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OPINION

‘Get a lawyer’ unfair to defrauded troops, vets

By SEN. RICHARD J. DURBIN | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: February 14, 2020

Since 2015, nearly 300,000 student borrowers — including many veterans — have applied to the Department of Education for federal student loan discharges because their schools lied to them about the education it offered. They are seeking relief under a provision of the law known as borrower defense.

The borrower defense provision of the Higher Education Act was written to ensure that when a student borrower is defrauded by a school, that student is not held financially liable for the school’s misconduct — the federal government will forgive the student loan debt the borrower was defrauded into taking on to attend that school. More than 78 percent of Americans — including 71 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of Democrats — agree this is the right thing to do.

Sadly, service members and veterans are among those who have been defrauded and are now seeking relief. As American Legion National Commander James “Bill” Oxford put it in a December letter to me, “thousands of student veterans have been defrauded over the years — promised their credits would transfer when they wouldn’t, given false or misleading job placement rates in marketing, promised one educational experience … but given something completely different.”

Under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, these men and women who have served our country, along with hundreds of thousands of other students, have faced inexcusable delays in the processing of their relief. As of September 2019, more than 223,000 borrower defense claims from veterans and others are pending at the Department of Education — many waiting years with no response from Secretary DeVos.

And we know that school misconduct is going to continue. According to Education Department estimates, nearly 200,000 student borrowers will be subject to illegal practices by their schools in 2021 alone. But Secretary DeVos wants to change the rules to make it almost impossible for these future defrauded student borrowers — including servicemembers and veterans — to receive the borrower defense relief to which they are entitled under the law.

Secretary DeVos’ approach to these defrauded students is simple: “Get a lawyer.”

Secretary DeVos has put forward a new rule that places unreasonable burdens on defrauded student borrowers. Under her rule, student borrowers must prove that the school intentionally misled them individually, a nearly impossible bar for a student to meet; file a claim within three years of leaving the school, even though evidence of misconduct often does not appear until many years later; and apply individually instead of receiving an automatic discharge when they are a part of a group that has been harmed by similar, widespread misconduct. And, if a student borrower’s claim is denied, they would be prohibited from an appeal under the DeVos rule — even if more evidence of deception or misconduct by the school comes to light later.

The end result is that, under Secretary DeVos’ new borrower defense rule, only 3% of all student loans associated with school misconduct will be discharged.

With this new rule, Betsy DeVos is saying to student veterans and borrowers: “You’re on your own. Lawyer up. The burden is on you, not the schools that defraud you.” But don’t take my word for it. In his letter, Oxford called the DeVos rule “fundamentally rigged against defrauded borrowers, depriving them of the opportunity for debt relief that Congress intended.”

Last year, I introduced a Senate resolution, under the Congressional Review Act, to overturn the DeVos borrower defense rule. In January, the House of Representatives passed a similar measure on a bipartisan basis that the Senate is expected to take up soon.

I’m honored that The American Legion, Student Veterans of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Paralyzed Veterans of America, National Military Family Association, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Veterans Education Success, VetsFirst and Veterans for Common Sense are supporting this effort to overturn the DeVos rule.

I hope my Republican colleagues will join with Democrats to stand up for student veterans and borrowers who were defrauded by their schools and who now would be harmed again by the DeVos borrower defense rule. The brave men and women who served this country in uniform deserve much better from us than what Secretary DeVos is proposing.

Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, is Democratic whip in the U.S. Senate.

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