The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are student loan borrowers being ‘driven into default’?


Student loan borrowers are not getting enough help avoiding default, according to a report released Thursday by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The report, which focused on private student loans, analyzed more than 5,300 complaints filed in the 12 months ending in September. The total number of complaints jumped by 38 percent from the previous year. Many came from consumers who said they weren’t given enough help when they have trouble paying back their loans.

“We are hearing from consumers that they are driven into default because private student loan companies are not providing concrete loan modification options,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a statement.

Private student loans tend to come with more limited repayment options and fewer options for discharging the debt when compared to federal student loans. People with federal loans are able to apply for income-based repayment plans, which cap monthly payments based on a person’s pay. Some borrowers can also see loans forgiven after 10 years of payments if they take public sector jobs. Others may qualify after 25 years of payments.

Among the chief concerns about private loans — some borrowers said they don’t get enough guidance about what loan modifications are available and what they need to do to qualify. Borrowers said those details were not easy to track down on the Web sites for their lenders or for the loan servicers, the companies that are responsible for collecting payments.

Some people who sought help were presented with temporary fixes that weren’t easy to enact, the report found. For example, some people were told about forbearance, which lets them temporarily suspend payments,  but the enrollment process can be complicated and sometimes requires hefty fees. After getting stuck, some of those borrowers are ending up in default, the CFPB noted.

“Student loan borrowers aren’t saying we want to be off the hook,” said Rohit Chopra, CFPB’s student loan ombudsman. “They’re saying we want to pay this back.”

Total student loan debt outstanding has reached more than $1.2 trillion, according to the CFPB. More than 7 million Americans have defaulted on their student loan debt, the agency says.

The consequences of default can be devastating. More seniors are carrying debt into retirement and having Social Security benefits garnished because of it. Sometimes, the loans they carry into old age were taken out to help pay for a relative’s education. Default is also something many recent graduates will be looking to avoid as soon as the grade period for paying student loans comes to a close.

The CFPB also released new tools meant to help people struggling to pay off student loans, including a sample letter that borrowers can use to request smaller monthly payments from their loan servicers. The agency also released a worksheet that can help people figure out how much they can afford to pay monthly after covering basic living expenses.

Read More:

A guide to paying off your student loans

How debt loads are changing for young and old consumers

Student loan refinancing saves cash–for those who don’t need it