If you run up big credit card bills buying a new home theater system and can’t pay it off after a few years, bankruptcy judges can get rid of the debt. They may even erase loans from a casino.
But if you borrow money to get an education and can’t afford the loan payments after a few years of underemployment, that’s another matter entirely. It’s nearly impossible to get rid of the debt in bankruptcy court, even if it’s a private loan from for-profit lenders like Citibank or the student loan specialist Sallie Mae.
This part of the bankruptcy law is little known outside education circles, but ever since it went into effect in 2005, it’s inspired shock and often rage among young adults who got in over their heads. Today, they find themselves in the same category as people who can’t discharge child support payments or criminal fines.
Now, even Sallie Mae, tired of being a punching bag for consumer advocates and hoping to avoid changes that would hurt its business too severely, has agreed that the law needs alteration. Bills in the Senate and House of Representatives would make the rules for private loans less strict, now that Congress has finished the job of getting banks out of the business of originating federal student loans. With this latest initiative, however, lawmakers face a question that’s less about banking than it is about social policy or political calculation. At a time when voters are furious at their neighbors for getting themselves into mortgage trouble, do legislators really want to change the bankruptcy laws so that even more people can walk away from their debts?