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Education Department Could Do More To Help Student Loan Borrowers With Disabilities


Lawmakers now want an investigation into a student loan program that NPR found was rife with problems. The program is for borrowers with significant permanent disabilities. Federal law says they qualify to have their student debts erased by the Education Department. NPR's Cory Turner and Claire Lombardo found that many borrowers aren't getting the help that they're entitled to. Cory's here to explain.

Welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: Let's start with the highlights. What did you find?

TURNER: Yeah, so we're talking specifically here about borrowers with severe disabilities. I want to introduce you to one of the folks we met in New York City. Her name is Denise (ph). She asked us not to use her full name to protect her identity. She was badly injured in a car accident, and she told me she now lives a life of chronic pain.

DENISE: You know, I went from working and doing extra overtime all the time. I was called the overtime queen. Now I - (laughter) - live on going to doctor's visits.

TURNER: Denise ultimately had to stop working. She applied for disability, and she's now trying to have her student loans discharged. The problem, Audie, is that the process the Education Department uses to help borrowers like Denise is really full of obstacles. And NPR found in this investigation that over the past 3 1/2 years, just 28% of eligible borrowers have made it through to get their loans discharged or are on track to have them discharged.

CORNISH: So what do those obstacles look like? What does that mean for someone like Denise?

TURNER: So really, we found two big problems. First, the Ed Department knows who is eligible, but it doesn't discharge their loans automatically. So instead, it sends these borrowers a letter that asks them to respond and then apply if they want their loans erased. And data that NPR got from a department official show that more than half of people who are sent these letters - and we're talking hundreds of thousands of borrowers here - they simply don't respond, even though they qualify.

CORNISH: It's interesting because it sounds like your reporting found problems even with people who get approved.

TURNER: Yeah, absolutely. This is the other big issue we found. So even folks, you know, they do get the letter. They apply. They get approved. They're still not out of the woods because they have to send in paperwork for the next three years proving that they're not making too much money. And NPR found in this data that we got that just in the past 3 1/2 years, 75,000 borrowers got failed out of the program, and almost all of them were because of just basic paperwork issues. Again, they're eligible, but they didn't send in the paperwork on time or they didn't fill it out correctly. And while some of those borrowers were able to appeal and get back in, we know that more than half haven't.

CORNISH: Speaking of numbers, I understand you also found that the Education Department inflated the number of borrowers that it claimed it was helping. What did you find?

TURNER: Yeah, so they told Congress that they had discharged the loans for 40% of eligible borrowers. We talked through the numbers with a department official, and they simply could not provide the data that backed up that 40%. Instead of 40%, our analysis shows that over the past three years, just 28% of borrowers have made it through this process or, as I said before, are on track to. Now, in fairness, the official did stress, though, that the department has made improvements to this process since 2016, and that is true. And the official says, quote, "we continue to look for ways to make the process easier to navigate for disabled student loan borrowers while maintaining the integrity of the taxpayers' dollars associated with the discharges."

CORNISH: As we said earlier, lawmakers want an investigation. Can you talk more about the response? What have you been hearing since your reporting has gone public?

TURNER: Yeah, just since this morning, we've heard from the offices of several top lawmakers, including the top Democrats in both the House and the Senate education committees. Audie, also, this morning in my story, I included the voice of Senator Chris Coons. He's a Delaware Democrat. He's been calling for the automatic discharge of these loans. Here's what he told me a couple of days ago.

CHRIS COONS: I just don't understand why the Department of Education continues to fail to make good on this opportunity to make a lasting difference in the lives of Americans who've already suffered enough.

TURNER: And, Audie, I just learned that Senator Coons and a bipartisan group of lawmakers are now planning to send a letter tomorrow to the Education Department's acting inspector general, calling for an investigation into this program. One more lawmaker we heard from is the top Republican on the Senate Education Committee, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. And he says he not only supports simplifying the income verification process that we talked about earlier by making it automatic, but his name is on a bill right now that he says could actually do that. It hasn't passed yet, but it does have bipartisan support. I'll keep you posted.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Cory Turner with reporting from Claire Lombardo.

Thank you so much.

TURNER: Thanks for having me, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
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