HomeHealthCongress Will Consider Student-Loan Deferrals for Victims of Sexual Violence

Congress Will Consider Student-Loan Deferrals for Victims of Sexual Violence

A bill introduced in Congress on Wednesday would grant students who experience sexual violence federal loan deferments while they are on temporary leave from college for treatment.

Under the Student Loan Deferment for Sexual Violence Survivors Act, HR 7980, students would be eligible for up to three years of federal loan deferrals — broken into six-to-12-month chunks — after reporting an incident of sexual violence to their campus Title IX coordinator.

Most federal student loans come with a six-month grace period that kicks in after graduation or when students take a semester off. But under the current system, even if students need more time to recover from an incident of violence, they must start repaying their loans when those six months expire.

According to Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Pennsylvania Democrat who introduced the bill, easing the combined burden of mental and physical healing from sexual violence and paying off student loans is “the humane thing to do.”

As an English professor for 10 years at La Salle University, in Philadelphia, Dean knew students who “got really derailed” by a sexual assault.

“I saw how they withdrew, how they couldn’t continue their studies,” Dean said. “And I also saw, of course, just regular students under the weight of high debt.”

Calls to cancel student-loan debt are increasing nationwide, and students continue to reveal injustices they faced in campus sexual-assault cases. Thirteen percent of all undergraduate and graduate students experience rape or sexual assault while on campus, according to a 2020 report by the Association of American Universities. The rates are higher for women and LGBTQ+ students.

The Association of Title IX Administrators, known as Atixa, worked with Dean to draft the bill. The organization, which provides consulting services on the federal gender-equity law, began advocating for loan deferments based on sexual violence after hearing from its members that student survivors on leave to recover did not qualify for deferrals — an “oversight” that should have been corrected “a long time ago,” said the group’s president, Brett A. Sokolow.

Currently, students can qualify for federal loan deferment because of a variety of circumstances, including cancer treatment and economic hardship. Qualifications for federal loan deferment must be defined by Congress.

“The Department of Education is really pushing quite hard for colleges and schools to provide supportive measures to victims because it helps them to complete their education and to fully participate,” Sokolow said. “And yet here we are, seeing that the sort of equivalent supportive measures that could come from the Department of Education weren’t being provided in a way that would keep survivors financially able to continue their education.”

Paying for health care to support recovery can be costly. And that financial strain is worsened when students have to pay off their loans at the same time.

“They might be forced to get jobs,” Sokolow said, “and then never be able to resume [college] or pay off their loans as they began to accrue.”

Dean’s bill would also grant the Department of Education the authority to waive the amount of federal financial aid students must return when they temporarily withdraw — another protection that would ease the financial burden on survivors.

In order to qualify for the deferment, students would report the sexual violence they had experienced — including sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking — to the Title IX coordinator at their college. The coordinator would then certify that the student could request a loan deferral for sexual-violence recovery, and the Department of Education would review the request. Students would not be required to file a formal complaint or go through a Title IX investigation to receive a loan deferral.

“We didn’t want to create a situation where somebody felt obligated to go through the Title IX system to get the deferment, when the whole reason they were taking a break from college might be that they were overwhelmed and really couldn’t handle the resolution process at that particular time,” Sokolow said.

Sokolow is optimistic that the Education Department’s approval process for sexual-violence-related loan deferrals wouldn’t create long delays, as has happened in its Title IX cases, with some students waiting months before the department even decides whether to investigate.

“Any bureaucracy is susceptible to getting bogged down,” Sokolow said. “The expectation is the department is going to come up with a solid plan for making sure the works don’t get gummed up.”

A spokesperson for the Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Sokolow recognizes that some people might want a stricter vetting process for determining eligibility.

“But we provide support measures to survivors at colleges and schools on their say-so,” he said. “So why wouldn’t the Department of Education provide supportive measures?”

Dean hopes the bill will face minimal opposition in Congress, despite the intense partisan gridlock in Congress right now, because it calls for “simple deferral,” not widespread loan forgiveness.

“It’s the humane thing to do,” Dean said. “It’s the smart thing to do. And it might help survivors heal, and also heal their own economic status.”

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