Making college more affordable does nothing to help struggling borrowers who have graduated, though, and little to help those who have dropped out of school with high levels of student loan debt. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimates that 17 percent of all student loan borrowers are in default or delinquency.
While federal student loans offer options to avoid default through income-driven repayment programs, lenders and servicers of private student loans generally do not.
But one legal fix, which the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has recommended, would make it easier to discharge private student loan debt in bankruptcy.
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In 2005, the bankruptcy code was amended so that all private loans made for a qualified education expense became exempt from discharge in bankruptcy without "undue hardship" to the debtor. The special treatment of private student loan debt caused a moderate expansion of credit for less creditworthy borrowers and led to a slight increase in the cost of private loans at four-year undergraduate colleges, according to a 2014 study by University of Connecticut School of Law and CFPB researchers.
Asher and others are pushing to remove the exemption. "We need to treat private student loans like any other type of consumer debt," she said. "It's easier to discharge gambling debt in bankruptcy than private student loan debt."
New entrants into the student loan market have offered some private solutions to help many borrowers, though, especially those with excellent credit.
For example, SoFi, which is on the 2015 CNBC Disruptor 50 list, has refinanced $2.5 billion in student loans for more than 40,000 borrowers at lower rates since 2012. "For some borrowers, we are slashing their interest rates in half," said Daniel Macklin, SoFi's co-founder.
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However, refinancing means that borrowers will lose the flexibility and protections in their repayment options that come with federal student loans.