Student loan debt written on a chalk board

Behavior

College Debt Boosts Disability Requests

During the steel and coal busts of the 1980s, applications for federal disability benefits rose in areas where these industries had laid off workers. Now there’s a 21st century reason to apply: student loans.

College debt is extremely difficult to discharge in the bankruptcy courts. But the U.S. Department of Education in 2013 opened a new avenue for potentially eliminating federal student loan debt. Former college students whose disabilities are severe enough to qualify them for disability benefits can then apply to the Department of Education for loan forgiveness.

Since 2015, the typical person approved for the program has eliminated $17,500 in college loans.

The prospect of discharging the onerous debt created a powerful financial incentive. After the program began, the probability that an individual with student loans would apply for disability with the U.S. Social Security Administration was much higher than for individuals with no loans, a new study found. The increase in applications was largely from people who had not earned any money the previous year and may have had few options for paying their debt.

The older workers who took out student loans – sometimes on behalf of their children – may be “aching to retire” anyway, the researchers said, and receiving disability and loan forgiveness would accomplish that. But the younger people who applied may simply have been motivated by a desire to discharge their college debts.

However, seeking disability benefits as a strategy for eliminating the debt didn’t work very well.

It turns out that the people who were newly approved for disability were not likely to have their loans forgiven, the researchers found, because the disabilities were potentially shorter term and did not meet the Department of Education’s requirement that their disabilities be classified as “medical improvement not expected.”

This study nevertheless provides evidence of a new motivation for applying for disability – a motivation “based not on health or income but debt,” the researchers concluded.

To read this study, authored by Philip Armour and Melanie Zaber, see “Does Student Loan Forgiveness Drive Disability Application?”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

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