Thursday, December 15, 2016

Defrauded students file debt-relief applications with the Department of Education: Bankruptcy courts can provide relief faster and more efficiently than DOE bureaucrats

When Betsy DeVos takes over as the new Secretary of Education next year, she will inherit one huge headache--thousands of pending applications for loan forgiveness from students who claim they were defrauded by various for-profit universities.

As Andrew Kreighbaum explained in a recent article for Inside Higher Ed, the Department of Education had received 80,000 loan discharge applications as of last October; and the total number has likely grown to at least 100,000.

So far, DOE has approved 15,694 applications for discharge from students who attended three campuses owned by the now defunct Corinthian Colleges system, but many more of Corinthian's former students are surely eligible for loan forgiveness based on fraud claims. After all, Corinthian has 350,000 former students.

And there are hundreds of other student borrowers who may file loan-forgiveness applications: students from ITT Tech Services, Globe University, Minnesota School of Business, and several more for-profits that closed after being accused of wrongdoing.

I. Problems with forgiving loans through the DOE administrative process

DOE has been extremely slow to process borrower defense applications; I know one young woman who filed her application in August based on a claim she was defrauded by DeVry University. She has yet to receive a response from DOE.

New federal regulations for processing borrower defense claims will become effective next summer, but there are several fundamental challenges that new regulations won't solve:
1. Tax consequences. First, all former for-profit student who have their student loans forgiven will have a one-time tax liability because the amount of their forgiven loans is considered taxable income by the IRS. 
2. Forfeiture of college credits. Under the current debt-relief program, students whose student loans are forgiven due to fraud will forfeit any credits they received from the institution they attended.

3. Insufficient DOE resources. Third, the Department of Education simply doesn't have the resources to process thousands of loan forgiveness claims in a timely manner, not to mention the thousands of new claims that will inevitably be filed as more for-profit colleges close their doors.
II Bankruptcy is a better way to process loan forgiveness applications

Fortunately, there is a solution to these problems; it's called the bankruptcy courts.

First, debtors whose student loans are discharged in bankruptcy will not suffer tax consequences for a forgiven loan because under current IRS rules forgiven debts are not taxable to an individual who is insolvent at the time the loan is forgiven.

Second, a student debtor who discharges student loans from a for--profit college through the bankruptcy process will not forfeit credits or degrees conferred by the college.

Finally, the bankruptcy courts clearly have the resources to process hundreds of thousands of bankruptcy petitions filed by distressed student-loan debtors. Filing an individual Chapter 7 action is relatively simple and does not require a lawyer.  Bankruptcy petitions could be routinely resolved in the bankruptcy courts, which have the expertise to weed out fraudulent or unworthy claims.

III. DOE has the authority to reinterpret the  "undue hardship" standard 

Critics might argue that my proposal is unworkable because anyone seeking to discharge student loans in bankruptcy must meet the "undue hardship" standard, a very difficult standard to meet.  But there is a solution for that challenge as well.

All DOE needs to do to ease the path to bankruptcy relief for insolvent student-loan debtors with fraud claims is to write an official letter expressing its view that every insolvent debtor who attended a for-profit college that has been found to have acted fraudulently meets the undue hardship standard.

In essence, such a letter would be a a revision of DOE's letter issued on July 7, 2015, giving the Department's interpretation of the "undue hardship" rule. In all likelihood, the bankruptcy courts would defer to DOE's revised interpretation of "undue hardship" and begin discharging student loans routinely.

Of course, DOE would also need to direct the various student-loan guaranty agencies to stop opposing bankruptcy relief for any insolvent debtor with a fraud claim against a for-profit college.

Easing the path to bankruptcy relief for distressed debtors who took out student loans to attend dodgy for-profit colleges will cost taxpayers billions. But most of the people who took out these loans will never pay the money back anyway. Almost 50 percent of the people who took out loans to attend for--profit colleges default on those loans within five years. Others enter into income-driven repayment plans that lower monthly payments, but according to the Government Accountability Office, about half the people who begin these plans are kicked out for failing to verifying their income on an annual basis.

So let's begin cleaning up the mess our government created when it began shoveling federal student-aid money to  the rapacious for-profit college industry. Let's shut these colleges down and wipe out the student-loan debt accumulated by millions of victims of massive fraud. Incoming Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will have the authority to grant relief to these victims by easing the path toward bankruptcy. Let's hope this is what she does.

Incoming Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos


References

Andrew Kreighbaum. Activists and borrowers call on Obama administration to provide debt relief to defrauded students. Inside Higher Ed, December 14, 2016.

Adam Looney & Constantine Yannelis, A crisis in student loans? How changes in the characteristics of borrowers and in the institutions they attended contributed to rising default ratesWashington, DC: Brookings Institution (2015). Accessible at: http://www.brookings.edu/about/projects/bpea/papers/2015/looney-yannelis-student-loan-defaults

Lynn Mahaffie, Undue Hardship Discharge of Title IV Loans in Bankruptcy Adversary Proceedings. CL ID: GEN 15-13, July 7, 2015.

Eric Rosenberg.You Need to Know How Student Loan Forgiveness Is Taxed.  Studentloanhero.com, July 18, 2016.

US. Government Accounting Office. Federal Student Loans: Education Needs to Improve Its Income-Driven Repayment Plan Budget Estimates. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Accounting Office, November, 2016.







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