ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity published an investigation this week of problems with the Department of Education’s disability discharge process. Unfortunately, we were not surprised by the findings. We have advocated for many years for more transparency in the disability discharge system and for a fair and efficient process.
There have been some positive changes in recent years. Most important, Congress created a less restrictive definition of “disability” for student loan discharge purposes. This new definition, along with changes to the application and review process, went into effect in July 2010. We have created self-help packets in English and Spanish to help borrowers apply for discharges under the new rules.
Changes in the law have not necessarily led to changes at the Department of Education. All too often, the Department fails to consider the merits of borrower discharge applications and instead sends out denials based on random and avoidable bureaucratic barriers. Problems include Department letters that fail to accurately state the rules or provide reasons for denials. We are particularly concerned that the Department and its contractors may not have changed their letters and other communications to reflect the new rules. We have asked for copies of the newly updated letters, but have not received anything to date. We will be submitting a formal request for information and will post updates as we gather information.
We believe that Congress must make changes so that the Department of Education disability discharge process conforms to other federal agency disability determinations. In the meantime, there is no excuse for the lack of a fair and efficient process.