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Making Relief Automatic for Borrowers with Total and Permanent Disabilities

Under the Higher Education Act, student loan borrowers who are “totally and permanently” disabled have, for years, been entitled to a complete discharge of their federal student loans. However, under Department of Education practices that persisted until August 2021, even after the SSA determined that an individual was entitled to such discharge, the Department required that individual to separately apply for relief.

For several years, Student Defense engaged in advocacy efforts calling on the Department of Education to provide automatic “total and permanent disability” (TPD) discharges to the hundreds of thousands of borrowers it has long known are entitled to relief, but who have not received it. This work culminated in Student Defense filing a Section 553(e) Rulemaking Petition on April 19, 2021 that called on the Department amend its regulations to automate student loan discharges to borrowers with disabilities that the Department knows are entitled to relief, but who have not received it.

After years of work, these efforts paid off. On August 19 2021, the Department announced that it would provide $5.8 billion in automatic TPD discharges to 323,000 borrowers identified as eligible through a data match with the Social Security Administration.

According to data recently released by the Department, over 400,000 individuals have now received discharges totaling more than $9 billion. Student Defense continues advocate for improvements to the TPD regulations to ensure that the Department provides automatic discharges to all borrowers who are entitled to them.

This timeline details Student Defense’s advocacy efforts on TPD:

August 19, 2021

  • Following years of advocacy by Student Defense and others, the Department announced that it was providing $5.8 billion in automatic TPD relief to 323,000 borrowers identified as eligible through a data match with the Social Security Administration. As set forth in Student’s Defense’s April 19 Petition for Rulemaking (below), these borrowers had long been deemed eligible for the discharge but, until this announcement, had not received it. 
  • Student Defense’s press release is available here. The Department’s announcement is available here. According to the Department, eligible borrowers will receive notice of their approval in/around September 2021 and all discharges should occur by the end of the year. 

August 4, 2021 

  • Echoing Student Defense’s April 19, 2021 Petition, a bipartisan coalition in Congress once again calls on the Department of Education to automatically discharge the student loan debt for the over half-a-million borrowers identified by the Social Security Administration as entitled to TPD relief.  The letter and press release are available here.

June 21, 2021 

  • Student Defense sends a letter to Richard Cordray, Chief Operating Officer of Federal Student Aid, seeking answers to questions raised by new TPD data received by Student Defense earlier this month. The letter also renews Student Defense’s call for automatic TPD relief and seeks an update on the status of its April 19, 2021 Section 553(e) Petition (discussed below). 
June 10, 2021
  • Student Defense receives new data through a FOIA request revealing that over 818,000 borrowers have been identified by the SSA as entitled to a TPD discharge, of which 517,000 have not received the discharge. 
  • At the same time, a coalition of higher education, legal aid, disability rights, and consumer groups called on Secretary Cardona to grant Student Defense’s April 19, 2021 Petition and provide relief to these half a million borrowers. The Department's Final Response to Student Defense's request is available here.

April 19, 2021 

March 29, 2021 

  • The Department announced minimal TPD relief to borrowers who had already been granted TPD discharges. Student Defense and other advocacy organizations criticized the announcement, explaining that much more was needed, including providing automatic TPD relief to the hundreds of thousands of borrowers who the Department knows are entitled to it.

January 3, 2021 

October 9, 2019 
  • In a letter to Secretary DeVos, Senator Coons leads a bipartisan effort to urge the Department to discharge outstanding federal student loans for the hundreds of thousands of borrowers it knows are entitled to relief. 
  • In his press release, Senator Coons quotes Student Defense Vice President Alex Elson: "Hundreds of thousands of disabled Americans are entitled to immediate student loan discharges under the law, but the Department of Education is not giving them relief, and in many cases is even seizing the disability benefits they depend on to survive.  We deeply appreciate this bipartisan effort to ensure that these men and women are not forgotten, and join in their call to the Department to act without further delay." 
October 1, 2019 

  • Student Defense publishes an op-ed calling on the Department to provide automatic TPD discharges to the hundreds of thousands of borrowers it knows are entitled to relief, explaining that: “The injustice of the federal government withholding disability benefits for people who it knows are totally and permanently disabled and entitled to debt relief is hard to comprehend.”