After Divestment, What Comes Next for College Campuses?

May 20, 2015Torre Lavelle

From championing civil rights through Freedom Summer to fighting sexual assault, college students have long made a name for themselves as leaders of ideas, activism, and innovation.

From championing civil rights through Freedom Summer to fighting sexual assault, college students have long made a name for themselves as leaders of ideas, activism, and innovation. It should therefore come as no surprise that the fossil-fuel divestment movement—the campaign to get institutions to pull their financial investments from fossil fuels and redirect that money to clean, renewable energy as a way of tackling climate change—has its roots in U.S. college campuses. With a total of $50 billion from 837 institutions and individuals divested so far, the campaign has succeeded at an unprecedented rate, growing faster than the divestment movements against both South African apartheid and tobacco.

Last fall’s stunning news that the heirs to the Rockefeller fortune were pulling their philanthropic funds out of fossil fuel officially confirmed divestment’s transition from campus movement to the financial mainstream. Combined with the commitment of more than 25 universities to move beyond coal, with more to follow in the upcoming year, student leaders and activists should carefully consider their role in deciding where climate change policy goes from here. After successfully pressuring the administration of my own school, the University of Georgia, to shut down its coal-fired boiler, the campus Beyond Coal group effectively called it quits and disbanded. But as pipelines for progressive environmental solutions, campus groups should just be getting started.

The Hoover Institution published The State Clean Energy Cookbook in 2014, which includes a dozen “recipes” for cost-effective and easily supportable policies that have already been implemented in both blue and red states with strong overall results. Now we need a new wave of student activism focused on building media strategy, coalitions, and administrative and legislative relationships to take this natural next step and enter a larger policy arena.

On the heels of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging governors and state officials to “think twice” before submitting plans for state compliance with the EPA Clean Power Plan, college students should examine the role of states and regional networks in advancing clean energy policy. The work of UGA’s Beyond Coal group and others must extend beyond individual campuses, and should strongly oppose any calls to ignore federal deadlines for state carbon plans.

Regional cap and trade systems are another critical area for post-divestment work. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) among nine Northeast and mid-Atlantic states became the first market-based approach to reducing pollution by selling carbon credits and reinvesting the revenue into clean energy technology and consumer benefits. With a goal of reducing 10 percent of power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions across the northeastern U.S. by 2020, the RGGI instead caused emissions to drop more than 40 percent from 2005 to 2012 and generated $102.5 million in revenue. An estimated $1.4 billion in lifetime energy bill savings are coupled with bill credits to low-income families and clean energy job training for workers. RGGI also served as the baseline policy model for California’s cap and trade system, the first state with a program of this kind.

State adoption of these programs has so far been lacking in leadership and provides an excellent road map for student involvement. I’m not calling on students alone to make this happen, though; I’m also calling on the Sierra Club, 350.org, and other environmental organizations with strong student involvement to step up to the next challenge. Let’s celebrate our victories while capturing the momentum focused on divestment and recognize that it’s time we expanded our reach.

Torre Lavelle is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment. She is majoring in ecology and environmental economics at the University of Georgia.

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Better Community Investment Will Pay Dividends for Colleges

May 19, 2015Emma Copeland

We need to start holding colleges accountable as anchor institutions that provide economic growth and stability to their communities.

We need to start holding colleges accountable as anchor institutions that provide economic growth and stability to their communities.

In recent weeks, the debate about holding colleges accountable has focused on schools’ responsibilities toward failing students, continuously rising tuition, and increasing student debt. What’s been overlooked is the role of colleges as a potential force for good within their more immediate communities. Indeed, one of the most profound ways a university can improve the holistic experience of its students is to invest more in the surrounding community.

Presently, many four-year institutions entrust the bulk of their money to low-risk funds or national banks like Bank of America. The money that flows into a school never directly returns to the community, and it is often the case that low-income residents near a college must battle gentrification, stagnation, or both. For example, New York University’s $3.5 billion endowment is currently invested in national banks such as Bank of America, Chase, and Citibank, none of which are directly involved in developing the community around NYU.

Outside of investment, universities and colleges spend a huge amount of money that has the potential to directly affect the communities around them. Big schools like Michigan State University, which purchases nearly $87 million worth of goods and services annually, could spend mere fractions of this number on local small businesses, causing them to flourish like never before.

As a student at a four-year public university in Northern Virginia, I know a few things about debt and personal economic stagnation. To say “the United States can’t afford the status quo in higher education” might be the understatement of the decade. So how can we shake up the status quo?

We need to start holding colleges accountable not just to the government but to their communities. As anchor institutions, they have the power to provide economic growth and stability and serve as cornerstones of their communities due to their role as large permanent employers with significant investment capabilities. They are also permanent physical landmarks that serve as points of pride for their members as well as nearby residents.

Colleges and universities tend to be huge anchor institutions due to their extensive reach in a variety of commercial activities, immense diversity of employment throughout their numerous departments, and the vital exchange of wealth between students, alumni, trustees, fans, and neighbors to the school. It is time for these institutions to begin making a concerted effort to develop and invest locally for the long term.

