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Obama Administration Hits Back at Student Debtors Seeking Relief

The U.S. government is becoming student borrowers' worst enemy.

On a day when Democratic presidential candidates sparred in a national debate over who would do more to help indebted students, the U.S. government launched a new attack on student debtors seeking loan relief.

On Tuesday, the Department of Education intervened in the case of Robert Murphy, an unemployed 65-year-old who has waged a three-year legal battle to erase his student loans in bankruptcy.

Unlike almost every single form of consumer debt, student loans can be erased only in very rare circumstances. Murphy’s case, which is currently being heard in a federal court in Boston, could make things a little easier for certain borrowers. A win for Murphy would relieve him of $246,500 in debt and could loosen the standard used to determine how desperate someone needs to be to qualify for relief.

The court asked the Education Department to weigh in on the matter. In a document submitted to the court on Tuesday, government lawyers urged the federal judges not to cede any ground to borrowers who say they are in dire financial straits. Doing so would imperil “the fiscal stability of the loan program” that has existed for half a century. The Department of Education did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Murphy doesn’t deserve a break just because he is 65 years old, department lawyers wrote. Repaying his debt loan may require “that he remain employed at or past normal retirement age,” they said, even though “his income may top out or decrease” and “further employment opportunities may be limited.”

“That is part of the bargain that parents strike when they take out loans later in their work life,” the lawyers added. Murphy took out several loans to send his three children to college, but he lost his job at a manufacturing company in 2002 and has not been able to find work since. 

No student debtor should get a break on student loans unless they can show a “certainty of hopelessness,” said the government’s lawyers. “[A] debtor must specifically prove a total incapacity in the future to repay the debt for reasons not within his control,” they added. The lawyers said that the point of keeping such a stringent standard is to ensure “that bankruptcy does not become a convenient and expedient means of extinguishing student loan debt.”

The Education Department is seasoned at waging this particular battle. For over a decade, the department, through its lawyers, has pushed the courts to adopt the harshest standards possible when considering pleas from bankrupt students.

“The general purpose of the Bankruptcy Code to give honest debtors a fresh start does not automatically apply to student loan debtors,” the government’s lawyers wrote. 

Filing for bankruptcy ordinarily allows debtors to wipe out what they owe in exchange for marred credit for up to 10 years. In the 1970s, Congress made student loans unique. To get a reprieve on education debt, federal law requires proof that repaying it would impose an “undue hardship.”

Lawmakers have never defined undue hardship, though, so courts have tried to work out exactly how poor Americans need to be—and for how long—in order to qualify for student loan forgiveness.

The Department of Education has been successful at convincing judges to make that threshold incredibly high. A borrower now has to show that making payments on a loan would “strip himself of all that makes life worth living,” according to one court. Lawyers rifle through debtors’ daily expenses to determine whether they will be able to maintain a “minimal standard of living” if they are required to repay student loans. Attorneys arguing on behalf of the Education Department have called such things as retirement account contributions, fast-food dinners, cell-phone plans, and nutritional supplements “luxury expenses.”  

The government argues that such scrutiny of a borrower’s financial life is crucial for “protecting the solvency of the student loan program.” Consumer advocates say the Education Department’s fears are exaggerated because most debt that could be discharged in bankruptcy is not collectable if bankrupt borrowers can't pay it back. 

Murphy calculated that even if he were to find a job paying $50,000 per year and then work until he turns 77, his student debt would nonetheless balloon to $500,000.

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