Updated at 9:44 a.m. EST.
The U.S. Department of Education must act to help thousands of student loan borrowers who have severe disabilities; that's the message of two letters sent Tuesday to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Because of their disabilities, these borrowers qualify to have their federal student loans erased. But one letter, signed by more than 30 advocacy groups, says the department has made the application process so burdensome that most borrowers never get the help they're entitled to.
A second letter, signed by the student loan advocates of seven states and the District of Columbia, similarly urges the department to clear away unnecessary administrative hurdles and to automatically discharge the loans of all eligible borrowers with permanent disabilities.
In a statement to NPR, Education Department Press Secretary Angela Morabito suggested the department is open to change:
"The Department's current implementing regulations require it to receive an application before completing a civilian [total and permanent disability] discharge, but we are interested in providing automatic discharge to these borrowers and believe the FUTURE Act makes this a possibility — but will require the department to undergo negotiated rulemaking."
The letters come after an NPR investigation revealed that only 28% of eligible borrowers with disabilities — identified by the Education Department between March 2016 and September 2019 — have either had their loans erased or are on track for that to happen.
"That number is unacceptable. Twenty-eight percent is a shockingly low number," says Alex Elson, senior counsel at the National Student Legal Defense Network, one of the advocacy groups pushing DeVos to make improvements.
For more than half a century, student loan borrowers with a significant, permanent disability have been protected by federal law: If they can no longer work enough to support themselves or repay their debts, they can have their federal student loans erased.
The Education Department currently requires that eligible borrowers apply for help, but Tuesday's letters argue that the application process is unnecessary. In 2015, the U.S. government began comparing the Social Security Administration's records of Americans who have total, permanent disabilities to the Education Department's database of federal student borrowers. It then made a list of everyone whose name appeared in both.
According to department data obtained by NPR, between March 2016 and September 2019, 555,000 borrowers with significant, permanent disabilities were identified as eligible for loan discharge. While the department attempted to notify many of them of their eligibility, ultimately, just 200,000 successfully applied to have their loans conditionally discharged and proceeded to the burdensome income-monitoring period. As of December 2019, only 156,000 borrowers have either had their loans erased or are still on track for that to happen.
"The application process is standing in the way of critical relief for hundreds of thousands of eligible borrowers, thwarting the intent of Congress that their student loan debt be discharged," says the letter signed by advocacy groups including the American Federation of Teachers, the National Disability Rights Network and Easterseals.
Both letters recommend the same fix: Automatically discharge the federal student loans of every eligible borrower who has met the federal government's disability standard for criteria known as Medical Improvement Not Expected. In short, they argue, don't make these vulnerable borrowers apply for a benefit that the federal government already knows they qualify for.
"Getting to the post office can be cumbersome. Not everyone has a printer at home. These documents can be cumbersome," says New York state student advocate Winston Berkman-Breen, who cosigned one of the letters. "Putting in this application has a series of really difficult and high hurdles for someone who qualifies for the program. You know, it's sort of this perverse idea that the people who are intended to benefit from the program are the ones who are least able to access the program."
In December, in response to NPR's findings, an Education Department official told NPR the department had made incremental improvements to the application process since 2016: "We continue to look for ways to make the process easier to navigate for disabled student loan borrowers, while maintaining the integrity of the taxpayer dollars associated with the discharges."
Multiple legal and policy experts say if the department is genuinely interested in making these changes, it can.
"They have the authority to do this. The laws and programs already exist," says Washington state student loan advocate Stephanie Sampedro, who cosigned one of the letters. "[The Education Department] has already done it for some borrowers — for veterans who are disabled."
In August 2019, President Trump and DeVos announced that eligible veterans with permanent disabilities would begin to have their loans discharged automatically. They would no longer need to respond to a letter or ask for help.
In the presidential memorandum announcing the move, Trump offered a scathing critique of the discharge process, saying it is "overly complicated and difficult, and prevented too many of our veterans from receiving the relief for which they are eligible. This has inflicted significant hardship and serious harm on these veterans and has frustrated the intent of the Congress that their Federal student loan debt be discharged."
The president's move was widely celebrated, but it has so far done nothing for the far larger group of civilians with permanent disabilities who are also legally entitled to the same loan discharge.
"And now it's time for [the Department] to grant the same relief to civilians who, through no fault of their own, became totally and permanently disabled and are now struggling to repay their debts," Sampedro says.
For the past two years, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers has similarly urged DeVos to automatically discharge the loans of all eligible borrowers with permanent disabilities.