The first way we can hold colleges accountable as anchor institutions is by encouraging and facilitating responsible purchasing from locally owned and operated businesses for anything from food to office supplies. This would allow small businesses to leap into the big leagues, and colleges have a responsibility to support the entrepreneurial efforts of graduates who choose to settle nearby as well as the local business owners who employ their students and alumni. Even 10 percent of the funds earmarked for paper products for a large public institution such as the University of Michigan would be the number one account for a local business struggling to compete with national suppliers. Working with these businesses to help increase their production capacity and streamline various processes would ultimately result in a symbiotic exchange of tailored quality for vital business development. Colleges have too long relied on one-size-fits-all corporations to supply their food, office supplies, cleaning services, and more. In the long-run, establishing relationships with local providers enables both the institution and the businesses to thrive as each respects and relies on the other.

Second, universities should be responsible for investing locally. Universities often have access to far more capital than the cities and towns that surround them, but they invest in distant fossil fuel companies, huge national banks, or even Israeli military efforts.  As anchor institutions, colleges should invest in their communities through community development financial institutions (CDFIs). By promising to invest a majority of its cash-on-hand in the surrounding community, a CDFI is able to safely give loans to small businesses, prospective college students and families, and new homeowners. These kinds of investments improve the lives and livelihoods of community members not directly affiliated with the anchor institutions. This is particularly vital because non-anchor institutions like large-scale banks are often unwilling to invest in these low-income communities because of the economic risk.

Colleges are institutions that can help a struggling or non-competitive community find its feet. If we hold them accountable in the right way, as institutions of economic growth for the long-term, colleges can begin to boast many more achievements and far fewer failures.

Emma Copeland is a junior at George Mason University, a 10 Ideas author, and a member of the Campus Network's Braintrust.

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Beyond Divestment: How NYU Can Still Invest in the Public Good

May 12, 2015Eugenia Kim

The fossil fuel divestment movement on college campuses highlights two distinct aspects of the problem of climate change. The first and most obvious is that climate change and environmental issues are drastically changing our planet and require immediate action. The second is the responsibility of our colleges and universities to be stewards of responsible social change.

The fossil fuel divestment movement on college campuses highlights two distinct aspects of the problem of climate change. The first and most obvious is that climate change and environmental issues are drastically changing our planet and require immediate action. The second is the responsibility of our colleges and universities to be stewards of responsible social change. While climate change appears to have caught the public eye in recent weeks, this question of responsibility continues to be overlooked. Both of these issues are now coming to a head at New York University (NYU).

On March 26, a working group of NYU’s University Senate voted to recommend not divesting from fossil fuels. On April 30, the larger University Senate, which encompasses both student representatives and faculty, will also vote on divestment.

The stated argument against divestment is twofold: political and fiduciary. The report released by NYU’s working group is emblematic of the faulty assumptions school administrations across the country have about divestment. The report claims that it is not in the nature of a university to take a stand on a political issue such as climate change, and that NYU would be better suited to combat climate change through increased research investments. Further, the report states that it would be financially irresponsible for the university to divest.

However, the working group’s argument is self-contradictory. The university cannot simultaneously claim to have no position on climate change and actively fund research that works to combat it. Further, the sheer existence of climate change is no longer a debate; broad consensus has been reached among independent agencies and scientists that climate change is real. The political question that does arise is what the institution is going to do about it. The working group also fails to recognize that divesting from fossil fuels and investing in research are not mutually exclusive. The administration has the power to do both while maintaining its fiduciary responsibilities.

NYU’s arguments against divestment are in no way unique; they exemplify the fundamental assumption of college administrations that an institution must choose between the social good and economic profitability. This is not the case, but the divestment movement has failed to demonstrate that university investments can be both profitable and environmentally friendly. Advocates committed to the divestment movement must provide more guidance as to how administrators can better spend their money.

While divestment is an important symbolic gesture toward a university’s commitment to sustainability, meaningful investments in green energy businesses are a more tangible request, if perhaps less likely to inspire rallies. Investment alternatives offer practical solutions that enable activists to work with, rather than against, administrations. For example, Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University has not divested from fossil fuels, but it has invested in the Evergreen Cooperatives, thereby promoting economic growth in the Cleveland community, and still maintains a commitment to tackling larger questions around sustainability and climate change.

While these investment campaigns are harder to organize around, there are students who are interested in analyzing the economic responsibility of their universities, and student involvement in this process is vital. The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Rethinking Communities initiative is geared toward identifying and developing smarter economic decision-making practices for colleges and universities. The project is led by students who support divestment but offer smart and socially responsible local investment solutions.

NYU, for example, could stand to gain higher returns on its investments if it would simply move some of its funds from large banks like Chase into community development banks. By divesting just $500,000 (0.014 percent of NYU’s $3.5 billion endowment) from fossil fuels and moving it to community development banks, NYU could increase its returns while helping middle- and low-income residents get loans, promoting financial literacy, and providing secure financial services. This idea that investments can be both socially responsible and profitable holds true for universities across the nation.  

