It is not unusual in my practice to see student loan debts well in excess of $100,000 and clients that have minimal prospects for ever paying back the debt. Since the standard for discharge of these debts in bankruptcy is so high (see article below), often I find clients who have resigned themselves to owing on these loans until the day they die.
Like someone with an incurable disease the best they can hope for is that they either manage a nearly never ending minimal payment or keep the loans in remission with perpetual deferment or forbearance. Yes there are relatively new income sensitive repayment options with forgiveness of the balance owing after 20 years of repayment based on 15% of the borrowers income. However, for many borrowers in their 40s and 50s this is only a small consolation since they will reach retirement before the balance will be forgiven.
What we need is a change of policy. Just as the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA) has been calling on Congress to allow the reduction of residential mortgage loans by a bankruptcy judge, there should also be a call for similar legislation to allow a bankruptcy judge to reduce the principle balance of a student loan debt based on a reasonable debt load given the borrowers likely financial prospects. In fact, this might be better accomplished by an administrative court set up solely for such purpose. Certain minimal standards might be established to insure fairness. Perhaps a petitioner to such a proceeding would only be eligible once more than ten years had passed since the loan was originated. This would give the borrower a chance to become established in the trade or profession that they have chosen, and the court enough history to assess the borrowers ability to repay their debt.