“Please accept our condolences on your loss,” explained a letter from the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority of New Jersey. “After careful consideration of the information you provided, the authority has determined that your request does not meet the threshold for loan forgiveness. Monthly bill statements will continue to be sent to you.”
That is the response Marcia DeOliveira-Longinetti received when she attempted to get student loan forgiven after her 23-year-old son was murdered last year, reports the New York Times.
Welcome to the world of what bankruptcy attorney Daniel Frischberg calls, "state-sanctioned loan-sharking."
Like many states, New Jersey administers a student loan program designed to help students further their education in order to join a workforce that puts a premium on a college degree.
Where New Jersey parts ways with the other states is the degree of difficulty in getting out from under onerous loan payments despite extreme poverty, illness and even death.
According to DeOliveira-Longinetti, who co-signed her son's loans that allowed him to attend the University of Vermont, she was shocked at the response that has forced her -- so far -- to make 18 payments of $180 per month to the state of New Jersey.
And she still has 92 to go.
“We’re not going to be poor because of this,” she explained. “But every time I have to pay this thing, I think in my head, this is so unfair.”
According to the Times, loans administered by New Jersey's Higher Education Student Assistance Authority have a remarkable amount of leeway to go after anyone, with little recourse for those wading through paying back burdensome student loan debt.
Take the case of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor Chris Gonzalez; after being laid off by Goldman Sachs, the federal government gave him some relief by suspending his federal student loan payments. New Jersey, on the other hand, sued him and proceeded to snap up a state tax refund he was counting on.
While Republican Gov. Chris Christie claims his hands are tied when it comes to making changes in New Jersey's program, his appointee, Gabrielle Charette, has the power to, not only appoint at least 12 of the agency’s 18 board members, but she can veto actions taken by the board.
Years earlier New Jersey sharply expanded its loan program by replacing the federal loans it once handled with state loans, ramping up to $343 million loaned per year in 2010. While the agency has reduced lending, it still sits on a portfolio of about $2 billion in outstanding debt.
And while states like Massachusetts --among others -- automatically cancel debt if a borrower dies or becomes disabled, New Jersey has chosen a different path, encouraging students to buy life insurance to cover their debt and take co-signers off the hook in the event of a tragedy
According to an agency pamphlet: “Are you prepared for the unthinkable?”