Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Occasionally, The New York Times Says Something Sensible About the Student Loan Crisis: Bankruptcy Relief for Private Student Loan Borrowers

Last month, the Student Loan Ombudsman for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)issued a report highlighting the hardships experienced by students who took out private loans to attend college. Unlike the federal student loan program, which offers income-based repayment plans and economic hardship deferments to student-loan borrowers who run into financial trouble, private lenders generally do not offer any type of relief for distressed student-loan borrowers.

What the CFPB did not say in its report is that private student-loan borrowers, like borrowers in the federal student loan program, cannot discharge their student loans in bankruptcy unless they can show "undue hardship," a very difficult standard to meet.
All the CFPB report offered as a remedy to this problem was a form letter that student-loan borrowers could modify and send to their private lenders to beg for relief.  That is really not much of a solution.

Yesterday, however, the New York Times commented on the CFPB report and made a sensible suggestion. The Times proposed that Congress repeal the 2005 "undue hardship" provision that makes it almost impossible for private student-loan borrowers to discharge their loans in bankruptcy. In the alternative, the Times added, legislation should be passed that requires private lenders to modify loan terms for distressed student-loan borrowers. "Now it's time for Congress to fix [the error it made when it passed the 2005 law]," the Times editorialized, "by rescinding the bankruptcy provision or requiring lenders to create clearly advertised flexible payment plans in exchange for retaining it."

Respected commentators have recommended rescinding the 2005 Bankruptcy Code provision for years. In 2009, Rafael Pardo, a law professor and noted researcher on the student-loan crisis, testified before a Congressional committee on the special hardships suffered by individuals who took out private student loans to finance their college studies.  Here is what Professor Pardo said:
Because the costs of private student loans can quickly spiral out of control, and because there exist limited nonbankruptcy options for mitigating the financial distress imposed by such costs, borrowers of private student loans are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of undue-hardship discharge litigation.  If they end up seeking relief through the bankruptcy system and subsequently fail to prevail in their claim of undue hardship, they will find themselves struggling interminably under an oppressive amount of educational debt with little to no other options for relief.
In short, Professor Pardo told the Congressional committee:
By stripping away the one social safety net that existed for borrowers of private student loans--that is, the automatic discharge of such loans in bankruptcy--Congress has likely condemned certain student-loan debtors to the Sisyphean task of repaying obligations that will never be extinguished. [Emphasis supplied.]
In his testimony, Professor Pardo stated unequivocally that Congress should repeal the 2005 "undue hardship" provision that has made it almost impossible for individuals to discharge their private student-loan debts in bankruptcy.  Pardo testified as follows:
I respectfully urge Congress to restrike the balance between student-loan debtors and lenders of private student loans by restoring the automatically dischargeable status of private student loans in bankruptcy.
Without a doubt, repeal of the 2005 Bankruptcy Code provision is essential to providing relief to distressed college borrowers who took out private student loans.  It is refreshing to see that the New York Times essentially agrees with Professor Pardo on this issue, although the Times equivocated a bit by saying that Congress might pass a law requiring private student-loan lenders to offer flexible payment terms as an alternative to repealing the 2005 Bankruptcy Code provision.

Everyone in higher education should be clamoring for repeal of the Bankruptcy Code's "undue hardship provision for all student-loan borrowers, whether they borrowed from the federal student loan program or borrowed from private lenders.  Literally millions of distressed student-loan borrowers are suffering  because they cannot repay their loans and have no real means of relief in the bankruptcy courts.

But if across-the-board reform cannot be achieved politically, at least Congress should repeal the "undue hardship" provision as it applies to people who took out student loans from the private banks. Even the New York Times, which at times seems almost clueless about the student-loan crisis, has figured that out.

References

Editorial. Driving Student Borrowers Into Default. New York Times, November 3, 2014.

Rafael Pardo. ABI Members Testify on Discharging Student Loan Debt in Bankruptcy. ABI Journal, November 2009, p. 10. Accessible at: http://www.abiworld.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Home&CONTENTID=59097&TEMPLATE=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm


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