If you're counting on government student loans to get you through college or graduate school, count on paying them back. The Education Department has become one of the toughest debt collectors around. Over the past decade, the agency has steadily expanded its arsenal for dealing with former students who don't repay. A 1998 change in federal law made it extremely difficult for people to escape student loans through personal bankruptcy. The Education Department also can now seize parts of borrowers' paychecks, tax refunds and Social Security payments without a court order, a power similar to the IRS's.
Access to a government database of newly employed workers has enabled the department to make much more effective use of private collection agencies. And it can go after even decades-old student loans, because there's no statute of limitations on them, unlike most consumer debt. As a result, the Education Department collected $5.7 billion in defaulted student loans in the past fiscal year, more than twice as much as in 1998. For current loans that go into default, the department now projects it will ultimately retrieve every dollar of principal, plus almost 20% in fees and overdue interest. The aggressive approach has sparked an outcry from some borrowers, consumer advocates and even some bankruptcy-court judges. They complain that the department runs over some former students who have suffered reversals of fortune.
Some who favor a softer stance argue that student loans are a form of financial aid-not quite the same as other consumer credit. They also note that the borrowers have, after all, been encouraged by the federal program to go into debt to attend college. And they say students are usually financially unsophisticated borrowers, lacking an understanding of how debts can pile up. The Education Department responds that taxpayers, legislators and the many students who do repay their loans all expect it to pursue those who don't. It says the federal government, the state agencies that administer the program and the private lenders that primarily make the federally guaranteed loans all work with delinquent borrowers. They offer counseling and a chance to refinance at today's low interest rates.
The government's toughness traces back to the 1980s, when politicians became alarmed by high levels of...