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Obama’s Department of Education grants automatic loan relief for all students who attended the American Career Institute: A puny effort–too little, too late

By on January 18, 2017

Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Education granted automatic debt relief to all students who attended American Career Institute. As Inside Higher Ed pointed out, this is “the first time the department has granted automatic loan relief to all students of a college without requiring individual applications.” About 650 former ACI students received closed school discharges; but the rest–about 3,900 students–are getting their loans discharged en masse. In addition, DOE also announced it will grant Borrower Defense discharges to 28,000 student who had attended Corinthian Colleges.

This is a good thing, of course; but why now? And why so small a gesture?

After all, Corinthian Colleges, which closed and filed bankruptcy under allegations of fraud, had more than 300,000 students; and ITT, which also filed bankruptcy, had 191,000 enrollees. Yet so far, DOE has only grant Borrower Defense discharges to 28,000 former Corinthian students.

As for the small size of the gesture, I think Luke Herrine, legal director of the Debt Collective, got it right. “There’s just no coherent logic whatsoever,” he said. “The only thing I can think of is it would be deeply embarrassing for them to stop collecting on so much debt.” It is one thing to forgive the loans of 4,000 ACI students and a small percentage of Corinthian students; it is quite another to discharge the debt of a half million people.

As for the timing, I think the Obama administration has known for quite a while that the only responsible thing to do about millions of people who took out loans to attend flaky for-profit colleges is to grant massive debt relief to nearly everyone without the necessity of reviewing each case individually. But that is a difficult thing to do politically.

I think DOE waited until a week before Obama leaves officer to offer token relief to ACI students in order to highlight the student-loan crisis when there is no time left for the Obama administration to do something substantive.

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Like a retreating army that spikes its cannons before being overwhelmed by the enemy, the Obama administration may have wanted to publicize the student loan crisis to create difficulties for Trump.

Here are my thoughts on DOE’s surprising but welcome action:

1) Granting debt relief to ACI students is the first small step toward doing what the federal government will inevitably be forced to do: forgive student debt to nearly all of the millions of people who attended for-profit colleges and received no economic benefit. Billions of dollars in student loans will eventually be written off.

2) I think Obama’s DOE took the action that it did for ACI students because the Obama team thinks Trump, who takes office in a few days, will try to prop up the for profits at the expense of exploited students.

But the Obamacrats may be wrong. After all, President-elect Trump knows how to read a balance sheet, and he may quickly grasp the fact that the student loan program is a catastrophe.

And if Mr. Trump realizes the enormity of the student loan crisis, he might actually take decisive action. Everyone agrees that Mr. Trump understands bankruptcy and its value for distressed debtors. President Trump might surprise everyone and ease the path to bankruptcy relief for millions of student loan debtors who will never be able to pay back their college loans.

About Richard Fossey

Richard Fossey is a professor at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, Louisiana. He received his law degree from the University of Texas and his doctorate from Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is editor of Catholic Southwest, A Journal of History and Culture.

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