Under the Higher Education Act (Sec. 455(h)), a student loan may be forgiven under certain circumstances: borrower’s death or disability; closure of the school the borrower attends; public service over time; false certification by the institution of the borrower’s eligibility for federal student aid; and certain institutional misconduct harmful to the student. The last of these is referred to as a borrower defense.
While the borrower defense provision received little attention during the past 20 years, and had been used only a handful of times by individual students, the collapse of Corinthian College, and the harm done to thousands of students, gave the Department of Education reason to establish more explicit borrower defense regulations. Current regulations permit a borrower defense to loan repayment based only on an act or omission of the institution that would give rise to a cause of action under applicable state law.
However, under the final regulations, published November 1, 2016, future borrower defense cases would be based on "an act or omission of the school attended by the student that relates to the making of a Direct Loan for enrollment at the school or the provision of educational services for which the loan was provided," under any of three mechanisms: 1) a judgment against the school; 2) a breach of contract with the student; or 3) substantial misrepresentation. It is not clear what will happen to these regulations under the Trump Administration.
NAICU is generally supportive of the need for more explicit regulations to protect borrowers, but expressed concern that aspects of the proposed regulations were too broad, especially pertaining to misrepresentation. The final regulation retains the NPRM definition of misrepresentation that replaces the term "likelihood to deceive" with "mislead under the circumstances" and adds that misrepresentation also includes omitting information. The final regulation also clarifies that a borrower defense is based on substantial misrepresentation that requires that the borrower reasonably relied on the information provided, or lacking, in deciding to attend a school, or take out a direct loan, to the borrower's detriment.
The final rule also lays out in detail the process by which individuals, groups, and the Department may bring cases deserving consideration for loan forgiveness. The Department plans to provide guidance on institutions' due process rights in borrower defense cases in the future.
The proposed regulation also expands false certification for loan forgiveness, for which institutions are liable. False certification now includes certifying aid eligibility of a student who, because of a variety of reasons, including having a mental health condition or criminal record, would not meet home state requirements for the employment for which the program was intended.
The final rule also added three types of financial responsibility triggers as a way to prevent future actions that might lead to borrower defense claims, and the obligation of the Department to bear the cost of forgiving student loans. The triggers are those that result in automatic failure of financial responsibility, those requiring recalculation of an institution’s composite score, and those identified by the Secretary of Education as posing financial risk. The only automatic trigger that applies to private, nonprofit and public institutions is having a cohort default rate of 30 percent or more for two consecutive years. Based on focus group feedback, the Department plans to decide if schools that are required to provide letters of credit, or other financial protection, for not being financially responsible will have to publicly disclose this information.
The final rule is scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2017. In the near-term, the Department is expected to provide guidance on institutions' due process rights in borrower defense cases. Institutions can be required to reimburse the Department for successful borrower defense claims against them.