The Department of Education put a hold on forgiving federal student loans for students who were victims of fraud by the schools that enrolled them. Under the Obama administration, the program would suspend collections activity while claims were being investigated and total forgiveness was a possible outcome.
Under the Trump administration claims were not approved and the rules were changed to only allow a partial forgiveness for most debtors based on an impractical standard.
Today the Department of Education (ED) has released their new rules for the program so let’s jump in and see what the Borrower Defence to Repayment program now looks like. I’m going to read the 433 pages so you don’t have to.
It appears ED is trying to shift the responsibility for making good decisions for enrolling in questionable schools by pushing that obligation and blame on the student. The new rules say, “The goal of the Department is to enable students to make informed decisions on the front end of college enrollment, rather than to grant them financial remedies after-the-fact when lost time cannot be recouped and new educational opportunities may be sparse. Postsecondary students are adults who can be reasonably expected to make informed decisions and who must take personal accountability for the decisions they make.”
While ED says educational institutions should not mislead the students and “remedies should be provided to a student when misrepresentation on the part of an institution causes financial harm to that student,” let’s see how much power and practicality those remedies have.
The ED again turns back to putting the responsibility and blame on the student for enrolling in the wrong school that may have misled them. ED says, “students have a responsibility when enrolling at an institution or taking student loans to be sure they have explored their options carefully and weighed the available information to make an informed choice.”
But what seems to be missing from that lofty goal is some sort of pre-screening by the school to review the cost of the education and the expected salary for the chosen field. For example, the other day I wrote about the $90,000 associates degree in web design. Does the school have a responsibility to sell a fair product or is the responsibility now focused on the student for believing the hype?
ED says, “The Department has an obligation to enforce the Master Promissory Note, which makes clear that students are not relieved of their repayment obligations if later they regret the choices they made.” So if your 18-year-old self made a bad choice of schools that provided an overpriced education with little value, that’s your own damn fault.
The proposed rule document says, “As of January 2018, it had received 138,989 claims, of which 23 percent had been processed.” Some of these claims go back more than a year.
It is quite possible those became a major issue with the new ED because Borrower Defense Claims were being submitted and approved. These claims were not approved on no basis but because students had been misled or deceived by the school.
But here is where ED is turning the table on debtors, “the Department is concerned that several features of the 2016 final regulations might have put the Department in the untenable position of forgiving billions of dollars of Federal student loans based on potentially unfounded accusations. Specifically, those regulations would allow the Department to afford relief to borrowers without providing an opportunity for institutions to adequately tell their side of the story.”
These new rules say, students who feel they were misled and deceived by schools to get them to enroll and take out federal student loans, may still submit claims but as long as they are “not in a collections status.” So students who were saddled with questionable loans by a questionable school will have to continue to make monthly payments or stay out of collections while their claim is processed for an undetermined amount of time.
ED wants to encourage students to enroll in income-driven repayment plans and make payments on their loans. These would be the same plans that put people into decades-long repayment plans with potentially big tax bills at the end. Balances in these programs go up, not down, as the monthly payment is insufficient to cover the interest building.
ED is worried that students claiming they were harmed by their schools will strategically default on their otherwise unaffordable debt. As evidence to support this concern, ED cites research by those who intentionally defaulted on their mortgage payments to take advantage of mortgage modifications. Talk about apples and oranges here.
“The Department is trying very carefully to balance relief for borrowers who have been harmed by acts of institutional wrongdoing, with its obligation to the taxpayer to provide reliable stewardship of Federal dollars.” And while that might be true, then why isn’t the Department limiting access to federal funds by schools that engage in questionable practices?
Those questionable practices have led to massive amounts of unaffordable student loan debt sitting in a non-payment status. The lack of oversight by ED to rein in the access to federal student loan dollars by typically for-profit schools who have been approved by questionable accreditation.
So ED says, “With more than a trillion dollars in outstanding student loans, the Department must uphold its fiduciary responsibilities and exercise caution in forgiving student loans to ensure that it does not create an existential threat to a program that lacks typical credit and underwriting standards.”
But where were the underwriting standards for schools selling degrees that students would never be able to afford to repay? Where was the fiduciary responsibility for ED and student loan debtors?
ED appears to say they are not going to get involved in resolving disputes or claims of wrongdoing against schools. That is going to be left up to the individual student to fight with the school through the courts. How students will be able to afford to do that, is a mystery.
And ED is not going to block schools from forcing students into secret arbitration or stopping schools from allowing students to enter class action suits against the schools. Instead, ED says in its press release on the rulemaking “that institutions requiring students to engage in mandatory arbitration or prohibiting them from participating in class action lawsuits provide plain language explanations of these provisions to enable students to make an informed enrollment decision.” So students who decide to go to schools that block access to courts to remedy claims were stupid to enroll.
Here is what the rule says, “it seems reasonable that consumer complaints should continue to be adjudicated through existing legal channels that put experienced judges or arbitrators in the position of weighing the evidence and rendering an impartial decision.”
Even with the Borrower Defense to Repayment program in place, ED again takes the step to say the student was the idiot in this situation when they enrolled at a school they believed. ED says, “As stated in the Master Promissory Note the borrower signs when initiating their first loan, the borrower is expected to repay the loan even if the borrower fails to complete the program or is dissatisfied with the institution or his or her outcomes.”
On the issue of a group discharge of federal student loans if a school is found to have engaged in “a misrepresentation made with knowledge of its false, misleading, or deceptive nature or with a reckless disregard for the truth,” ED punts and says that will be the focus of a different rule. This appears to close the door for bulk discharges of schools found guilty of deception, like in the Corinthian Colleges case.
As evidence why the group discharge would be harmful to students, ED says “Because an institution can refuse to provide an official transcript for a borrower whose loan has been forgiven, group discharges could render some borrowers unable to verify their credentials or work in the field for which they trained and have enjoyed employment.” Maybe the real answer is that is a school was found to deceive students they should still have to provide a transcript.
In the past, schools who enrolled students who never graduated from high school or had a GED could be found to have taken advantage of people who may not have been qualified to enroll in higher education. The proposed rule shifts the burden back to the uneducated student when it says, “We also propose changes to the Department’s current false certification regulations. The Department believes that in cases when the borrower is unable to obtain an official transcript or diploma from the high school, postsecondary institutions should be able to rely on an attestation from a borrower that the borrower earned a high school diploma since the Department relies on a similar attestation in processing a student’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).”
Where is the underwriting in this process that ED says it engages in?
These new rules would apply to federal student loans first disbursed on or after July 1, 2019.
They would also “require a borrower to sign an attestation to ensure that financial harm is not the result of the borrower’s workplace performance, disqualification for a job for reasons unrelated to the education received, a personal decision to work less than full-time or not at all, or the borrower’s decision to change careers.”
Feel free to read the entire document, here.
My impression of the proposed new rules is the Department of Education wants to shift all the responsibility for falling for school marketing overpriced education to the least informed person in this transaction, the student.
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see how this is going to work out. Badly for debtors.
If ED is worried about underwriting and a fiduciary responsibility then why are they passing out easy loans with little regard to affordability, to begin with? Does the government have a duty to protect it’s citizens or does it need to protect its poor financial decision making and schools they pump loans through? Or is this new policy all about blaming the victim instead of investigating the claims for validity?
Let me know what you think, comment below.