A friend recently sent me an article from The Guardian about an artist using the name Fried Potatoes (Papas Fritas in Spanish) who sneaked into the vault of Universidad del Mar, a private university in Chile, and burned all the documents pertaining to the university's student loans. Yep, a half billion dollars in student debt went up in smoke.
What a cool idea!
Of course, destroying all loan documents pertaining to private college loans would be impossible in the United States. There are literally millions of student-loan documents in the U.S. involving hundreds of for-profit colleges. Most are in electronic format and the government maintains records of these debts, since the government guarantees all loans issued through the federal student-loan programs.
Still, some variation of this idea is worth considering. Let's start with Corinthian Colleges, which filed for bankruptcy last year and now has a $1.2 billion judgment against it for false advertising and misleading lending practices. A California judge ordered Corinthian to pay most of the judgment ($820 million) as restitution to former students who were victimized by its scam. The bulk of this money represents federal loans students took out to pay their tuition bills at one of Corinthian's campuses.
But of course Corinthian doesn't have the money to pay the judgment. At the time it filed for bankruptcy, it claimed to have only $20 million in assets--about one sixtieth of the total California judgment.
Department of Education regulations allow students to apply for loan forgiveness if they were students at a college that closed or if they were defrauded by the college they attended. Thousands of Corinthian alums have applied for relief under these regulations.
But the administrative process for resolving these claims has been tedious, and so far only a small number of ex-Corinthian students have had their loans forgiven.
Why doesn't the Department of Education do what Papas Fritas did and just dissolve the debt? Of course, DOE wouldn't need to actually burn all those loan documents, although I'm sure a bonfire would be personally satisfying to Corinthian's former students. But the loans could be forgiven by government fiat. And that is what DOE should do.
After all, Corinthian's former students will never pay back those student loans. In fact, almost half of all students who attended for-profit colleges eventually default on their federal student loans. Wouldn't it be easier and more just for the government to simply decree that any student who took out federal loans to attend a for-profit college will have those loans forgiven if the college is found guilty of fraud or misrepresentation?
Of course it would, but DOE will never take that straightforward step because the amount of money involved is enormous. It would rather deal with student claims through a cumbersome administrative process, knowing that most students won't go to the trouble of filing a claim.
And here's a better idea. Given the high levels of fraud, misrepresentation, price-gouging and totally worthless educational experiences connected with the for-profit college industry, I think we should simply allow anyone who took out student loans to study at one of these shyster for-profit institutions to discharge those loans in bankruptcy under the same standards that apply to other unsecured debt. In other words, people who are otherwise qualified for bankruptcy relief should have their student loans discharged through the routine process of a bankruptcy filing without the need of filing an adversary proceeding.
Jonathan Franklin. Chile students' debts go up in smoke. The Guardian, May 23, 2014. Accessible at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/23/chile-student-loan-debts-fried-potatoes
Matt Hamilton. Corinthian Colleges must pay nearly $1.2 billion for false advertising and lending practices. Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2016. Accessible at http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-corinthian-colleges-judgment-false-advertising-20160323-story.html