In February 2020, a screenshot (missing a date) circulated on Facebook, featuring a tweet by journalist Barbara Ehrenrich about how “20 states now” revoked driver’s licenses of people who had not been paying back their student loans:
The tweet, which was dated November 19 2017, said:
20 states now take away the drivers licenses of people who fall behind in their student loan payments— a measure no doubt designed to ease the transition from debtor to fugitive.
As noted in previous fact checks, Twitter’s format was not friendly to the inclusion of citations. In addition to a truncated format inhibiting the sharing of background information on a tweet’s claim, the brief messages were also great for capturing as an image and resharing — as was the case here, without a date for context.
In Ehrenrich’s tweet, the specific claim held that borrowers’ licenses could be suspended, and it was published on November 19 2017. On November 18 2017, the New York Times published an article titled “When Unpaid Student Loan Bills Mean You Can No Longer Work,” with a subheading: “Twenty states suspend people’s professional or driver’s licenses if they fall behind on loan payments, according to records obtained by The New York Times.”
In its second paragraph, the article reported:
Few people realize that the loans they take out to pay for their education could eventually derail their careers. But in 19 states, government agencies can seize state-issued professional licenses from residents who default on their educational debts. Another state, South Dakota, suspends driver’s licenses, making it nearly impossible for people to get to work.
That article focused on a compounding issue in the states indicated at the time of its publication. Strapped borrowers, often people who suffered a primary financial setback such as injury or illness, were further hampered in getting on their feet due to the suspension of their professional licenses issued by the state. In one additional state, South Dakota, driver’s licenses might also be suspended for borrowers in default.
However, the piece’s subheading indicated “professional or driver’s licenses,” without articulating that initially reported split — 19 states revoking or suspending professional licenses (unrelated to driving typically), and one, South Dakota, suspending driver’s licenses.
The article further reported the practice of revoking or suspending professional licenses dated back to the 1980s when “state agencies started experimenting with aggressive collection tactics.” Those escalating tactics were encouraged by the Department of Education, which recommended in 1990 that states “deny professional licenses to defaulters.”
According to the detail of the article, many of the counted states said they did not enforce laws enabling the suspension or revocation of licenses over unpaid student debt:
In some states, the laws are unused. Hawaii has a broad statute, enacted in 2002, that allows it to suspend vocational licenses if the borrower defaults on a student loan. But the state’s licensing board has never done so, said William Nhieu, a spokesman for Hawaii’s Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, because no state or federal student loan agencies have given it the names of delinquent borrowers.
Officials from Alaska, Iowa, Massachusetts and Washington also said their laws were not being used. Oklahoma and New Jersey eliminated or defanged their laws [in 2016], with bipartisan support.
South Dakota did not — at least according to the 2017 article — begin withholding driver’s licenses from defaulted borrowers until approximately 2015:
The federal Department of Education urged other states to act similarly. “Deny professional licenses to defaulters until they take steps to repayment,” the department urged in 1990.
Two years [before late 2017], South Dakota ordered officials to withhold various licenses from people who owe the state money. Nearly 1,000 residents are barred from holding driver’s licenses because of debts owed to state universities, and 1,500 people are prohibited from getting hunting, fishing and camping permits.
A map color-coded states engaging in either practice — suspending professional licenses needed by borrowers to work and pay off debt, or driver’s licenses. It was labeled:
Twenty states around the country can seize professional, driver’s and other licenses from residents who default on their student debt.
Three states’ policies were detailed underneath that map: Iowa, Kentucky, and South Dakota. According to the New York Times, Iowa and South Dakota suspended driver’s licenses specifically if borrowers were in default, but Iowa state officials denied suspending any licenses in the five years before 2017:
Any state-issued license, including a driver’s license, can be revoked. The Iowa College Student Aid Commission said it has not used that power in the last five years.
The state can revoke driver’s, hunting and fishing licenses, as well as camping and park permits. As of October, 1,550 people with educational debt had their licenses blocked.
The state’s Higher Education Assistance Authority said it does not track how many default notices it sends to licensing agencies. Records from licensing boards show that 308 nurses and 223 teachers have had their licenses blocked in recent years.
Of those three states, Iowa denied suspending or revoking licenses dating back at least as far as 2012. South Dakota counted 1,550 total “blocked” licenses of any description between 2015 and 2017, and Kentucky counted 531 suspended professional licenses between nurses and teachers “in recent years.”
In 2015, ABC News reported that 22 states maintained laws allowing for suspension or revocation of some form of licensing for defaulted student loan borrowers. That article suggested that at the time in 2015, the states of Iowa and Montana were then “considering bills that would repeal laws that allow states to suspend the driver’s licenses of student loan defaulters.”
Incidentally, the Times‘ map was shared in screenshot form to Imgur in November 2017, with the title “TIL 20 states can legally take away your driver’s license for falling behind on student loan payments”:
Very few commenters appeared to read the article, but one wrote:
You clearly didn’t read the article, with regard to [driver’s licenses], it only specifies [South Dakota], and your graphic only adds one more state.
The article that appeared was behind Ehrenrich’s claim and the Imgur post was published in November 2017. In April 2019, U.S. News and World Report stated that a smaller group of 13 states was engaging in the aggressive collections behavior described by the original reporting:
Bipartisan legislation was reintroduced [in March 2019] in Congress to prohibit states from revoking or denying professional licenses solely because of default on a federal student loan. And legislation passed in Alaska, Illinois, Kentucky, North Dakota, Virginia and Washington has already prohibited the practice in those states.
A September 2019 item by StudentLoanHero.com indicated that the number of states where either professional or a driver’s license could be suspended totaled four. Only South Dakota was identified among the states as suspending driver’s licenses:
Currently, there are four states — Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Tennessee — where state-issued professional licenses can be suspended. And in South Dakota, a driver’s license suspension for student loan default is also a real possibility.
A tweet circulating in February 2020 suggested that “20 states now take away the drivers licenses of people who fall behind in their student loan payments,” and that tweet was originally shared immediately following a New York Times article reporting that 20 states revoked or suspended primarily professional licenses from student borrowers in default. Of the two states extending that action to driver’s licenses, one did not enforce the law (Iowa). In the intervening years, a number of states stopped revoking or suspending any licenses, and as of late 2019, the practice remained ongoing in five states. Wording of the undated screenshot suggested the practice was escalating, when years of reporting showed that the opposite was true.