Lawmakers call for investigation into program meant to help student loan borrowers with disabilities

Lawmakers call for investigation into program meant to help student loan borrowers with disabilities
© Stefani Reynolds

A bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote to the Department of Education asking for answers about a student loan forgiveness program for people with severe and permanent disabilities after an NPR report found it was not being applied to the vast majority of eligible borrowers.

Data provided to NPR indicated only 28 percent of eligible borrowers the department identified between March 2016 and September 2019 had their loans erased or were in the process of having them erased.

"We write with serious concern about the Department of Education's (ED) process to discharge federal student loans for totally and permanently disabled Americans, including veterans,” the lawmakers, led by Sen. Christopher CoonsChris Andrew CoonsDemocrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus Biden rolls out national security team Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks MORE (D-Del.), wrote in the letter NPR said was slated to be sent Thursday to Education Department acting Inspector General Sandra Bruce.


"Most importantly, it appears that ED's process for TPD [totally and permanently disabled] loan discharges is failing to provide student loan relief to hundreds of thousands of Americans, including veterans, who are entitled to this relief under the law," the letter says. "We urge ED's Office of Inspector General to investigate the TPD loan discharge process immediately."

One of the factors complicating the program is the application process itself, according to NPR.

"A lot of folks have disabilities that, frankly, prevent them from going through the process," Persis Yu of the National Consumer Law Center told NPR, citing the examples of cognitive disabilities or conditions that might require long hospital stays.

Under the program, conditionally approved borrowers must also complete three years of income verification, and Department of Education data indicate 75,000 eligible borrowers had their loans despite their eligibility, most of them for not submitting the required income-verification documents.

NPR also found discrepancies in the data the department reported to Congress, finding that while Education officials told Congress that it was successfully discharging the loans of 40 percent of borrowers with significant, permanent disabilities, the numbers actually indicated that only 28 percent had their loans forgiven or in the process after subtracting those who had loans reinstated.

The letter urges the inspector general to explore options for automating the process as soon as a borrower is determined to be eligible rather than imposing administrative work on the borrower.

Signers of the letter included Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsWhoopi Goldberg blasts Republicans not speaking against Trump: 'This is an attempted coup' Democrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus Team Trump offering 'fire hose' of conspiracy Kool-Aid for supporters MORE (R-Maine.), Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthOvernight Defense: Trump orders troop drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq | Key Republicans call Trump plan a 'mistake' Top Democrat calls Trump's Afghan drawdown 'the right policy decision' as others warn of 'mistake' Overnight Defense: Another Defense official resigns | Pentagon chief says military 'remains strong' despite purge | Top contender for Biden DOD secretary would be historic pick MORE (D-Ill.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP senator: No indication of widespread voting irregularities, window for Trump challenges is 'closing' Democrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus Biden moves forward as GOP breaks with Trump rise MORE (R-Ohio). The Hill has reached out to the Department of Education for comment.