Attending law school was a guaranteed way to ensure financial stability. For current graduates, however, this is no longer true, due in large part to the high cost of law school tuition."
To cover those ever-escalating tuition, graduates commonly borrow $100,000 or more these days, after which many promptly borrow another $15,000 to see them through a bar exam review course and the necessary months of study.
Aiken's opinion comes amid growing national concern about how the U.S. is funding its higher education system. Even as Oregon makes it an official goal that 40 percent of the state's populace get a college or advanced degree, graduates are emerging with enormous, life-changing student loan debt.
The picture is particularly bleak for professions like the law, architecture and teaching that require an expensive graduate degree and yet offer limited opportunities. The Oregonian on Sunday published a package of stories on the travails of new lawyers and the new debtor-class being created by the country's higher ed system.
First-year lawyer jobs are few and far between. Aiken noted that in 2010, 382,828 applicants sought less than 2,700 clerkships with federal judges.
Aiken included her four-page rant in an opinion in the case of Michael Hedlund, of Klamath Falls, has fought for nine years to get some or all of his law school student loans legally discharged. Aiken reversed a lower-court ruling allowing Hedlund to discharge about $50,000 of his $85,000 in law school debt.
Hedlund attended Willamette University Law School in Salem in the late 1990s. He failed to pass the bar in two tries and gave up altogether after inadvertently locking himself out of his car while enroute to his third attempt.
He works as a probation officer in Klamath County's juvenile department.
"I wasn't ever trying to get out of paying the loans," Hedlund said Wednesday. "I was trying to get something I can afford."
He claims that he his lenders refused his request to modify loan terms and insisted that he make the $1,000-a-month payment at a time when he making $2,000 a month and supporting a family. He filed for bankruptcy after a creditor raided his bank account, he said.
Bankruptcy is normally not a refuge for college borrowers. Years ago, lenders convinced Congress to carve out a special exemption for student loans, making them one of the few kinds of debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.
Only borrowers who can prove extreme personal hardship can get bankruptcy relief, which is exactly what Hedlund did.
Hedlund's case shows the indignities awaiting delinquent student loan borrowers. Lenders have garnished his wages. They argued in court that he's a free-spender because he paid for both a cell phone and a traditional land-line telephone. His lenders also complained he's not done enough to boost his own income, noting that his wife works just one day a week in a florist's shop.
Some judges have sided with Hedlund over the course of his marathon legal battle. Others, Aiken among them, have sided with his lenders.
Hedlund vows to fight on. He's appealed Aiken's ruling to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Aiken, meanwhile, predicted cases like Hedlund's will become increasingly common.