New research reveals that gender bias can creep into student loan bankruptcy court cases.
CRF Legal Psychology Graduate Student Kelsey Hess and a team of psychologists from the FIU — including Jacqueline Evans and Deborah Goldfarb – examined nearly 900 student loan discharge decisions processed by U.S. bankruptcy courts between 1985 and 2020. In addition to gender, the researchers also considered other variables, including marital status, number of children, medical issues, or documented disability claims, as well as whether an attorney was present.
They found that gender played a somewhat complex but important role in the outcome of cases. Single mothers were more likely to have their loan forgiven than single fathers. However, when a debtor disclosed a medical condition that could interfere with their ability to earn a living, men had a substantial advantage over women. In fact, men were 93% more likely to have their loans canceled when they disclosed a medical condition, compared to women who disclosed a medical condition.
“It’s not always clear how gender influences a student loan discharge decision,” Hess said. “With this study, what we really see is how particular circumstances can be intertwined with traditional sex and gender roles. Some factors were not weighted equally between male and female debtors.
In the United States, women hold about two-thirds of student debt. As more women pursue a university education than men and the cost of higher education becomes more expensive, it is expected that women will continue to be the main holders of student loan debt. The gender pay gap can make this problem worse. When women enter the workforce, they tend to earn less, which means there is less money available for reimbursements. Ultimately, this could lead to more women trying to get their student loans discharged in bankruptcy court. This is just one of the reasons Hess and the team wanted to investigate this question.
The bankruptcy process for student loans differs from typical bankruptcy proceedings and certain criteria must be met, including an “undue hardship” test. As Evans points out, it’s not just about submitting bills and proving income. Instead, it can be a laborious process to paint the full picture of someone’s private life – something few want to do in court.
For this study, the researchers were contacted by a judge who works in a US bankruptcy court to conduct a study like this.
“This is a great example of when academia and the judiciary come together and work together to ask important questions,” Goldfarb said. “Our work here highlights FIU Legal Psychologyis to work with the community and make a difference in it.
The researchers emphasize an important aspect of the study — in terms of biases that deserve special attention — the women’s medical conditions are ruled out in court. Especially because it mirrors other research that shows pain in female patients is taken less seriously than the same levels of pain in male patients, leading to differences in treatment. If a woman’s doctor doesn’t take her pain seriously, she may be less likely to share it in bankruptcy court — and even if she does, there’s no guarantee the court will believe her enough to cancel the loans.
The presence of a lawyer is another element of this study that also deserves attention, the team says. Since bankruptcy court involves civil matters, an attorney is not provided. However, a lawyer can have a huge impact on the outcome of the case. Getting a lawyer, however, can be a huge hurdle for someone already dealing with heavy and debilitating debt.
“Our hope with this study is that, of course, bankruptcy judges can eliminate potential inappropriate extralegal influences on their own decisions,” Hess said. “We also want this research to be a starting point. We have other questions to ask and answer, such as what kind of systemic changes can be made at the court level and how mechanisms to provide lawyers to debtors can be put in place. »
This study was published in Psychology, Public Policy and Law.
The team also presented the findings to the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges (NCBJ), as well as the American Bar Association, and received positive feedback. Recently, they received a grant from the NCBJ to continue and expand their research in this area.