Betsy DeVos has blocked Obama’s student loan relief program. Borrowers hope Biden will fix it
But the Trump administration, which does not agree with the policy, has allowed a massive backlog of over 200,000 applications to build up, leaving some borrowers across the administration waiting to see if they will get a break .
“Over the years I have lost hope. I feel like I have lost faith in government,” said Sanchez Norton, a photography graduate from the former Brooks Institute in California.
She and others say the school misled them with inaccurate claims about graduates’ salaries and placements. Sanchez Norton’s credits were not accepted by California state colleges when she returned to school after failing to find a sufficiently well-paying job. She is now a registered mental health counselor.
Sanchez Norton, who was a single mother when she attended Brooks Institute, said her debt not only devastated her finances but also strained her family relationships. Her loan payments are on hold due to pending litigation, but interest continues to accrue and she cannot get approval for a car loan or mortgage with her high debt-to-income ratio .
“The rule of the Obama administration seemed to really recognize that there are schools out there that prey on students. But now it feels like the government is saying what happened is OK and don’t care about the financial and emotional devastation many of us faced for many years, ”said Sanchez Norton.
Zero files processed for over a year
Students misled by college with false statements about things like job prospects are legally eligible for debt relief. The idea is that if they don’t get the education they’ve been promised, they shouldn’t have to pay down their federal student debt.
The Obama-era rule, known as the borrower’s defense against repayment, clarified the process for those seeking redress. The number of such applications skyrocketed as the Obama administration cracked down on for-profit colleges.
The rule has been in limbo throughout the Trump administration. For approximately 15 months between 2018 and 2019, no requests were processed while the pending total rose to over 200,000 at one point.
Judge: the denials are “Kafkaes”
Last April, the administration finally agreed to process the pending claims within 18 months as part of a class-action settlement agreement over the blocked claims filed by the Harvard Project on predatory student loans.
The department accelerated to 74,000 over the summer – but dismissed 94% of claims without much explanation.
This prompted U.S. District Judge William Alsup to reject the settlement agreement in October. He called the denials “Kafkaes,” after months of delay alone, DeVos began issuing “superficial” denial notices at “breakneck speed”.
After three and a half years without hearing anything from his request, Sanchez Norton was one of those borrowers who received a denial over the summer.
After submitting dozens of documents to show the Brooks Institute misled her, she said it was “so callous” to receive a rejection letter that looked like thousands of others. Despite the judge’s rejection of the settlement, she has lost all hope of receiving debt relief at this stage.
130,000 people awaiting a decision
Over 131,000 borrowers were refused, but another 130,000 were still pending in September, most recent data available. About 61,000 people have benefited from debt relief worth $ 563 million since 2016.
“I think I developed some kind of anxiety about it. I constantly read articles about it,” said Morgan Marler, who requested a loan forgiveness three years ago.
She belongs to one of the many Facebook groups where borrowers post lawyer updates, news articles, loan service notices, and generally sympathize.
Marler struggled to find a job when she graduated from ITT Tech with an associate’s degree in information technology in 2016. Soon after, the Department of Education terminated the federal funding of ITT Tech because it did not address the concerns of its accreditor. The school closed its doors two months after its end, casting doubt on the quality of its diploma.
Other schools will not accept her ITT Tech credits and she is too afraid to take on more debt to get another degree. Instead, her husband decided to join the military and she is staying at home to care for their 6-year-old daughter, who was only 3 years old when she asked for the debt cancellation.
Biden administration could change the rule
Even if the borrower’s lawsuits are unsuccessful, it is possible that the Biden administration will make it easier for defrauded students to request debt relief again.
Rewriting the whole rule again might take some time. But there are things Biden could do faster. Currently, some students are eligible for automatic loan waivers if their school closes. The administration could extend that eligibility to borrowers like Marler, who finished before the school closed.
Progressive Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, are already pressuring Biden to go further, calling on him to write off $ 50,000 in student loan debt for every borrower.
But Biden may be reluctant to unilaterally write off the debt and prefer it to come from Congress – which will remain divided unless Democrats win two senatorial elections in Georgia on January 5.