A Wake-Up Call for Students

Guest Author: Alan Collinge, StudentLoanJustice.Org,Both Alan and I have written various posts on the student loan crisis. Alan has been featured on Angry Bear Blog from time to time.

If you are in college and looking for something worthy to fight for today; as a student, you should consider the student loan issue. Student loans and how they are administered are the national injustice of our time reaching threatening proportions and impacting the livelihood of young adults going forward. While at first glance, the problem appears complicated, confusing, and overwhelming; it is actually quite simple and its debt genesis hearkens back to the creation of this country. This problem transcends partisan and cultural divides and could serve to bring together those on the left and right on campus.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and others were in debt up to their eyeballs to British banks and merchants. They came to understand how a lending system could be used against the citizens. Of course it was not just the Founders who were being exploited, many early settlers were indebted to English banks as well. John Adams famously remarked;

“There are two ways to enslave and conquer a country. One is by the sword. The other is by debt”

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When the Founders created the Constitution, they made it a point to reflect on bankruptcy rights prominently. Few people realize that a uniform bankruptcy system is called for before the power to raise an army or a navy, ahead of the power to coin currency, and even ahead of the power to declare war in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.
Obviously, bankruptcy rights were very important to these men.

Free men are not forced into any type of behavior by the government that We The People established and ordained. The government is to serve the people – not to force them into servitude and obedience. The people are sovereign, as the people came before the government and the Constitution that gave rise to the government.

Adam Smith, the founder of free market economics provided the basis for western economic theory, was compelled to advocate for bankruptcy protection as a means to encourage entrepreneurship, risk taking, and also a means to compel good faith in a lending relationship.

When an individual or firm goes bankrupt, a legal process is instigated to discharge debts that cannot be repaid. In former times such debtors might have been put into a debtors’ prison and languished there for years. The process weighs assets against liabilities and allows the debts to be discharged at some fraction of their nominal value, leaving the debtor free of the burden, albeit subject to rules of financial behaviour and with a blemish on their credit record which can last for years.

Student loans violate longstanding economic principles and as such the beliefs of the Founders. Today, Congress has placed conditions on student loan bankruptcy so severe; that of 169,000 people with student loans who filed for bankruptcy in 2014, fewer than 20 received relief. When our legislators first restricted the right to student loan bankruptcy in the 70’s, some members warned that such a move had dire constitutional implications, but their concerns went unheeded. As one University of Connecticut expert Philip Schuhman testified to Congress:

” students should not be singled out for special and discriminatory treatment. I have the further very literal feeling that this is almost a denial of their right to equal protection of the law. Nor do I think any evidence has been presented that these people, these young people just beginning their years on the whole should be singled out for special, and as I view it, discriminatory treatment. I suggest to you that this may at least in spirit be a denial of their right to equal protection with the virtual pole star of our constitutional ambit.”

Today, student loans are the only type of loan in this country from which bankruptcy rights have been removed leading to consequences so severe as to result in a form of peonage. Despite peonage being made illegal after the civil war in 1867, it still flourished in the form of sharecropping with former slaves and poor farmers farming plots of land owned by others. Sharecroppers supposedly received a percentage of the profits from sale of grown crops. The sharecroppers were forced to take out relatively large loans just to get by and meet daily expenses, buy seed, rent land, and pay the interest rates imposed on them by landlords.

Also in the past African Americans could be accused of falsely owing money or trivial sums, given sham trials and quickly sold off by the courts into a privatized system of debt slavery to pay back debt. The peonage contracts contained enslaving terms and conditions, allowing the employer to trade, confine, whip and beat workers as long as the debt was deemed unpaid, which could practically last forever.

While not as severe as peonage, students in default are denied access to federal programs and unemployment benefits. Social Security and employment wages can be garnished leading to diminished lifetime earnings and poverty. All of these conditions have a severe impact upon the overall economy as younger workers do not achieve their full earning potential.

The student loan industry is willfully predatory and profitable for the banks who lobbied intensely for the removal of bankruptcy protections and work hard to keep their monetary advantage. As Mr. Potter would say; “The bank always get paid” and this comes no matter what the terms or conditions of the loan are.

(run75441) In my own discussion with a former University of Michigan lobbyist who was regaling me after I dared to make a statement to Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow about what her stance and actions were with regard to student loans. “There is IBR and Repaye which are programs allowing payment back on student loans based upon income.” These programs are mostly failing because of one rule requiring the yearly application to the program rather than an automatic re-up into the program. The re-up is required to report income a factor which is automatically done for Medicare via computer systems. The manual yearly application for the programs was bound to be a failure just by this alone.

It was not just the banks cashing in on the removal of consumer protections. In 2012, the federal government booked over $50 billion in profit on the lending system and this has increased in more recent years. What is disturbing is White House Budget data showing a profit being made on defaults. Think about this: where a credit card company is thrilled to get back a dime on the dollar for their defaulted accounts; the federal government is actually getting back more than a dollar in return. This is a defining hallmark of a predatory lending system and unfortunately for the students, the Department of Education sits on top of it all doing everything it can to perpetuate this situation. Department of Education lawyers fight tooth-and-nail behind the scenes to deny legitimate bankruptcy. This form of government enforced peonage spans many presidents and Congresses and both political parties going back to the seventies.

In 1998, when Congress made bankruptcy permanently unavailable for the overwhelming majority of borrowers, the nation owed roughly $100 Billion in student loans. Today that has exploded to $1.5 Trillion. By the end of this year, nearly one in four borrowers will have defaulted on their loans. People’s lives are being devastated. Families are being torn apart, particularly where cosigners are put on the hook for their kid’s exploded loans. People are fleeing the country, and some are even committing suicide as a result of their student loan debt.

If you think you don’t need to worry because there are forgiveness programs in place, you are wrong. With 57% already kicked out of them income based repayment programs are failing misrably. Assuming the programs are not ended by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, I estimate only 10% will be successful and have their loans forgiven and still potentially taxed as income. The rest will be disqualified from the program and left owing far more than when they graduated.

Alan Collinge is the Founder of Student Loan Justice Org and author of “The Student Loan Scam” (Beacon Press).

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