On Thursday, the New Jersey State Senate unanimously approved a bill that would require the state agency, Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA), to forgive the student loan debt of borrowers who become disabled or die. Currently, when a borrower dies, the agency can seek repayment from the deceased borrower’s family. The bill will now head to Governor Chris Christie’s desk which he will either sign or veto in the next 45 days.
At a Senate hearing in August, nearly a dozen people testified about the HESAA’s aggressive collection tactics. Several people detailed that they had been forced to resort to bankruptcy to deal with their outstanding debt.
When Marcia DeOliveira-Longinetti co-signed on her son’s student loans, she assumed he would repay them after graduation. This past year he was the victim of an unsolved murder so she requested that the HESAA forgive her son’s debt of $16,000. The agency offered its condolences but refused to forgive the debt and DeOliveira-Longinetti now makes monthly payments of $180.
Chris Gonzales worked as an engineer until he was laid off after a lymphoma diagnosis several years ago. He has been sued for nearly $266,000 and the agency seized his state tax refund. He currently works from home and earns $26,000 a year, making it unlikely that he will ever be able to repay his loan debt.
The HESAA is the largest state-based loan program in the country with nearly $2 billion outstanding loans. The agency offers student loans at higher interest rates than most federal programs. An investigation by ProPublica and the New York Times revealed that the agency utilizes many aggressive tactics to collect on these loans. If borrowers fall behind on payments, the HESAA can seize wages, tax refunds, and suspend professional licenses without needing approval of the court. They also do not accept death as an adequate reason for loan forgiveness.
Marcia Karrow is the HESAA’s Chief of Staff and stated that the investigation done by ProPublica and the New York Times was a misrepresentation of the agency’s practices. She has stated that the agency has an obligation to seek repayment on all student loan debt.
Gabrielle Charette was appointed by Governor Christie as the Executive Director of the HESAA. She declined to testify at the hearing and submitted a letter to legislators that stated the agency is conducting an internal review of its current practices and will fill lawmakers in after their review is completed.
The agency has pursued legal action to settle delinquent loans in the past 5 years. Last year alone the agency filed over 1,600 suits. Because the HESAA is is funded by tax-exempt bonds it is required to keep losses to a minimum. Both the HESAA and Governor Christie declined to comment on the action taken by the Senate.
Senator James Beach, a Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, has stated, “The trauma a family must be dealing with when they lose their child and then to have someone banging on their door for money? I think that’s outrageous.”
If this bill is signed into law, the Office of Legislative Services estimated that nearly 70 loans of disabled or deceased borrowers will be forgiven each year.