Higher Ed

OPINION: DeVos’s unfinished business — student debt relief for 200,000 borrowers with disabilities

'The injustice of the federal government withholding disability benefits for people who it knows are totally and permanently disabled and entitled to debt relief is hard to comprehend.'

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Too often, political blinders thwart commonsense policies that everyone should support. That is why the Trump administration’s decision last month to automatically discharge student loans held by approximately 25,000 disabled veterans was more than just a long overdue and hard-earned win for American heroes; it was also a rare and welcome moment of bipartisan progress in today’s Washington.

For years prior to the announcement, advocates and lawmakers from both political parties argued for removing obstacles for Americans who qualify for debt relief because of disabilities.

Now, Republicans and Democrats agree that it’s time to finish the job for the roughly 200,000 eligible student loan borrowers who were left out of last month’s decision.

Under the Higher Education Act, borrowers with total and permanent disabilities (TPD) are eligible to have their federal student loans discharged. Over the last three years, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration (SSA) have provided lists to the Department of Education identifying individuals who are eligible for full and immediate TPD discharges.

After years of stalling and empty excuses, President Donald Trump finally ordered Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to automatically discharge the veterans’ loans last month, explaining that the TPD application process was “prevent[ing] too many of our veterans from receiving the relief for which they are eligible” which, in turn, was “frustrat[ing] the intent of the Congress that their Federal student loan debt be discharged.”  While the President stated that there was a “pressing need” to provide relief to disabled veterans, he said nothing about the remaining 200,000 disabled borrowers identified by the SSA who have yet to receive relief.

Because the federal government holds both the loans and the information about who qualifies, Secretary DeVos has everything she needs to erase the debt today. Instead, though, the Department of Education has instructed Nelnet (one of its contracted student loan servicers) to mail applications to the last known address of each borrower who might quality for debt relief. This decision puts the burden back on people living with disabilities — if the mail even reaches their current location.

As a direct result, fewer than half of the nearly 400,000 eligible borrowers identified by the SSA have received the relief they are owed. The rest — whether they moved, confused the mailer for just another too-good-to-be-true scam, or were unable to complete the application because of their disabilities — are paying the government money they no longer owe. In many cases, the Department of Education is even sending these borrowers into forced collections and seizing their disability benefits, all for debt that it knows they do not owe.

The injustice of the federal government withholding disability benefits for people who it knows are totally and permanently disabled and entitled to debt relief is hard to comprehend.

It is no surprise, then, that the Department of Education’s inaction has prompted bipartisan opposition, including a letter from a bipartisan coalition in Congress calling on the department to automatically discharge the debt for the eligible individuals identified by the SSA.

As an attorney who previously worked in the U.S. Department of Education on student debt relief issues, I know firsthand how hard it is to get things done.

In today’s hyper-partisan political climate, this is a rare case where the parties say they agree on what is right. All of the information, and all of the power, necessary to help hundreds of thousands of severely disabled Americans is in Betsy DeVos’s hands.

The administration should take heed and act quickly to finish what it started.

This story about student borrowers with disabilities was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Alex Elson is a co-founder of and senior counsel at Student Defense, a nonprofit organization focused on litigation to advance students’ rights to educational opportunity. He previously served in the U.S. Department of Education, where he helped establish the department’s borrower defense program, designed to provide student loan relief to borrowers who were subject to unlawful deception by their colleges.

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Alex Elson

Alex Elson is a founder and senior counsel at Student Defense, a non-profit organization focused on litigation to advance students’ rights to educational opportunity. He… See Archive

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