Thursday, November 10, 2016

The student loan crisis in the first 100 days: Please, President Trump, provide bankruptcy relief for distressed student-loan debtors

Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, and we can throw her promise of a tuition-free college education in the ashcan. Meanwhile, the student loan crisis grows worse with each passing month.

Eleven million people have either defaulted on their loans or are delinquent in their payments. More than 5 million student-loan debtors are in long-term income based repayment plans that will never lead to loan payoffs.Several million student borrowers have loans in deferment or forbearance while interest continues to accrue on their loan balances.

Soon we will have a new president, and an exciting opportunity to look at the federal student loan program from a fresh perspective. What can President Trump do to bring relief to distressed college-loan debtors. Here are some ideas--respectfully submitted:

FIRST, TREAT THE WOUNDED.

President Trump can do several things quickly to alleviate the suffering.

Stop garnishing Social Security checks of loan defaulters. More than 150,000 elderly student-loan defaulters are seeing their Social Security checks garnished. President Trump could stop that practice on a dime. Admittedly, this would be a very small gesture; the number of garnishees is minuscule compared to the 43 million people who have outstanding student loans. But this symbolic act would signal that our government is not heartless.

Streamline the loan-forgiveness process for people who were defrauded by the for-profit colleges. DOE already has a procedure in place for forgiving student loans taken out by people who were defrauded by a for-profit college, but the administrative process is slow and cumbersome. For example, Corinthian Colleges and ITT both filed for bankruptcy, and many of their former students have valid fraud claims. So far, few of these victims have obtained relief from the Department of Education.

Why not simply forgive the student loans of everyone who took out a federal loan to attend these two institutions and others that closed while under investigation for fraudulent practices?

Force for-profit colleges to delete mandatory arbitration clauses from student enrollment documents. The Obama administration criticized mandatory arbitration clauses, but it didn't eliminate them. President Trump could sign an Executive Order banning all for-profit colleges from putting mandatory arbitration clauses in their student-enrollment documents.

Banning mandatory arbitration clauses would allow fraud victims to sue for-profit colleges and to bring class action suits. And by taking this step, President Trump would only be implementing a policy that President Obama endorsed but didn't get around to implementing.

Abolish unfair penalties and fees. Student borrowers who default on their loans are assessed enormous penalties by the debt collectors--18 percent and even more. President Trump's Department of Education could ban that practice or at least reduce the penalties to a more reasonable amount.

REASONABLE BANKRUPTCY RELIEF FOR DISTRESSED STUDENT-LOAN DEBTORS

The reforms I outlined are minor, although they could be implemented quickly through executive orders or the regulatory process. But the most important reform--reasonable access to the bankruptcy courts--will require a change in the Bankruptcy Code.

Please, President Trump, prevail on Congress to abolish 11 U.S.C. 523(a)(8) from the Bankruptcy Code--the provision that requires student-loan debtors to show undue hardship as a condition for discharging student loans in bankruptcy.

Millions of people borrowed too much money to get a college education, and they can't pay it back. Some were defrauded by for-profit colleges, some chose the wrong academic major, some did not complete their studies, and some paid far too much to get a liberal arts degree from an elite private college. More than a few fell off the economic ladder due to divorce or illness, including mental illness.

Regardless of the reason, most people took out student loans in good faith and millions of people can't pay them back. Surely a fair and humane justice system should allow these distressed debtors  reasonable access to the bankruptcy courts.

President Trump can address this problem in two ways:

  • First, the President could direct the Department of Education and the loan guaranty agencies (the debt collectors) not to oppose bankruptcy relief for honest but unfortunate debtors--and that's most of the people who took out student loans and can't repay them.
  • Second, the President could encourage Congress to repeal the "undue hardship" provision from the Bankruptcy Code.
Critics will say that bankruptcy relief gives deadbeat debtors a free ride, but in fact, most people who defaulted on their loans have suffered enough.from the penalties that have rained down on their heads.

More importantly, our nation's heartless attitude about student-loan default has discouraged millions of Americans and helped drive them out of the economy. President Trump has given middle-class and working-class Americans an opportunity for a fresh start. Let's make sure that overburdened student-loan debtors get a fresh start too.

References

Natalie Kitroeff. Loan Monitor is Accused of Ruthless Tactics on Student Debt. New York Times, January 1. 2014. Accessible at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/02/us/loan-monitor-is-accused-of-ruthless-tactics-on-student-debt.html?_r=0

Stephen Burd. Signing Away Rights. Inside Higher Ed, December 17, 2013. Available at https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/12/17/essay-questions-mandatory-arbitration-clauses-students-profit-higher-education

Andrew Kreighbaum, Warren: Education Dept. Failing Corinthian StudentsInside Higher Ed, September 30, 2016. Accessible at https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2016/09/30/warren-education-dept-failing-corinthian-students

Senator Elizabeth Warren to Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., letter dated September 29, 2016. Accessible at https://www.warren.senate.gov/files/documents/2016-9-29_Letter_to_ED_re_Corinthian_data.pdf

Ashley A. Smith. U.S. Urged to Deny Aid to For-Profits That Force Arbitration. Inside Higher Ed, February 24, 2016. Available at: https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2016/02/24/us-urged-deny-aid-profits-force-arbitration?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=183bc9e3a3-DNU20160224&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-183bc9e3a3-198565653

U.S. Department of Education. U.S. Department of Education Takes Further Steps to Protect Students from Predatory Higher Education Institutions. March 11, 2016. Accessible at http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-takes-further-steps-protect-students-predatory-higher-education-institutions?utm_content=&utm_medium=email&utm_name=&utm_source=govdelivery&utm_term=

U.S. General Accounting Office. Older Americans: Inability to Repay Student Loans May Affect Financial Security of a Small Percentage of Borrowers. GAO-14-866T. Washington, DC: General Accounting Office. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-866T

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