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Student Loans

December 25, 1987

I collect student loans for the federal government when students don't pay voluntarily and the agencies are unable to collect. My job is to get a judgment either by persuading them (defaulters) that they have no option or by suing. Either way, we are successful 100% of the time if there are assets or the debtor is earning.

Most people pay their loans as scheduled with no fuss. The ones who don't are, in my experience, either unfortunately impoverished or immature, usually the latter. Our society confers adulthood on 18-year-olds. They can and do sign contracts, although they may not understand what they sign. If I could give advice to every young adult, it would be to take a course in consumer law.

It was evident from the quotes in the article that students sign for loans because they're easy to get. The money pours in and they give no thought to having to pay it back. They don't feel the need to work and earn money, and are horrified upon graduation when they find there is a huge debt hanging over them. They instantly evolve from students into debtors. Some try to escape rather than face the music.

There must be some limitation, however, to students' naivete. When I see "I happily accepted every cent," I wonder what kind of educated adults we have. These people seem to feel that they are entitled to this money. No one seems to consider consequences of actions or feel responsibility for them. What makes them think that the world will give them what they need? It has never been true, and it isn't true now.

We have debtors who thought (erroneously) that they could discharge their student loans in bankruptcy. Some argue that they believed they were getting a grant. Others "didn't understand" what the papers meant. The sad fact is that student loans, which are given on the basis of need, not the merit of the borrower, are ultimately debts to the government, which has a strong ability to collect them.

Perhaps our underlying lending philosophy is wrong. Laws provide for lending money, but not for getting it back. I have found that the Department of Education and the Veterans Administration, which issue or guarantee most of the loans referred to my office, are woefully understaffed and unable to enforce collection. The same is true in my office, which has seen its workload increase three-fold in the last four years while the staff increased by only 12.5%.

Even with these constraints, however, we have opened every case referred to us, brought the cases to judgment and have pushed for repayment of the debt by all legal means. We collected $10 million last year, four times the total two years ago (not all student loan money).

CATHERINE A. STROHLEIN

Paralegal in Charge

Collections Unit

U.S. Attorney's Office

San Diego

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