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Why is the Department of Education Forgiving Loans But Chasing People in Bankruptcy?

Earlier this week, the Department of Education wiped away all student debt owed by more than a million former students who attended one of the Corinthian Colleges campuses. The cost? About $5.8 billion.

Since his administration began, President Biden has approved $25 billion in loan forgiveness for 1.3 million student borrowers. That’s a lot of student debt relief.

Nevertheless, more than 40 million Americans are still on the hook for a total of $1.7 trillion in student loans. Many of these folks want President Biden to forgive all of this debt.

Biden has proposed debt relief of $10,000 per borrower. Progressive Democratic leaders want $50,000 of student-debt relief for all student debtors (with some sort of income cap). Various advocacy groups urge Biden to forgive all student debt, which burdens minority students and women disproportionately.

These proposals presume that every student debtor took out college loans in good faith. No one wants to offer loan relief on a case-by-case basis based on merit or attempt to identify students who may have committed fraud in handling their student loans.

In other words, all debt relief schemes now under discussion take it as a given that everyone–all 45 million borrowers–is honest and entitled to some debt relief.

I applaud this approach. Only a tiny percentage of student borrowers took out loans to defraud the government. Almost all of them went into debt to get an education they hoped would improve their lives. And many student borrowers weren’t able to obtain a job after graduation that paid enough to justify their educational expenses.

So–I am puzzled. Since President Biden and congressional leaders advocate for massive student debt relief without examining each debtor’s individual circumstances, why does the U.S. Department of Education continue harassing distressed college borrowers in the bankruptcy courts?

Let’s look at a bankruptcy court decision issued less than three months ago: Everson v. U.S. Department of Education. In that case, Kimberlee Everson took out student loans to get an associate’s degree in medical assisting from Bryant Stratton College, a for-profit institution.

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She obtained her degree and went to work as a medical assistant for various employers at an hourly rate of between $12.50 to $23 an hour. By the time she appeared in bankruptcy court, her student debt had grown to $45,000–including accrued interest.

Judge Caryl Dilano, a Florida bankruptcy judge, reviewed Ms. Everson’s financial status in painstaking detail and refused to discharge her debt. Judge Dilano pointed out that Ms. Everson went out to eat occasionally, had a gym membership, and sometimes made purchases at a liquor store.

He also heard evidence from the Department of Education that Ms. Everson was eligible for a long-term, income-based repayment plan that would only require her to pay $48 a month on her $45,000 debt.

In Judge Dilano’s opinion, Ms. Everson met two prongs of the three-prong Brunner test. First, it would be an undue hardship for her to pay off her student loans. Second, her precarious financial circumstances were not likely to improve due to factors beyond her control.

Nevertheless, the judge refused to grant Ms. Everson a discharge because she failed the Brunner test’s third prong–the good-faith test. He believed Everson had not handled her student loans in good faith. Notably, Judge Dilano pointed out that she had made only minimal payments on her loans over seven years.

The Department of Education has forgiven $25 billion in student debt owed by more than a million people without subjecting any of these debtors to the onerous Brunner test.

How many millions have gym memberships? How many go out to eat occasionally? How many patronize liquor stores?

I don’t get it.

If a million and a half people are getting student-debt relief without regard to their payment history or their lifestyles, why is Judge Dilano devoting judicial resources to determining whether Kimberlee Everson dined out too often?

Sources

Everson v. U.S. Department of Education, Case No. 2:20-bk-03062-FMDAdv. Pro. No. 2:20-ap-267-FMD, 2022 WL909570 (M.D. Fla. March 29, 2022).

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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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