Students are important but overlooked stakeholders in university policy. They are the ones doing the research and asking the important questions about their schools’ social responsibility. Sit-ins, protests, and rallies across the country are the product of a large number of young people feeling left out of the decision-making process at institutions designed to serve them. These students want to participate and engage with their school administrations in making financial decisions and developing viable solutions, In short, these students want to be part of universities that embody the values they teach.

Eugenia Kim is student at New York University and a member of the Rethinking Communities Brain Trust.

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Bo Cutter: Universal Pre-K Is the First Step Toward the Next American Economy

Apr 29, 2015Laurie Ignacio

Our series on “The Good Economy of 2040” continues this week with Next American Economy Director and Roosevelt Senior Fellow Bo Cutter.

Our series on “The Good Economy of 2040” continues this week with Next American Economy Director and Roosevelt Senior Fellow Bo Cutter.

If Cutter could pick one policy solution to ensure a good economy in the future, he’d call for universal pre-K through secondary school to "bring up children from low-income households" and teach all children "the element of imagination, creativity, and innovation to make their way in the world that's coming."

Read more about the case for universal pre-K here:

"Pre-K for All" (US News & World Report)

"Arne Duncan: High-quality preschool is a sure path to the middle class" (WashPost)

Bowman Cutter is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and Director of the Next American Economy Project. He was a managing director of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm headquartered in New York City, between 1996 and 2009, where he served both as the firm’s economist and as a leader in its international business, with particular reference to Asia. He has served with distinction during two Democratic presidencies: as director of the National Economic Council and Deputy Assistant to the President during the Clinton presidency; and as Executive Director for Budget during the Carter presidency. He also served as leader of the OMB transition team after the election of President Obama.

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Denise Cheng: To Prepare for the Future, Lower the Voting Age

Apr 22, 2015Laurie Ignacio

The Next American Economy's video series on “The Good Economy of 2040" continues this week with Denise Cheng from the MIT Center for Civic Media and the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation.

The Next American Economy's video series on “The Good Economy of 2040" continues this week with Denise Cheng from the MIT Center for Civic Media and the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation.

Cheng is an advocate of open government initiatives like open data and participatory budget projects. But if she had to pick only one thing to ensure a good economy in the future, she would lower the voting age to 16 “so people are actually getting their civic education while they’re still in high school," ensuring that "they have the best information to make an informed vote.”

Read more about initiatives to lower the voting age to 16:

"Scotland let 16-year-olds vote. The US should try it too.” (Vox)

"Hyattsville becomes second U.S. municipality to lower voting age to 16" (Washington Post)

Denise Cheng is an innovation fellow with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation. She has an eclectic background in community building, the future of news, and labor in the peer economy—specifically, worker support around the growing pool of people who depend on piecemeal income. Cheng has spoken, written, and appeared widely in NPR, Harvard Business Review, and Next City, at the New Museum and Personal Democracy Forum, and more about the sharing economy. She received her MSc from MIT and is an affiliate researcher with the Center for Civic Media at MIT Media Lab.

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Online Learning Is No Substitute for Campus Community Engagement

Apr 22, 2015Zach Lipp

“Within 5 years the world's best education will be available online and it will be free,” said George Mason University professor Tyler Cowen in a September 2013 interview. “Arguably that's already the case.”

“Within 5 years the world's best education will be available online and it will be free,” said George Mason University professor Tyler Cowen in a September 2013 interview. “Arguably that's already the case.”

When I heard the claim last summer, I took notice. I was and continue to be an undergraduate with a love for online learning. I have watched dozens of lectures recorded on YouTube, enrolled in an unrealistic number of edX, Udemy, and Coursera courses, and taken a Codecademy track or two. But while I love digital learning, I also love the traditional campus experience, and I do not believe the former alone can suffice.

The public sphere is rife with claims that online education opportunities can subvert the American higher education system. The most recent barrage comes from Kevin Carey’s new book The End of College, which has generated many media reports and reactions. Missing from the debate are the voices of students: not just traditional college students, but digital learners as well. As a representative of both groups, I see the gaps in online learning.

While record numbers of students are attending colleges, they remain a relatively elite set of institutions. The costs of attending college are high and only growing, and student loan debt has expanded dramatically in recent years. Meanwhile, a treasure trove of learning opportunities is available online for free. Some see this as spelling the demise of the college; however, MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) completion rates are alarmingly low.

Yet even if MOOCs had the demographic pull and (at least) the completion rates of American colleges, they would still earn the scorn of academics. Digital course companies and colleges support competing purposes of education. As Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana said in his opening address this year, college can be either transactional or transformational. Yes, some students will always approach college as transactional, but a digital education, I believe, is necessarily transactional.

The college experience consists of much more than courses: as I have mentioned before, campuses teem with opportunities for civic engagement. Colleges around the country host speakers, rallies, and student organizations like the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network, engaging students in communities in ways an Internet connection cannot. Moreover, these communities extend beyond their campuses. By fostering student education and activism, campus organizations foster citizenship.

