Department of Education criticized for how it pays debt collectors to chase student loan dollars


(Photo from Flickr user thisisbossi used under Creative Commons license)

The Department of Education is not doing enough to crack down on debt collection agencies that are too aggressive about seeking payments from student loan borrowers, a consumer group said Wednesday.

A report from the National Consumer Law Center found that how much debt collectors are paid correlates strongly with how much they collect from people whose student loans have gone into default. It also argued that debt collectors may not always do a good job of informing people about all of the options available to them.

“The incentives matter. Money matters,” says Persis Yu, a staff attorney at the center and co-author of the report. “So we need to be able to look at the contracts and make sure borrowers really are served in the best way possible.”

Yu says the lower payments debt collectors receive for informing people about alternatives to payment may be steering the 22 collection agencies contracted by the government to seek payments aggressively instead of thoroughly informing consumers. For instance, agencies receive a commission projected to be up to 13 percent of the loan amount when a borrower is rehabilitated out of default to begin payments, according to the center. In contrast, the commission for getting a borrower to consolidate a loan is 2.75 percent of the loan amount.

Debt collectors receive a flat fee of $150 for helping borrowers achieve another resolution, such as having the loans discharged because of a death or disability. And because debt collectors are not currently penalized for having a high number of consumer complaints, the center said the department is not doing enough to make sure that debt collectors don’t overreach in their efforts to collect payments.

Yu and co-author Deanne Loonin wrote:

Although the government must balance the need to collect student loans with the need to assist borrowers, the current system heavily favors high pressure debt collection and debt collector profits to the detriment of financially distressed borrowers seeking the help they so desperately need.

According to the complaints cited in the study, some borrowers say they were given misinformation from debt collectors about whether they qualified for income-based repayment, loan consolidation and discharge. Other people complained about receiving multiple calls a day or being called even after they asked for the calls to stop.

A look at the ratings used to evaluate and pay debt collectors shows that the more money companies collected in loan payments, the higher they scored, according to the report.


(National Consumer Law Center)

Meanwhile, those ratings don’t currently take into account how debt collectors treat the borrowers they’re working with.

But that part of the payment system will be changing soon. After a report released in July by the department’s Office of the Inspector General found that officials were not doing enough to track and enforce complaints filed against collection agencies, the Department of Education said it would factor in such complaints when deciding how to rank and pay the companies.

The changes should be in place by next March, a department official said, but it’s still not clear how much consumer complaints will lower payments because the department is in the process of adjusting its contracts with debt collectors.

The department also said collection agencies are required to record their calls, which enables to department to review them to make sure companies complied with the department’s rules. Robert Foehl, vice president of ACA International, a trade association representing third-party debt collectors, said the high volume of calls and requests they make can lead to a high number of complaints, but that agencies work to resolve them quickly.

Yu, of the law center, says she would like to see more information about how the department plans to incorporate consumer satisfaction information into ratings. “What we hope is that they’ll be transparent about that change,” she says, “so that we can ensure that those changes are in fact being made.”

 

Jonnelle Marte is a reporter covering personal finance. She was previously a writer for MarketWatch and the Wall Street Journal.
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