As the Department of Education attests on its own web site, DOE will forgive or cancel student loans under certain circumstances. For example, students are entitled to have their loans forgiven if the school they were attending closes while they were enrolled or shortly after that. Students can also obtain a discharge if they can show they were induced to take out student loans through fraud. And students are also entitled to have their student loans discharged if the school they attended falsely certified that they were eligible to receive a federal student loan.
Unfortunately, the administrative process for obtaining a loan discharge is not easy to navigate. In fact, one might conclude that DOE sets up roadblocks to prevent student borrowers from getting the releases to which they are legally entitled. Price v. U.S. Department of Education, decided last year, illustrates just how difficult it can be to obtain a loan discharge even when a student is clearly qualified for relief.
Price v. U.S. Department of Education: The facts
Phyllis Price graduated with a degree from the University of Phoenix in 2005. She paid for her studies by taking out student loans, which she consolidated into a single loan for $36,868 bearing interest at 5.3 percent.
Price was 52 years old when she began her studies at the University of Phoenix and had not graduated from high school. A university counselor "instructed her to state on the [admission] application that she had actually finished school and to fill in the year she 'should have graduated.'" Price filled out the forms as she was directed.
Apparently, Price's degree from Phoenix did not benefit her financially. She was working as a contract administrator at the time she began her studies, and she was still doing substantially the same work ten years after obtaining her degree.
Price's first payment on her consolidated loan was due in August 2006. She did not make payments on the loan, and the Department of Education (DOE) declared her in default in October 2007.
In March 2008, Price filed a "False Certification (Ability to Benefit) Loan Discharge Application" in an effort to get her loans discharged. Essentially, she argued that her student loans should be canceled because the University of Phoenix had falsely certified that she was eligible to receive federal student loans for her studies.
American Student Assistance (ASA), DOE's loan servicer, denied Price's application and told her to produce evidence that she did not have a high school diploma. Price produced her high school transcript, which was prominently stamped "DID NOT GRADUATE" and asked for a hearing.
On June 24, 2009, more than a year after Price produced her high school transcript, DOE affirmed ASA's original decision denying her a loan discharge. On October 1, 2014--more than six years after she filed her discharge application, DOE issued its final decision denying Price's "false certification discharge application." A short time later, Price received notice that her wages were subject to being garnished for failure to pay back her student loan. Price then brought suit in federal court.
Statutory and Regulatory Issues Pertinent to Price's case
Under the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP), private lenders make loans to "eligible borrowers" to finance postsecondary studies. The loans are insured by student loan guaranty agencies and reinsured by DOE. Generally, an eligible borrower is someone who has a high school diploma or a GED.
"However, a 'student who does not have a certificate of graduation from a school providing secondary education, or the recognized equivalent of such certificate,' may qualify for a loan if the school certifies that she has the ability to benefit from the education it provides." Price v. U.S. Dep't of Educ., 209 F. Supp. 3d 925, 930 (S.D. Tex. 2016) (quoting 20 U.S.C. sec. 1091(d)).
A school can certify that a student has the ability to benefit from its programs if the student passes an independently administered ATB ("ability to benefit") test. However, the University of Phoenix did not require Price to take an ATB test.
What is the purpose of the "ability to benefit" rule? Congress adopted "ability to benefit" legislation in 1992, "spurred by public concern over unscrupulous schools exploiting student borrowers who received no benefit from expensive classes of little use." Id. Under federal law (20 U.S.C. sec. 1087(c) (1)), the Department of Education is required to discharge loans taken out by people who were falsely certified as being eligible to receive federal loans by the schools they attended.
A federal magistrate rules in Price's favor
Price filled out an application to have her loans discharged in 2008, asserting under oath that she did not have a high school diploma at the time she took out federal loans and had not been given an ATB test. End of story, right?
No, DOE refused to discharge her student loans on the grounds that it had no evidence that the University of Phoenix had systematically violated the "ability to benefit" rules. In refusing to forgive Price's loans, a federal magistrate found, DOE violated federal law and DOE's own regulations. In essence, the Magistrate observed, DOE's decision-making process "amounted to a cursory glance at the forest, with no attempt to spot the only tree that mattered."
DOE attempted to defend its decision by offering post hoc rationalizations. In particular, the Department argued that Price obtained a degree from the University of Phoenix and should not be allowed to benefit from that degree without paying for it. But the federal Magistrate rejected that argument, pointing out that Price was entitled to have her loans forgiven whether or not she obtained a degree.
Furthermore, the Magistrate noted, Price apparently had not benefited from her studies at the University of Phoenix. "Price is doing essentially the same job as before she enrolled, and any psychic benefit from achieving a degree is more than offset by eight years of fending off debt collectors." In any event, the Magistrate continued, "Congress did not see fit to condition student loan relief upon a showing that the student ultimately failed to graduate." Id. at 934.
Why did DOE deny Price the relief to which she was legally entitled?
Clearly, Price was ill-treated by DOE, which dragged her through a tedious administrative process for six years before ultimately denying her claim. And, as a federal magistrate concluded, Price was clearly entitled to have her student loans forgiven under federal law and DOE's own regulations.
Why did DOE take the position it did? I can think of only one reason--DOE is so desperate to keep people from getting their loans forgiven that it is willing to ignore federal law.
DOE is like the fabled Dutch boy with his thumb in the dike. Once a few people are granted relief from their student loans, it will be apparent that millions are entitled to relief. That will lead to a torrent of loan forgiveness, which will cause the federal student loan program to collapse.
Price v. U.S. Dep't of Education, 209 Fed. Supp. 3d 925 (S.D. Tex. 2016).