Colleges are anchored in diverse communities that provide ample learning experiences. My involvement with the Rethinking Communities project , which provides a framework for students to expand and improve their college’s impact in their local communities, leads me to question how to leverage these relationships. My most meaningful lessons took me into the cities beyond my campus. We can learn an immense amount by engaging in our local communities, and there is no opportunity for this type of learning in an exclusively digital college. My experiences tell me digital education falls short of developing and engaging citizens, and as a result, so does the claim that online courses will replace physical ones.

Zach Lipp is a junior at Concordia College and a Rethinking Communities Braintrust member.

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Predatory Finance Has Hurt Our Universities, But Students Can Fight Back

Apr 13, 2015Dominic RusselRyan Thornton

Our tuition checks shouldn't be going to pay off debts from Wall Street's bad deals.

Our tuition checks shouldn't be going to pay off debts from Wall Street's bad deals.

The last few decades have not been kind to America’s local public institutions. Cities that once built state-of-the-art infrastructure are now struggling to fix potholes in the street. Public schools that were once the best in the world are lagging behind. Even our universities, which used to be gateways to a shot at a better life, are increasingly becoming too expensive for much of the population.

There’s no shortage of explanations for these problems, ranging from globalization to government waste to an aging population. These answers, however, all overlook the role that a growing Wall Street has played in changing the picture for public institutions.

In 1950, the financial sector accounted for about 3 percent of U.S. GDP; it now accounts for more than 6.5 percent. This financialization has given the big banks on Wall Street immense wealth and power, allowing them to extract greater and greater earnings from public and private borrowers. While the financial industry is reaping huge profits, it is individuals, not corporations, who pay an increasingly large share of the taxes that are supposed to support our public institutions. Since 1950, corporate tax contributions have dropped from 32 percent to only 17 percent despite corporations claiming a growing share of GDP. In contrast, individuals now pay 63 percent of taxes, up from 45 percent in 1950.

Our cities and schools—and all public institutions that rely on taxes to provide essential services—have felt the impact of this change. Facing slashed budgets, they have been forced to turn to the financial industry for loans. Undoubtedly, borrowing is necessary for financing extensive long-term capital projects; however, public institutions are increasingly compelled to secure loans for their short-term spending as well. Big banks are more than happy to accept the business of cities and universities desperate for funding, especially when the banks get to write the terms of the deal.

Wall Street’s profits are no longer solely built on interest from traditional “vanilla” loans. Instead, its banks have turned to high-risk, high-cost, and unnecessarily complex deals to further inflate their profits. Take interest rate swaps, for example. Swaps are a financial instrument devised by banks that allows cities and universities—those issuing bonds to finance long-term projects—to “swap” a variable interest rate for an agreed-upon fixed interest rate.

These interest rate swaps were deceptive from the very start. They were sold as protection from changing interest rates, but because exorbitant termination fees made refinancing extremely costly, they were essentially dangerous bets that would have only worked out if interest rates rose. And the deck was stacked against the cities and universities making these bets.

Banks illegally manipulated the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), which was tied to many deals, and helped precipitate a financial crisis that led to near-zero interest rates that continue today. Because banks had negotiated the swaps contracts so that they would be paying the variable market rates, cities and universities ultimately ended up locked into deals in which they were paying as much as 50 times what the banks were paying—all of which went to Wall Street as profit.

Both of the schools we attend—the University of Michigan and George Mason University—entered into swap deals that have costs them millions. One swap at Michigan even protected banks by allowing them to terminate the deal if variable rates hit just 7 percent, while offering no protection for the university when rates actually sank near zero.

The current imbalance in power need not be the case. Increased transparency surrounding the fees and terms of public finance deals would allow students and taxpayers to oversee the officials and banks who use their money and hold them accountable. When university regents, trustees, or other executives receive or have received compensation from the financial institutions their school does business with (as was the case in a series of University of California swaps), they should immediately recuse themselves from financial decision making to avoid conflicts of interest. Cities, states, and universities can work together to bargain with banks or create public options for bond underwriting and borrowing.

In situations in which our public entities have been targeted by banks, we can organize and pressure our public leaders to regain the money we lost. The city of Detroit was able to reduce its bank payments from $230 million to $85 million by exposing the invalidity of a swap.

Because swaps were often marketed to public institutions as a safe protection from variable interest rates—not as risky bets—it may be possible to pursue legal action to reclaim some of the losses. One avenue to reclaim public funds is the regulatory framework of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, which mandates that municipalities be made fully aware of the risks and possible costs of entering into financial deals.

As students, we feel the impact of Wall Street every time we pay tuition. We put ourselves in thousands of dollars of debt to pay for school, but because most university borrowing is backed by student tuition, this personal debt simply begets institutional debt. All this borrowing means huge profits for the banks that finance debt, much of it coming from hidden fees and inflated payments on long-term deals with our schools.

