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Forgive Student Loans of the Dead: Pass the Bryski Act

The history of American legislative accomplishments is dotted with measures named in honor of people who inspired the bills: for example, Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, the Mann Act and the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act. One hopes we will one day see the passage of another: the Christopher Bryski Act.

What Peter Barnes, an assemblyman from New Jersey, and his colleagues propose is a rare bird: a measure both fiscally and morally responsible. The bill -- under consideration by the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee -- is a step towards grappling with this country's crushing, $1 trillion student loan debt problem. It would "permit a state authority to forgive student-loan debt if the borrower dies."

It's hard to see a downside. For the surviving family of the deceased student, not being saddled with a debt they hadn't planned on paying off would be a gift. For university -- the cost for which has for years baldly outpaced inflation -- eating the cost of a loan or two annually would not be onerous.

Mr. Bryski was a Rutgers student who died in 2006 after a traumatic brain injury. For his family, the trouble didn't end there:

After Bryski’s death, his family was beset by calls and communications from the bank and other creditors seeking repayment of the $50,000 remaining on the student loan his father had co-signed.

Only recently -- six years after Bryski's death -- did the lender, KeyBank, agree to forgive the loan.

As Huffington Post noted not long ago, such a decision isn't unheard of in the industry. Wells Fargo, Sallie Mae, New York Higher Education Services Corp. and Discover Financial "have death and disability policies for recent loans." However, they report, "with most other private lenders, the outcome is less clear."

The Bryski case has already gotten the attention of lawmakers. Two years ago, New Jersey Rep. John Adler sponsored the Christopher Bryski Student Loan Protection Act, which would "require private student lenders ... to explain to students the co-signer obligations in the event a borrower dies, as well as insurance options for loans and the circumstances under which loans can be discharged." It is still wending its way through the House and Senate.

Frankly, the Act doesn't go far enough. Some measure of transparency does not necessarily equip a grieving family with the tools to handle such a financial burden. If lenders can't be forced to forgive the loans, surely, at the very least, they ought to be empowered to do so.

In New Jersey, at least, there is progress on this front. A few days ago, the state's Assembly Higher Education Committee approved A-748, Mr. Barnes' legislation. Next stop: the Appropriations Committee.