PhotoDemocratic candidates have been competing to see who can come up with the best plan to help relieve those struggling under the burden of huge student debts but, off the campaign trail, it's a different story as the Department of Education fights back against attempts to loosen bankruptcy standards for student debt holders.

Currently, student debt cannot be forgiven under bankruptcy laws and the government wants to keep it that way.

The Education Department's lawyers yesterday intervened in the case of Robert Murphy, the unemployed 65-year-old who for three years has been trying to get out from under $246,500 in loans he took out to finance college education for his three children, who are now self-sustaining adults.

Murphy says he has been unable to find a job and, even if he could, he would have to work the rest of his life to make even a dent in the money he owes the government.

Murphy says his case fits the definition of "undue hardship," which is the criterion for releasing students -- or, in Murphy's case, their parents -- from student debt. But the government disagrees. Education Department lawyers say the "fiscal stability of the loan program" could be imperiled if large numbers of students and their parents were released from their debts.

Readers responding to an earlier story on Murphy's case were divided in their opinions, with many saying Murphy should have known what he was getting into.

"How about his worthless children pay their own loans back? He raised a bunch of greedy kids, and now he is paying for it," said Hutch Hutchison. "Maybe they should have taken a year or two off after high school and saved some money for college? And now you want the loans forgiven? Who is going to pay that lost money? You and I."

Others, like Pam Lara were sympathetic.

"The Parent Plus loans are driving seniors into poverty. All we wanted was for our children to have a good education," she said. "I hope this gentleman wins and opens the door for the rest of the parents who are now seniors and only have their Social Security checks to live on."

Many readers said the banking industry could afford to write off the loans. In fact, the loans are financed not by banks but by the federal government.

Dire consequences

Student loans now total $1.2 trillion -- more than any form of consumer debt other than home mortgages. Some 7.5 million borrowers are already severely behind in repaying their loans. Wholesale defections would have dire consequences for the economy, the government argues.

Lower courts have upheld the government's position, and the case is now being heard by the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

In their filing, Education Department lawyers had scant sympathy for Murphy's plight. He has a master's degree and was previously president of a manufacturing company and should be able to find a job that would enable him to pay back at least some of what he owes, they argued.

“That is part of the bargain that parents strike when they take out loans later in their work life,” the government lawyers said.

The National Consumer Law Center earlier filed a brief with the appeals court saying that many consumers face "a lifetime of crushing debt" because of student loans.

"A finding about whether a debtor’s hardship is likely to persist should be based on hard facts, not conjecture and unsubstantiated optimism," the NCLC said.

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