However, as students we also have the unique opportunity to band together and make our collective voice heard. For a few years our well-being is the primary focus of a massive anchor institution, and our dollars are often the main source of its funding. We can demand better than the status quo by pressuring our schools to reclaim that money from wealthy bankers and put it back into our institutions.

If borrowing from the big banks was on fair terms and intended for long-term capital projects, it wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, instead of using our nation’s wealth to pay for education, increase our human and physical capital, and build our long-run potential for growth, we are using it to increase incomes for the wealthiest bankers.

We've reached a worst-case scenario, but it doesn't have to stay that way. By holding Wall Street accountable for how it plays with tuition and tax dollars, we can bring things back around so that public investment means improving society, not improving Wall Street's balances.

Dominic Russell is a sophomore at the University of Michigan and the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Policy Impact Coordinator for the Midwest. Ryan Thornton is a junior and Campus Network chapter head at George Mason University.

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Why Is Lehman Brothers Suing Georgetown from Beyond the Grave?

Apr 9, 2015Alan SmithAditya Pande

The ghost of Lehman Brothers is still haunting colleges and universities around the country, continuing to extract money from institutions even though the financial firm itself is long dead.

The ghost of Lehman Brothers is still haunting colleges and universities around the country, continuing to extract money from institutions even though the financial firm itself is long dead.

When Lehman Brothers Holdings declared bankruptcy in 2008, it was the fourth largest investment bank in the United States. The giant’s collapse was felt in all corners of the global economy, but at least that collapse was thought to be a thing of the past. Now, it turns out that Lehman Brothers lingers on as a bankruptcy group trying to collect debts from the schools it already fleeced in 2008.

In St. Louis, the haunting is public: Lehman is suing St. Louis University because it doesn’t feel the school paid a fair market value (equivalent to the termination fee at a given time) on some interest rate swap derivatives in 2008.

Let’s look at that transaction: the school paid about $25 million in early termination fees on its interest rate swaps.* SLU didn’t necessarily want to bail out of these swaps, even though they were costing the school millions; it had to terminate them because Lehman Brothers, the counterparty to the deals, was going belly up. But in a lawsuit filed in December 2014, Lehman alleges that SLU’s termination payments were short of market value and that Lehman is in fact owed another $17.5 million on these swaps. 

Let's say that again: These swaps triggered in 2008 because of the Lehman bankruptcy. The school had to pay a termination fee because the firm that owned the swaps had effectively ceased to exist. And now that firm is suing the school because it wasn’t adequately compensated for its own failure.

Here’s where the story (and related research by the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network) gets really interesting: The ghost of Lehman isn’t just in St. Louis. Looking at the financial records of Georgetown University, there appears to be a similar story playing out in private but with even larger stakes.

Georgetown’s financials from 1998 onward are rife with big bond projects, but for now let’s focus specifically on auction rate security (ARS) bonds. These are economic devices where the interest rate paid on the bond is regularly reset through a public auction. The theory was that these auctions would allow the market to drive the interest rates to the lowest possible bidder each period; some even reset every week. These bonds were being marketed (sometimes by Lehman Brothers) as a highly liquid way to get some safe cash.

We’ve since learned that nothing could be further from the truth, as the rate markets for ARS bonds locked up in 2008 and borrowers like Georgetown were stuck paying double-digit interest rates. These bonds were more than simply investments that didn’t pan out; banks that sold the ARS bonds were also propping up the market by bidding on the rates in their own auctions, which created a false impression for buyers that the market was stable. These were bad deals made worse by illegal activity, and universities and municipalities across the country were suckered into them. When the banks eventually stopped keeping the market afloat, most such auctions failed, and the ARS market has been largely frozen since.

Although Georgetown is now almost entirely out of the ARS market and has brought down its variable-rate debt, getting rid of these increasingly expensive ARS bonds appears to have cost the schools millions in fees and even more in borrowing to pay off that debt.  Some of those bonds were underwritten by Lehman; some by other investment banks.

None of this even begins to capture the costs of the swaps, which is where this story started. The ARS bonds were cheap but had highly volatile interest rates. To mitigate these risky fluctuations, Georgetown bought interest rate swaps with Lehman Brothers. But like SLU, Georgetown did not realize it had made a deal with a potentially catastrophic downside. As the economy went into a tailspin in 2008, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to the bone and has kept them low since; money became available for next to nothing in an attempt to keep banks from freezing up completely. This also served to drive the fair value of interest rate swaps through the roof. The worse the economy got, the more the fair market value of Georgetown’s debt hedges grew. A final insult: As the ARS rates locked up ever higher, the floating index rates that the swaps were indexed to went down, so Georgetown was losing money on every part of every deal.

And finally, finally, Lehman Brothers, which had sold swaps to so many different colleges and universities around the country, went out of business, which resulted in Georgetown having to pay Lehman more than $53 million to terminate the seven swaps it had on May 12, 2009—again, swaps that were meant to hedge against the risky ARS bonds that were also, in some cases, sold by Lehman.

