Sometimes, terrible things happen in life. When something like cancer strikes, despite your best intentions and hardest efforts, medical bills and unemployment can leave you in a position where paying off your student loans is just not a thing you can make happen.
Theoretically, that’s where bankruptcy comes in. Reality, however, doesn’t follow the theory. As the New York Times reports, there is an agency out there working their butts off pushing back on bankruptcy to make sure that student debt is as permanent as possible.
The Educational Credit Management Corporation is a nonprofit entity with an exclusive government agreement, an organization whose sole purpose is to prevent student loans from entering default. There aren’t many borrowers who even try to have their student loans discharged in bankruptcy–only a few hundred per year–but ECMC is there to make things as difficult as possible for the ones who do.
ECMC mounts legal challenges to the few borrowers who do try to have their student loans discharged in bankruptcy. The law requires borrowers seeking to be set free of their loans to prove that repayment would bring “undue hardship.” The argument against that, therefore, is that a distressed borrower’s hardship really isn’t so hard after all.
The NYT profiles one such borrower, a woman who unfortunately found herself with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer after borrowing $43,000. She sought bankruptcy protection; ECMC fought back. In an exceptionally ballsy, if not particularly compassionate, response to her concerns about a cancer relapse, lawyers representing the agency wrote that “The mere possibility of recurrence is not enough,” and, “survival rates for younger patients tend to be higher.”
Another borrower profiled in the NYT piece had owed $50,000 in student loans, which she paid off in full. She declared bankruptcy in 2004 for other reasons, and as part of that proceeding proved–at a hearing that ECMC did not attend–that her loans had been paid. When her bankruptcy proceedings concluded in 2010, ECMC began to hound her, and garnished her Social Security income, all in the name of repaying loans that had already been paid in full.
ECMC came into being twenty years ago, when student loan default rates were heading steadily upwards. In 1990, the largest student loan guarantee agency became insolvent, and student loan defaults reached an all-time high of 22%. In the resulting media and political frenzy, ECMC was born.
Actual student loan lenders are subject to oversight from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but ECMC is not. And for now, the organization keeps tightening the meaning of “undue hardship,” leaving a narrower and narrower window for desperate borrowers who, one might feel, have already faced tragedy enough.
Loan Monitor Is Accused of Ruthless Tactics on Student Debt [New York Times]