How to Get Screwed Out of Your Education

Elizabeth Warren has pushed tirelessly for student loan reform, a hot-button issue that has been shaped by the American emphasis on higher education. The idea that a high school diploma isn’t good enough, and that everybody should try to go to college is something that is hammered into our consciousnesses repeatedly throughout our primary and secondary educations. This is especially relevant to people with disabilities, a massively underrepresented population that is routinely denied gainful employment. College is frequently advertised as a path to equality and equity for people with disabilities, although it’s still a path that’s fraught with obstacles. People with disabilities frequently take longer than the ideal four years to complete their degrees, often due to circumstances beyond their control, such as systematic barriers provided by ignorant faculty, administration, and staff. Ergo, people with disabilities are more likely to accrue a larger amount of student loans than the average college student, which makes it an issue that is of more importance to Americans with disabilities who already must contend with a bleak employment outlook after getting their degrees, on top of their impending student loans. During the Obama administration, a solution to this issue was created, called the Total & Permanent Disability discharge. The federal government, using Social Security Administration’s records, began offering people with disabilities what appears to be a pretty sweet deal: total waiver of all student loans if you’re disabled.

Sounds good right? Wait until you find out there are several strings attached, which makes the deal nearly impossible to take – and that’s only if you read the fine print on the form that spells out what people with disabilities have to agree to.

There’s a mandated three-year monitoring period in which you’re required to report your income to the federal government. Simple enough, but your income actually has a cap – you might have to pay back your loans if you earn more than the federal Poverty Guideline amount (which is only $16,240) for a family of two (regardless of your actual family size) in the contiguous 48 states. That’s three years of making sure you earn less than $1,353.33 a month, guaranteeing your dependence on the system that your college degree was supposed to free you from. Those three years could be used constructively (volunteering for an organization) but denies you the economic gains of a higher income. Another stipulation of the TPD discharge is that you cannot take out any more federal loans for education during the three-year period. If you decide you want to pursue a Masters’ because you’re sick of keeping your income below the $1,353.33 watermark, you’ll have to agree to take your original loans back.

That makes the carrot the federal government dangles seem all that much more sugar-crusted. However, the logic is counterintuitive – the whole point of obtaining higher education is to be able to better your life. How are you supposed to do that when you’re forced to stay in poverty for three years, which is a long period of time that could be used for furthering your career – just to make sure you’ve been granted permanent relief from student loans. I believe this kind of deal does more harm than good for people with disabilities who have succeeded in higher education.

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