Fast forward to 2012, and a lawsuit from Lehman Brothers appears on Georgetown’s financial documents. This lawsuit is only mentioned in the financial statements and has not yet gone public, so we cannot say with certainty that the story is the same as in St. Louis. However, it appears as if the disparity between the “fair market value” calculation of what the swaps were worth in 2008 and the eventual payment Georgetown made to Lehman is about the same as in the SLU case.

For those keeping score at home, this means that Georgetown was hemorrhaging money to Lehman Brothers in at least four different ways:

  1. ARS bonds marketed by Lehman cost the university $6 million in interest rates and $8.34 million in debt restructuring costs.
  2. Approximately $77.8 million in payments on the seven interest rate swaps terminated in May 2009.
  3. More than $53.4 million in swap termination fees.
  4. Though still unconfirmed, all signs point to a lawsuit from Lehman to recoup what it claims are underpayments on the “market rate” of its swaps.

The full cost is probably even higher, as these calculations do not account for the fees Georgetown paid each time it got into a bond deal, nor for other deals that Lehman did not underwrite. Still, the bill is already north of $140 million, and we’ve only been looking at publicly available records.

It certainly seems as though Georgetown was hard done by in this case, and we plan to continue our research until we can present a full tally of how much Georgetown has lost and is continuing to lose to Wall Street.

Why does this matter? After all, Georgetown is a stable institution—not like Sweet Briar or liberal arts schools, where losses in the hundreds of millions could mean the difference between solvency and closing their doors. Neither is this a public institution, where public tax dollars are being funneled into Lehman’s grave. But even a storied private institution like Georgetown is feeling the pinch of millions of dollars being extracted, and that pinch is being passed on to students.

Tuition and fees will increase 4 percent at Georgetown next year, contributing to a nearly 40 percent increase since 2006 that shows no signs of slowing down. While there are many factors in the rapid rise of education costs borne by America’s students, including the “amenities arms race” and administrative bloat, the massive debt private colleges like Georgetown have accrued and the unbelievably expensive financial engineering that has come with it deserve a lion’s share of the blame. Lehman Brothers, having already managed to scrape more than $140 million from Georgetown’s coffers, is audacious in asking for more from beyond the grave. We must be equally audacious in demanding that Wall Street pay some part of the bill it’s left students since 2008.

Is your college or nonprofit involved in an ongoing lawsuit with Lehman Brothers? Let us know!

*Interest rate swaps are a type of derivative that allows an institution to lock in a loan at a fixed rate by “swapping” its existing variable-rate loan with a bank, an idea that becomes particularly toxic when the market crashes and interest rates plummet like they did post-2008. It’s the equivalent of taking out a mortgage at 5 percent a year and then finding out the next day that mortgages are now available at 1 percent. But, unlike mortgages, swaps cannot be refinanced or even “paid off” at will. To do so, one must pay an expensive termination fee equal to the total amount the bank expects to make over the entire life of the swap. It was a lose/lose proposition for the school once its bet that interest rates would stay high didn’t work out. 

Alan Smith is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Associate Director of Networked Initiatives.

Aditya Pande is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he studies international economics.

Thanks to Carrie Sloan and Alexandros Taliadoros for their contributions to this post.

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The Sweet Briar Dilemma: Will Predatory Lending Take Down More Colleges?

Mar 16, 2015Alan Smith

After 114 years of educating young women in rural Virginia, Sweet Briar College recently announced that the 2015 academic year would be its last. It’s closing its doors, administrators say, because its model is no longer sustainable.

After 114 years of educating young women in rural Virginia, Sweet Briar College recently announced that the 2015 academic year would be its last. It’s closing its doors, administrators say, because its model is no longer sustainable.

There are plenty of people coming out of the woodwork to explain Sweet Briar's problems. Dr. James F. Jones, the school’s president, claims that there are simply not enough people who want to attend an all-women's rural liberal arts school (though application numbers and some pundits disagree); he blames the discount that the school was giving to low-income students for the institutional budget shortfall. Billionaire investor Mark Cuban says that Sweet Briar has fallen victim to the student loan bubble and that students are unwilling to commit the money to attend, which sounds a lot like the blame-the-homeowner narrative that came out of the 2008 financial crisis.  Others are wringing their hands that small colleges in general are doomed.   

These takes are varied and complex, but they are all missing an important point: that predatory banking practices and bad financial deals played an important and nearly invisible role in precipitating the school’s budget crisis.  

A quick look at Sweet Briar’s audited financial reports (easily available in public records) reveals enough confusing and obfuscating financial-speak to last a lifetime, but a few days of digging did manage to unearth a series of troubling things.  

A single swap on a bond issued in June 2008 cost Sweet Briar more then a million dollars in payments to Wachovia before the school exited the swap in September 2011. While it is unclear exactly why they chose 2011 to pay off the remainder of the bond early, they paid a $730,119 termination fee. For a school that was sorely strapped for cash, these fines and the fees that accrued around this deal (which are hard to definitively pick out from financial documents) couldn't have come at a worse time.  

