President Obama got people thinking when he raised the possibility of discharging certain education loans in bankruptcy within the context of the executive action he signed last week — the one that’s intended to ensure unfettered access to government-sponsored relief programs and a means for registering complaints about unfair treatment.
Not to be outdone, 13 U.S. Senators introduced the Fairness for Struggling Students Act of 2015 just two days later. Their bill proposes to place private student loans on equal, bankruptcy-eligible footing with other consumer debts; in particular, those that are similarly uncollateralized.
The problem is, none of this will mean very much.
Private student loans represent roughly 10% of all student debt, and less than 10% of those loans are actually in default. So even if every defaulting borrower were to end up in bankruptcy court, neither measure would address more than 1% of the whole.
So why not acknowledge the obvious and dispense with the artificial distinction between federal and private student loans in this matter?
Because bankruptcy is a four-letter word in our culture. To most, it represents abject failure—the white flag of surrender. To others, it’s tantamount to amnesty — a deceitful ploy to avoid having to pay for a mistake.
Yet why do we seem to be able to rationalize the discharge of mortgage, auto and credit card debts more than for education loans? Is it because many of us have managed to meet our own obligations? Or could it have something to do with the way we’ve learned to regard this category of debt?
The exclusion of student loans from bankruptcy dates to the mid-1970s when – following years of disparaging stories about students who were allegedly “defaulting on purpose” as a passive-aggressive means of expressing their anti-government sentiments – generational gap-driven emotions trumped reason and 11 USC 523(a)(8) came into effect.