Higher Education Student Financial Aid and Student Debt

Sirota and Cunningham-Cook Expose Joe Biden’s Role in Increasing College Students’ Debts

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Investigative reporters David Sirota and Matthew Cunningham-Cook, writing in the International Business Times, detail Vice-President Joe Biden’s role in making it harder for college students to reduce their debts.

Jennifer Ryan did not love the idea of taking on debt, but she figured she was investing in her future. Eager to further her teaching career, she took out loans to gain certification and later pursued an advanced degree. But her studies came at a massive cost, leaving her confronting $192,000 in student loan debt.

“It’s overwhelming,” Ryan told International Business Times of her debts. “I can’t pay it back on the schedule the lenders have demanded.”

In the past, debtors in her position could have used bankruptcy court to shield them from some of their creditors. But a provision slipped into federal law in 2005 effectively bars most Americans from accessing bankruptcy protections for their private student loans.

In recent months, Democrats have touted legislation to roll back that law, as Americans now face more than $1.2 trillion in total outstanding debt from their government and private student loans. The bill is a crucial component of the party’s pro-middle-class economic message heading into 2016. Yet one of the lawmakers most responsible for limiting the legal options of Ryan and students like her is the man who some Democrats hope will be their party’s standard-bearer in 2016: Vice President Joe Biden.

As a senator from Delaware — a corporate tax haven where the financial industry is one of the state’s largest employers — Biden was one of the key proponents of the 2005 legislation that is now bearing down on students like Ryan. That bill effectively prevents the $150 billion worth of private student debt from being discharged, rescheduled or renegotiated as other debt can be in bankruptcy court.

Biden’s efforts in 2005 were no anomaly. Though the vice president has long portrayed himself as a champion of the struggling middle class — a man who famously commutes on Amtrak and mixes enthusiastically with blue-collar workers — the Delaware lawmaker has played a consistent and pivotal role in the financial industry’s four-decade campaign to make it harder for students to shield themselves and their families from creditors, according to an IBT review of bankruptcy legislation going back to the 1970s.

Biden’s political fortunes rose in tandem with the financial industry’s. At 29, he won the first of seven elections to the U.S. Senate, rising to chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee, which vets bankruptcy legislation. On that committee, Biden helped lenders make it more difficult for Americans to reduce debt through bankruptcy — a trend that experts say encouraged banks to loan more freely with less fear that courts could erase their customers’ repayment obligations. At the same time, with more debtors barred from bankruptcy protections, the average American’s debt load went up by two-thirds over the last 40 years. Today, there is more than $10,000 of personal debt for every person in the country, as compared to roughly $6,000 in the early 1970s.

That increase — and its attendant interest payments — have generated huge profits for a financial industry that delivered more than $1.9 million of campaign contributions to Biden over his career, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Student debt, which grew as Biden climbed the Senate ladder and helped lenders tighten bankruptcy laws, spiked from $24 billion issued annually in 1990-91 to $110 billion in 2012-13, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

According to the Institute for College Access and Success, as of 2012, roughly one-fifth of recent graduates’ student debt was from private loans that “are typically more costly” than government loans.

Consequently, every major Democratic presidential candidate has introduced his or her own plan to reduce college debt. Biden himself has spotlighted the issue as he has publicly pondered a White House bid. Earlier this month he attended an event to discuss student debt at community colleges, telling students at Miami-Dade College: “I doubt there were many of you who could sit down and write a check for $6,000 in tuition without worrying about it.” His comments amplified his rhetoric from the 2012 election, when he decried the fact that “two-thirds of all the students who attend college take out loans to pay for school.” He said that the accumulated debt means that when the typical student graduates, “you get a diploma and you get stapled to it a $25,000 bill.”

But advocates for stronger protections for debtors argue that Biden was a driving force in creating the laws that made the problem worse.

“Joe Biden bears a large amount of responsibility for passage of the bankruptcy bill,” Ed Boltz, president of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, said in an interview with IBT.

That legislation created a crisis, said Northeastern University law professor Daniel Austin. Federal Reserve data show that about 1.1 million people face student debt loans of $100,000 or more, and roughly 167,000 face student loans of $200,000 or more.

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