Just how big a deal are these numbers? The school has a relatively small endowment even among small liberal arts colleges: currently valued at about $88 million, with less then a quarter of that total completely unrestricted and free to spend. But in 2014, the financial year that appears to have been the final straw for Sweet Briar, total operating revenues were $34.8 million and total operating expenditures were $35.4 million, which means that the deficit the school is running is actually smaller than the cost of any of the bad deals it’s gotten itself into with banks. 

All of this puts in a very stark light the fact that the early retirement of debt (in other words, the losses the school suffered on the overall value of the bonds it had taken out because it decided to pay them back early) cost the school over $9 million in 2011 and more than $13 million in 2012. Why did the school accrue these costs? We have no way of knowing if it was bad advice from bankers, negligent trustee members covering a mistake, or a well-intentioned plan that hit at the wrong time.  

What we can say, though, is that a million dollars here and a million dollars there adds up to real money that was desperately needed as Sweet Briar fought to stay afloat.  

We know that Wall Street collects higher fees on risky and complicated deals involving variable rate debt and hedging instruments, like the ones found in Sweet Briar's last few decades of financials, than from fixed rate debt deals. We know that they add on things like credit enhancements, further driving up the costs. We know that those higher fees mean that there is a clear financial incentive to sell schools, municipalities, and pension funds on these risky deals. And we know that it works in Wall Street's favor that someone like me can spend days digging into this stuff and still not be totally sure what the exact costs of these deals are.  

What we don't know is how all these things were allowed to happen at this particular school in this particular timeframe.  

Sweet Briar appears slated to close because it is a small organization without the resources to counter the huge information imbalance that has helped precipitate the financialization crisis. It is closing because it signed some terrible deals to get what must have felt like "needed" money at the time. You can see the reasons: a $14 million bond (with swaps) in 2001 for campus improvements. A $10 million bond in 2006 to pay off other bonds that had revealed their ugly side and were costing the school too much to be allowed to fully mature. But, as has so often been the case in everything from municipal finance to personal home loans, there was a problem in the small print. Like many other colleges, what appeared to be vital and even beneficial deals turned out to be nothing of the sort. Unlike many others, Sweet Briar was already close enough to the financial brink that these ongoing debts made the difference between staying open and closing its doors.  

There are, of course, other very real pressures on Sweet Briar. Lower enrollment numbers do really hurt a school, and there are real questions about how to keep small, rural liberal arts institutions competitive in a higher education economy. None of these issues, however, compare to the fees, fines, penalties, and other losses that are all over Sweet Briar’s books. 

Is Sweet Briar the canary in the coalmine? Banks are certainly making obscene profits on the backs of the swap deals in the UC system, at the University of Michigan, and at American University — and those are the places that we’ve found in our first month of looking. While those schools are solvent enough that these swaps are not pushing them to the brink of closing, they are exacerbating budget shortfalls and passing debt on to students through increased costs. These deals are also clearly making money for many school trustees whose day jobs happen to be with the giant banks. Here I find myself agreeing with Mark Cuban, at least in part: these trends are a part of a vicious cycle of borrowing that is wholly unsustainable, and will eventually lead to a crisis.  

This is why the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network is working to track the ways in which financial institutions are extracting wealth from our colleges and universities, and make a clear case for demanding our money back. I hope that the storied institution of Sweet Briar can find a way to keep its doors open in 2016, but even if it fails, that failure should wake us up to predatory practices at colleges and universities around the country.   

Questions? Concerns? Interested in my math? Drop me a line.

Alan Smith is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Associate Director of Networked Initiatives.

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Roosevelt Reacts: What Else Did We Need From the 2015 State of the Union?

Jan 23, 2015

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network members and alumni weigh in on President Obama's sixth State of the Union address.

Brett Dunn, University of Alabama '17:

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network members and alumni weigh in on President Obama's sixth State of the Union address.

Brett Dunn, University of Alabama '17:

In the face of strong Republican opposition, President Obama made his stance on many controversial topics quite clear. He outlined his views on topics such as the minimum wage, equal pay for women, LGBTQ+ rights, tax reform and more. These bold and somewhat ambitious goals for change in 2015 will require bipartisan compromise in Congress. It is likely, however, that there will be little correlation between President Obama’s bold vision for the future of the United States and Congress’ actions in the final two years of his presidency. No matter how wonderful or ambitious President Obama’s plans are for the country, the likelihood of any these issues being independently addressed by a Republican controlled Congress is very slim. Yet the president’s plans do not fall on deaf ears. President Obama’s speech gives Democrats in Congress and, more importantly, the American public, ammunition against the Republican’s inevitable inaction, which could potentially help set the stage for the 2016 election.

Chisolm Allenlundy, University of Alabama '16:

It was difficult to miss the amount of politics that happened on Tuesday at President Obama’s next-to-last State of the Union address. What might have been easy to miss, however, was the meaning of it all.

President Obama knows that his days of passing game-changing progressive legislation are over. This is a common position for 4th-quarter presidents to find themselves in, and Obama did exactly what such presidents do when they can no longer effectively push for policy change: they push for culture change.

