The U.S. Department of Education began issuing joint consolidation loans to married couples in January 1993. Couples who took the loans agreed to be jointly liable for repayment, which later proved to be problematic in the event of a divorce.
Congress later eliminated the program in July 2006, but borrowers who were domestic violence survivors were left stuck paying their former partner's share of the loan in addition to their own.
In order to resolve the issue, Democratic Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and David Price of North Carolina introduced the Joint Consolidation Loan Separation Act, which is co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and John Cornyn of Texas.
The Joint Consolidation Loan Separation Act would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965, allowing domestic violence survivors to sever themselves from their former partner's existing student loans by submitting an application to the Department of Education that would split the joint consolidation loan into two separate federal direct loans.
The unpaid loan and accrued unpaid interest balance would then be split proportionally based on the percentages that each borrower originally brought into the loan. The two new federal direct loans would have the same interest rates as the joint consolidation loan.
Each borrower would also have the ability to transfer eligible payments made on the joint consolidation loan towards income-driven repayment programs and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
"Victims of domestic violence who flee their dangerous living situations shouldn’t find themselves burdened with their partner’s debt when trying to move forward with their lives. Unfortunately, that’s the reality for some Americans who are stuck with joint consolidation loans," Warner said in a statement. "This commonsense bill would help a vulnerable population who’s been unfairly held responsible for their former partner’s debt, by giving them the ability regain their financial independence."
The bill is supported by organizations, including the National Network to End Domestic Violence, National Consumer Law Center, North Carolina Coalition against Domestic Violence, and the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance.
The proposal comes as the Biden administration is facing growing pressure to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt. Biden previously made a promise for up to $10,000 in student debt forgiveness while on the campaign trail.
On Tuesday, more than 415 organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Psychological Association and the Consumer Federation of America, wrote a letter to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris calling on the White House to use executive authority "to cancel federal student debt immediately."
"Before the Covid-19 public health crisis began, student debt was already a drag on the national economy, weighing heaviest on Black and Latinx communities, as well as women," the organizations wrote. "Administrative debt cancellation will deliver real progress on your racial equity, economic recovery, and Covid-19 relief campaign priorities."
A 2020 analysis by the American Association of University Women found that nearly two-thirds of the nation's $1.54 trillion in student loan debt is held by woman.
Biden has reportedly asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to prepare a report on the president's legal authority to cancel $50,000 in student debt per borrower, though the findings of that report have not yet been released publicly.