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In the case of federal loans, the government is effectively subsidizing students both by guaranteeing the amounts borrowed and by setting loan terms that are usually more favorable than those of private loans. Because the government’s guarantee puts taxpayer money at risk when a borrower defaults, one argument goes, bankruptcy law should hinder the cancellation of federal debts — and it does.

In 2005, Congress modified the bankruptcy code to make it as hard to get rid of private student loans as it is to eliminate federal loans. Private loans have been one of the fastest-growing ways for students and families to pay for college, rising to $17.1 billion in 2006-7 from $2 billion 10 years earlier, according to the nonprofit College Board. Students often use private loans to fill the gap between the cost of attendance and the funds available through federal loans and other aid.

The argument for the change on private loans is a bit different.

“At the time that people graduate from school, almost everybody is technically eligible for bankruptcy because they have debts that exceed their assets,” said Shelly Repp, general counsel at the National Council for Higher Education Loan Programs, whose members include lenders, collection agencies and guarantors. “Why would anyone lend you money if you had the option to walk away?”

But even Sallie Mae, a major source of private loans, is not opposed to modifying the bankruptcy code’s treatment of them, said Mr. Joyce, perhaps by making it possible for students to dump debts in bankruptcy after trying for a specified number of years to pay them off.

“What we’d like to see is that people who have made a good-faith effort to repay their student loans, but for whatever reasons have hit a hard patch or hit a difficult stretch, that there be some flexibility,” Mr. Joyce said. “It may be time to look at that.”

Perceptions of student lending have shifted sharply as tightness in credit markets has led some companies to stop making certain kinds of loans, forcing some students to switch lenders.

Last year, reports of questionable relationships between financial aid offices and lenders cast both in an unfavorable light. Lawmakers in Washington have approved legislation intended to ban such ties and have raised the amounts that students and their families can borrow through federal programs.