Student Debt and a Push for Fairness
By RON LIEBER
Published: June 4, 2010
If you run up big credit card bills buying a new home theater system and can’t pay it off after a few years, bankruptcy judges can get rid of the debt. They may even erase loans from a casino. But if you borrow money to get an education and can’t afford the loan payments after a few years of underemployment, that’s another matter entirely. It’s nearly impossible to get rid of the debt in bankruptcy court, even if it’s a private loan from for-profit lenders like Citibank or the student loan specialist Sallie Mae.
This part of the bankruptcy law is little known outside education circles, but ever since it went into effect in 2005, it’s inspired shock and often rage among young adults who got in over their heads. Today, they find themselves in the same category as people who can’t discharge child support payments or criminal fines.
Now, even Sallie Mae, tired of being a punching bag for consumer advocates and hoping to avoid changes that would hurt its business too severely, has agreed that the law needs alteration. Bills in the Senate and House of Representatives would make the rules for private loans less strict, now that Congress has finished the job of getting banks out of the business of originating federal student loans.
With this latest initiative, however, lawmakers face a question that’s less about banking than it is about social policy or political calculation. At a time when voters are furious at their neighbors for getting themselves into mortgage trouble, do legislators really want to change the bankruptcy laws so that even more people can walk away from their debts?
There are two main types of student loans. Under the proposed changes, borrowers would remain on the hook for federal loans, like Stafford and Perkins loans, as they have been for many years. To most people, this seems fair because the federal government (and ultimately taxpayers) stand behind these loans. There are also many payment plans and even forgiveness programs for some borrowers.
In 2005, however, Congress made the bankruptcy rules the same for the second kind of debt, private loans underwritten by profit-making banks. These have no government guarantees and come with fewer repayment options. Undergraduates can also borrow much more than they can with federal loans, making trouble more likely.
Destitute borrowers can still discharge student loan debt if they experience “undue hardship.” But that condition is nearly impossible to prove, absent a severe disability.
Meanwhile, the volume of private loans, which are most popular among students attending profit-making schools, has grown rapidly in the last two decades as students have tried to close the gap between the rising price of tuition and what they can afford. In the 2007-8 school year, the latest period for which good data is available, about one third of all recipients of bachelor’s degrees had used a private loan at some point before they graduated, according to College Board research.
Tightening credit caused total private loan volume to fall by about half to roughly $11 billion in the 2008-9 school year, according to the College Board. Tim Ranzetta, founder of Student Lending Analytics, figures it fell an additional 24 percent this last academic year, though his estimate doesn’t include some state-based nonprofit lenders.
There is no strong evidence that young adults would line up at bankruptcy court in the event of a change. That gives Democrats and university groups hope that Congress could succeed in making the laws less strict.
In Congressional hearings on the efforts to change the rule, last year and then in April, no lender was present to make the case for the status quo. Instead, it fell to lawyers and financiers who work for them. They made the following points.
Bankruptcys Would Rise: At the April hearing, John Hupalo, managing director for student loans at Samuel A. Ramirez and Company, made the most obvious case against any change. “With no assets to lose, an education in hand, why not discharge the loan without ever making a payment to the lender?” he said.
Once you set aside this questionable presumption of mendacity among the young, there are actually plenty of practical reasons why not. “People don’t like to go through bankruptcy,” said Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, who introduced the House bill that would change the rules. “It’s not like going to get a milkshake.”
Andy Winchell, a bankruptcy lawyer in Summit, N.J., likens student loan debt to tattoos: They’re easy to get, people tend to get them when they’re young, and they’re awfully hard to get rid of.
And he would remind clients of a couple of things. First, you generally can’t make another bankruptcy filing and discharge more debt for many years. So if you, in essence, cry wolf with a filing to erase your student loans, you’ll be in a real bind if you then face crushing medical debt two years later.
Then there’s the damage to your credit report. While it doesn’t remain there forever, the blemish can have an enormous impact on young people trying to establish themselves with an employer or buy a home.
Finally, you’re going to have to persuade a lawyer to take your case. And if it seems that you’re simply shirking your obligations, many lawyers will kick you out of their offices. “It’s not easy to find a dishonest bankruptcy attorney who is going to risk their license to practice law on a case they don’t believe in,” Mr. Winchell said.
Sallie Mae can live with a change, so long as there’s a waiting period before anyone can try to discharge the debts. “Sallie Mae continues to support reform that would allow federal and private student loans to be dischargeable in bankruptcy for those who have made a good-faith effort to repay their student loans over a five-to-seven-year period and still experience financial difficulty,” the company said in a prepared statement.
While there is no waiting period in either of the current bills, Mr. Cohen said he could live with one if that’s what it took to get a bill through Congress. “Philosophy and policy can get you on the Rachel Maddow show, but what you want to do is pass legislation and affect people’s lives,” he said, referring to the host of an MSNBC news program.
BANKS WOULDN’T LEND ANYMORE Private student loans are an unusual line of business, given that lenders hand over money to students who might not finish their studies and have uncertain earning prospects even if they do get a degree. “Borrowers are not creditworthy to begin with, almost by definition,” Mr. Hupalo said in an interview this week.
But banks that have stayed in the business (and others, like credit unions, that have entered recently) have made adjustments that will probably protect them far more than any alteration in the bankruptcy laws will hurt. For instance, it’s become much harder to get many private loans without a co-signer. That means lenders have two adults on the hook for repayment instead of just one.
BORROWING COSTS WOULD RISE They probably would rise a bit, at least at first as lenders assume the worst (especially if Congress applies any change to outstanding loans instead of limiting it to future ones). But this might not be such a bad thing.
Private loans exist because the cost of college is often so much higher than what undergraduates can borrow through federal loans, which have annual limits. Some lenders may be predatory and many borrowers are irresponsible, but this debate would be much less loud if tuition were not rising so quickly.
So if loans cost more and lenders underwrite fewer of them, people will have less money to spend on their education. Some fly-by-night profit-making schools might cease to exist, and all but the most popular private nonprofit universities might finally be forced to reckon with their costs and course offerings.
Prices might come down. And young adults just getting started in life might be less likely to face a nasty choice between decades of oppressive debt payments and visiting a bankruptcy judge before starting an entry-level job.
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