Congress passed a bill on June 23 that will provide much-needed relief for borrowers in default on their federal student loans. President Obama is expected to sign the bill.
There are only a few ways for federal student loan borrowers to get out of default. Loan cancellations or bankruptcy discharges are available only in limited circumstances. However, many borrowers are able to get out of default and avoid the government’s extraordinary collection powers by rehabilitating or consolidating their loans.
Rehabilitation is not necessarily the magic solution that some lenders and guaranty agencies claim. In many cases, consolidation is just as effective. The main advantage to rehabilitation is that borrowers can get the default notations removed from their credit reports if they successfully rehabilitate their loans. These FAQs provide information about the pros and cons of rehabilitation and consolidation.
The problem since last year is that rehabilitation has not been available for many borrowers. The credit freeze meant that there were no longer many (or any) buyers wiling to purchase the rehabilitated loans. The Department of Education insisted that the resale requirement could not be waived.
When there was just a hint last year that borrowers currently in school might not be able to get their loans, Congress and the Department acted right away. There was no such urgency for loan defaulters. Thousands of borrowers who had completed their required rehabilitation payments were stuck, unable to begin clearing up their credit and in some cases continuing to face collection actions.
Even though relief was slow in coming, the good news is that it is here. The new bill allows guaranty agencies to sell rehabilitated federal loans to the Department of Education if they are unable to find buyers for those loans.
There are many to thank for this result. The Obama Administration supported this change and Congress finally did the right thing as well. The Congressional committee leaders, Senator Kennedy and Representative Miller, provided critical support. During the long wait, some states, such as Illinois came up with their own solutions for borrowers in their states.
Although many guaranty agencies took advantage of borrowers during this difficult time, others tried to help. For example, some agencies figured out ways to purchase the loans in-house. The National Council of Higher Education Loan Programs stated in March 2009 that guaranty agencies would not offset state tax rebates of all borrowers who made the required rehabilitation payments and continued to make payments while waiting for a buyer to purchase their loans. Other guaranty agencies spoke up for change.
We have a message for these guaranty agencies: Act quickly to complete the rehabilitation process for your borrowers. We will be watching.
There is still work to do on the rehabilitation program, as we will write about in future posts. There should be more complete credit reporting relief and clear rules about reasonable and affordable payments, but this is a critically important first step.