While lawmakers in Washington have been taking steps in recent years to ease the student debt crisis, the federal government also appears to be taking some strict measures to crack down on those afflicted by it.
In Houston on Monday, a man was arrested by seven deputies from the United States Marshals Service armed with automatic weapons over his failure to pay back a nearly 30-year-old loan, according to a report by Fox 26 Houston.
Paul Aker was detained by federal marshals, who serve as the enforcement arm for the federal court system, over a $1,500 federal loan that was issued in 1987. He said that he was sent to jail for a brief period and made to sign a repayment plan.
"There's bound to be a better way to collect on a student loan debt that's so old," Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas) told Fox during an interview with Aker.
"Our federal resources, our U.S. marshals and the federal court system are being used by the private sector," Green continued. "A few years ago Congress allowed the private sector to contract for student loan collections, and so you have these private companies that are doing this."
According to the U.S. Marshals Service, marshals are routinely involved in ensuring that student loan debt is repaid, but it's usually a civil process and arrests are uncommon.
"What the federal government may do is hire private attorneys who in turn seek an order from a judge to reach out or find these individuals to set up a payment plan," Nikki Credic-Barrett, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Marshals Service, told Mic. "That process is executed by U.S. marshals because it is a federal loan."
Barrett said that that an arrest wasn't the intention going in, but occurred because of the way the interaction escalated "due to circumstances that occurred at the scene."
In Houston alone, 1,500 of these kinds of "service of process" procedures are expected to be executed by U.S. marshals this year.
What really matters: Regardless of the circumstances that surround Aker's specific arrest, the incident highlights some broader and troubling trends in the way student debt collection works in the U.S.
The first question is regarding the allocation of federal resources for dealing with the $1.3 trillion student debt crisis. With almost 7 million Americans in default on their student loans, advocates say the priority for the government should be on finding efficient ways to relieve the burden of insurmountable debt rather than collect it with the heavy hand of law enforcement.
"This sorry episode amply demonstrates the merciless harshness of the federal student loan system," Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, told Mic.
"These loans are already more collectible than taxes: the government and its debt collectors can garnish wages, intercept tax refunds, offset social security benefit, and sue borrowers in court," Nassirian said. "Given the already phenomenal recovery rates, the deployment of U.S. marshals and jailing people strike me as not the best use of resources."
In light of that, having more than half a dozen law enforcement officials in combat gear show up at someone's door seems a bit drastic. While the marshals may be there to initiate a repayment plan, opportunities abound for the situation to escalate into something that results in a criminal record, as this one did.
It's not unreasonable for the federal government to want to find ways to have borrowers repay their loans. But common sense suggests that if someone is struggling to pay back a small amount of debt for a very long period of time, a law enforcement-led confrontation isn't the most appropriate or cost-effective response to the situation.