Promoting the Purposes of Student Loans by Tempering Bankruptcy Nondischargeability

64 Pages Posted: 17 Jun 2019

See all articles by John P. Hunt

John P. Hunt

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Date Written: June 6, 2019


Student loans, unlike other debts, are not dischargeable in bankruptcy unless the debtor starts a special proceeding and proves that repayment would cause “undue hardship.” This requirement probably accounts for the fact that only a tiny fraction of bankrupt debtors succeed in discharging their student loans. This Article is the first to make the case that student-loan nondischargeability interferes with achieving the programs’ goals and to propose solutions that courts and the Department of Education (“Department”) can employ under current law.

The Article draws on the legislative history of the student-loan programs to establish that they serve at least four distinct purposes: providing equality of access to higher education, educating the population for the benefit of the country, enabling students’ free choice of career, and providing a benefit to students.

The Article then looks to the empirical literature and to fundamental precepts of bankruptcy law to show that nondischargeability can thwart the purposes of the student-loan programs through four different effects: deterring students from starting or completing higher education, distorting career choice, discouraging borrowers from economic and social participation, and rendering student loans harmful to borrowers.

The Article offers suggestions for tempering each of these effects. To avoid deterrence of education, the fact that bankruptcy relief often is available if requested should be made more salient. To combat distortion of career choice, bankruptcy courts should stop ruling that debtors should abandon jobs for which their education has prepared and find others that pay more. To remedy borrower discouragement, courts and the Department should take account of the likelihood that borrowers will be discouraged in deciding whether to grant or consent to discharge. The debt-income ratio is a promising proxy for likelihood of discouragement. Finally, courts and the Department should consider whether student loans harmed the borrower.

Keywords: student loans, bankruptcy, nondischargeability, undue hardship. Higher Education Act

JEL Classification: K35

Suggested Citation

Hunt, John P., Promoting the Purposes of Student Loans by Tempering Bankruptcy Nondischargeability (June 6, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

John P. Hunt (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
Davis, CA CA 95616-5201
United States
(530) 752-5052 (Phone)


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