Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Almost by itself, the Student Loan Program is Destroying the American Middle Class: The sad story of Steve and Darnelle Mason

Several newspapers carried a story about Steve and Darnelle Mason, a married couple who co-signed student loans for their daughter Lisa to attend college.  Lisa borrowed a lot of money--$100,000, but it was probably a good investment because she graduated with a nursing degree that led to a job as a critical-care nurse.
Lisa Mason
Photo credit: Steve Mason &
USA Today

Unfortunately, Lisa died at age 27 of liver failure, leaving three young children.  Had Lisa borrowed the money from the federal student loan program, the debt would have been forgiven with her death.

But Lisa borrowed the money from private banks, and loan-service companies that took over her loans didn't forgive the debt. As co-signers on Lisa's loans, Lisa's parents are liable for the full amount.  And with penalties and accrued interest, that debt has  ballooned to $200,000.

This sad story, which has gained national attention, demonstrates the risk parents take when they co-sign student loans for their children's college education, particularly when they co-sign a loan from a private bank. They are on the hook for the full amount. And unlike the federal student loan program, most banks do not have income-based repayment options. Nor do they grant economic hardship deferments.

Jeffrey Dorfman (2014) recently wrote a story for Forbes arguing that there is no student loan crisis. Dorfman would probably say people like Steve and Darnelle Mason are a rare exception, As Dorfman, pointed out, most people borrow fare less money to attend college than Lisa Mason did, often less than a typical car loan.

It is true of course that the Mason's story is exceptional. Most 27 year-old people don't die. But a lot of them are unable to manage their student loans, and parents who co-sign those loans are on the hook to pay them back.  Parents can lose their retirement savings, the equity in their homes, literally everything they've worked for over a lifetime if they co-sign their child's student loan and the student can't pay it back.

What a lot of parents don't realize is that student loans are very hard to discharge in bankruptcy. In 2005, the banks were able to get Congress to amend the Bankruptcy Code to make private student loans nondischargeable unless the debtor could show "undue hardship."  And  the courts have interpreted "undue hardship" very harshly.  Just a few months ago, a 63-year old man's petition to discharge almost a quarter million dollars in student loans for his children was denied, even though the man was unemployed and about to lose his home in foreclosure (Murphy v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 2014).

Millions of people are suffering from unmanageable student loans.  Although most people don't borrow as much as Lisa Mason did, even a small loan is impossible to pay if the debtor is unemployed.  And the poor souls who fall behind on their payments and default often see their loan balances double because the creditors add accrued interest and penalties to the unpaid debt.

President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan know how bad the student-loan crisis is,but their efforts to bring this crisis under control have been feeble.  The Department of Education doesn't report the actual default rate and its solution to the overall problem is to encourage student-loan debtors to sign up for long-term income-based repayment plans.

In essence, the Obama administration's response to the student-loan catastrophe has been to obscure the enormity of the problem, hoping it won't blow up before President Obama leaves office.  What needs to be done?

First and foremost, the Bankruptcy Code must be amended to make unmanageable student -loan debts dischargeable in bankruptcy. This one reform would shut down the private student loan business because the banks would not lend money for education if they knew student-loan debtors could wipe out their student loan debt in a bankruptcy court.

Steve and Darnelle Mason, for example, would be able to discharge their debts in bankruptcy if they had maxed out their credit cards to go on expensive vacations or had foolishly invested in some get-rich-quick scheme. But they can't discharge the student-loan debt that Lisa accumulated in good faith to get a college education, even though it is crushing them financially.

 Day by day, the student-loan program is destroying the middle class by making it impossible for young people to buy homes, start families, and save for their retirement.  And many parents who co-signed student loans for their children are now faced with the loss of their entire life savings.

This state of affairs is not right, and we won't truly begin to deal with the student-loan crisis until we give people who are overwhelmed by student debt a fresh start in bankruptcy.

References

Grant, Tim. Private student loan debt can outlive student. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 12, 2014. Accessible at http://www.post-gazette.com/business/2014/09/12/Private-student-loan-can-outlive-student/stories/201409120016.

Dorfman, Jeffrey. Time To Stop the Sob Stories About Student Loan Debt. Forbes, September 18, 2014. Accessible at http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffreydorfman/2014/09/18/time-to-stop-the-sob-stories-about-student-loan-debt/

Murphy v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, 511 B.R. 1 (D. Mass. 2014).

Serico, Chris. After daughter's death, parents plead for forgiveness of her $200K student-loan debt. USA Today, July 14, 2014. Accessible at http://www.today.com/parents/after-daughters-death-parents-plead-forgiveness-her-200k-student-loan-1D79996678

Marian Wang,  Beckie Supiano, & Andrea Fuller. Parent Plus Loans: How the Government Is Saddling Parents With Loans They Can't Afford. Huffington Post, October 5, 2012. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/05/parent-plus-loan-government-parents-student-debt_n_1942151.html

Marian Wang. As Parents Struggle to Repay College Loans for Their Children, Taxpayers Also Stand to Lose. Huffington Post, April 4, 2014.  Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/04/parent-plus-loans_n_5094931.html

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