But most Americans don’t watch the political process so much as they hear about it from media sources, which put their own spin on material. According to consumer watch company Nielson, 31.7 million people tuned in for the SOTU, and even that figure is at a 15-year low. While the president has attempted to set the direction for progressive politics for the next year, policy change will be a struggle, and he needs to reach many more Americans to steer the course on our political culture. 

Tarsi Dunlop, Middlebury College '09:

Middle class economics played a key role in the President’s 2015 State of the Union. He explained that middle class economics is about the policies needed for average American families to get ahead. These policies aren’t handouts, but they make daily life better, easier, more fulfilling. For example, what if students could graduate from K-12 with good grades and know they had the option of going to community college without the staggering cost of debt? Granted, there are certain investments that must be made to make sure that community colleges are, as an institution, prepared for the role the President wants them to serve for our nation’s youth.

The President also touched on other elements of middle class economics: key policy proposals that will help young people, new families, and the elderly. He emphasized affordable day care (right now monthly costs can run higher than a mortgage payment), as well as paid family leave and sick leave. Families shouldn’t have to choose between time with new babies and paid work, nor between working and staying home with a sick child. We need a vision and a budget to help the middle class thrive and it was great to hear concrete proposals in the President’s speech.

Hayley Brundige, University of Tennessee, Knoxville '17:

Obama's State of the Union Address illustrated just how far we still have to go in the fight for gender equality. I was ecstatic when Obama asserted that the right to quality childcare and paid maternity and sick leave are not just “women's issues” — as they are often brushed aside as — but a “national economic priority.” But in the back of my mind, I was dismayed that this concept that is so obviously a human right is still so far from being obvious to our elected officials. 

Noticeably missing from the speech was any mention of preventing sexual assault, especially on college campuses. This was particularly surprising seeing as the administration has made this issue a point of focus recently, creating a White House task force on sexual assault and investigating colleges for Title IX violations. Obama even had a readily supplied anecdote, as campus activist and sexual assault survivor Emma Sulkowicz was literally in the audience. As a college student, I applaud Obama's efforts to make community college more accessible, but it's disheartening for him to not address the importance of keeping our campuses safe. No president on record has discussed sexual assault in a State of the Union address.

Zachary Agush, Wheaton College '12:

Over the years, President Obama has always integrated personal stories into his annual State of the Union addresses to paint a visual about the troubles individuals may be facing or to explain how a certain effort can help spark further growth and development for others. I have always considered that a major strength. This year’s speech focused in particular on young families. The President knows that the new generation is quickly becoming the majority of the nation's population and that the lingering inequalities and economic hardships will definitely make it increasingly difficult for them to have the quality of life they desire. This generation is also going to struggle to maintain Social Security and Medicare for those entering these safety net programs in the coming decade. I think those stories in particular hit some members of Congress, even those of the new Republican majority, that something needs to be done to at least give the next generation a chance at success. I am cautiously optimistic that something may happen - but it will only happen if this Congress can actually stop and think about how their gridlock is directly affecting the next generation. Maybe then, there can be progress.

Sarah Hilton, Wheaton College '16:

President Obama made huge strides for education policy on Tuesday night; even raising the issue of rising college tuition is a positive step forward. However, the President hardly mentioned the K-12 system. He praised rising graduation rates and higher test scores then ever before, but ignored the staggering inequality and lack of student performance when compared internationally. Obama’s two-year community college plan, while economically beneficial for the middle class, shows that our base expectations for education continue to require more time and expense.

The focus instead should be on improving the K-12 system we already have by creating more diverse programs that train students for a variety careers from academic to vocational. Today, about half of students begin community college in remedial classes. We should be making our high schools more effective at reaching students. Vocational training for profitable and interesting jobs can be done in high school, and academic programs should be strengthen to reduce the need for remedial classes in community colleges. Strengthening the underlying K-12 system and increasing vocational training would have an earlier impact on our students’ lives.

Jas Johl, University of California, Berkeley '08:

The main rhetorical touch point for the state of the union was 'middle class economics.' Throughout the address, Obama repeatedly turned to that concept, presenting policy ideas designed to bolster it.  Of paramount importance to the ongoing success of middle class, he argued, would be to make the first two years of community college free for all. This proposal does address some of the symptoms of growing economic inequality, namely rising student debt. Nonetheless, it overlooks the underlying, systemic issues at the core of the problem: the broken state of our current education system. 

As The Institute for College Access & Success and the Brookings Institute have both argued, the majority of those attending community college are already getting their tuition covered through Pell Grants and other means of financial support. I’d argue the more pressing issue is the fact that many of the students who enroll in community colleges are ill-prepared for 4-year universities, and spend the first two years of college taking remedial college (read: high school) courses that they didn't do well in or even pass the first time. Free college doesn’t help a student who isn’t ready for it.

Obama makes the very valid point that making those colleges free would assuage the financial burden of a large number of young adults, and likely precipitate a better-prepared workforce. But a glaring absence in the president's speech was acknowledgement of the fundamental cracks in our institutions, namely, our already free K-12 educational system. Real middle class economics necessitate not just free education, but better education for all.

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