Student Loan Related

Like Driving Into a CAT 5 Hurricane, the Department of Education is Taking the Student-Loan Program Toward Catastrophe

Written by Richard Fossey

I lived in Houston when Hurricane Rita hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. Weather forecasters predicted that Rita would make landfall in Galveston Bay and that Galveston and towns south of Houston would suffer massive flooding and wind damage. The hurricane predictors also warned that parts of Houston would flood.

Responding to these warnings, hundreds of thousands of people–perhaps a million–fled Greater Houston in every direction. Some Houstonians traveled west toward San Antonio on I-10, some drove up I-45 toward Dallas, and others evacuated to the east on I-10.

My wife and I decided to head east toward Baton Rouge, where we could shelter with family. But we miscalculated. Our major mistake was to evacuate too late. As we drove east on I-10, we discovered that the highway was clogged with cars as were all auxiliary routes and surface roads.

Moreover, as we listened to our car radio, we heard the hurricane experts change their prediction about where Rita would make shore. It would not batter Galveston, they said; it would make landfall in southwestern Louisiana near the town of Cameron.

After about an hour on the road, my wife and I reached these conclusions. First, we would not reach Baton Rouge before Rita made landfall because the Interstate was fast turning into a parking lot. Second, we would run out of gas before reaching our destination and become stranded on the highway. And third–and perhaps most importantly–we were driving straight into the storm!

So we turned around and headed home to Houston. We arrived at a deserted city, but the Alabama Ice House was open and serving cold, draft beer to a small group of patrons. I still remember the taste of my ice-cold Red Stripe, served by a bartender who didn’t give a damn about hurricanes. In the end, we suffered no damage from Rita.

After that experience, I vowed to pay closer attention to the oncoming storm and evacuate early if I had any indication that a hurricane was headed my way.

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The federal student-loan program is the economic equivalence of a CAT 5 hurricane hovering just offshore of our national consciousness. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has described the program as a looming thunderstorm but she seems intent on driving straight into it.

As everyone knows from listening to the media, 45 million Americans have outstanding student loans that now total $1.6 billion. As DeVos has publicly admitted, more than 40 percent of those loans are “in distress” and only about one debtor in four is paying back both principal and interest on this debt.

More specifically, we know that 7.3 million college borrowers are in income-driven repayment plans that are designed so that people will never pay off their loans. More than 5 million people are in default, and another 6 million have loans in deferment or forbearance.

That’s 18 million people whose total indebtedness grows larger by the month. Very few of these 18 million souls will ever pay back their student loans.

What is the U.S. Department doing about it? As I said, Betsy DeVos is driving full speed into the storm. She refuses to grant significant debt relief to the people who signed up for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program–granting only about 1 percent of the applications.

And DeVos’s DOE is doing everything it can to deny distressed student-loan debtors relief in the bankruptcy courts. DOE or its hired gunslinger, Educational Credit Management Corporation, fight nearly every student debtor who attempts to discharge student loans by filing for bankruptcy.

DeVos is also slowing down and complicating the process whereby college borrowers can have their student loans forgiven on the grounds that their college or school defrauded them.

Is the student-loan program in a bubble similar to the housing bubble of 2008? Yes, it is. In fact, when the student-loan bubble bursts, the suffering will be greater than the home-mortgage disaster.

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The Democrats are “woke” about this crisis and Senators Warren and Sanders propose massive debt relief. As I have said in a previous commentary, I am OK with their proposals; but politically that is not likely to happen.

As I have been saying for a quarter-century (yes, really), the best solution to this train wreck is to allow insolvent student-loan debtors to discharge their loans in bankruptcy. The Democrats have introduced legislation to accomplish this, and several Democratic presidential candidates are among the bill’s co-sponsors.

But that bill is going nowhere, in spite of the fact that the Democrats hold the House of Representatives. So we have two political parties that are ignoring the hurricane warnings. The Democrats decry the situation without doing anything about it in Congress, and the Republicans are racing to the center of the storm, oblivious to the human disaster that is building like a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico.

This will not end well for anyone.




About the author

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.

2 Comments

  • I don’t but maybe its me. Should the overarching motive of the DOE be that investors receive their ROI on what are basically Student Loan bonds. I realize that in large measure that is how DeVos and family made their fortune. I get it. I also get that if Students Loans are not fully guaranteed by the Govt., student loans will not be available to any one and colleges will close. Contrast that with a culture, that says everyone needs to go to college and basic tuition is about 40K per year.

    The compromise is what it was in 1986. Student Loans are dischargeable in bankruptcy if after paying on them for a number of years (7 I think it was), the situation remains bleak. If you are eligible for a discharge in bankruptcy or PSLF, you get it and wow, it is the investor not the DOE (read taxpayer) who bites it. WOW-truly brilliant stuff eh?

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