Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray’s agency found widespread failures in the way companies are servicing student loans. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The sloppy, haphazard work of student loan servicers, the middlemen who collect and apply payments, is creating obstacles to repayment, raising costs and driving borrowers into default. Now, 1 in 4 of the more than 41 million people with student loans is in default or struggling to make payments.

Those are the findings of a blistering report released Tuesday by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The government watchdog outlined widespread problems in the way servicers manage student loans made by the government and private lenders. The report dovetails with a joint initiative that the CFPB, the Treasury Department and the Education Department announced Tuesday to reform the market.

“With one out of four student loan borrowers struggling to repay their loans or already in default, cleaning up the servicing market is critical,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a statement. “Today’s report underscores the need for marketwide student loan servicing reforms to halt harmful practices and boost assistance for distressed borrowers.”

Companies such as Navient, Great Lakes, Nelnet and American Education Services are paid millions of dollars by the federal government and private lenders to not only handle payments but also to answer questions and help people avoid falling behind or defaulting on their loans. Defaulting on student debt can severely damage a person’s credit score, making it much harder to buy a car or a house.

The Obama administration has instituted broad initiatives to give students more options for repaying their federal loans, expanding programs that cap monthly payments to a percentage of earnings.

Yet at least 11 million people with federal and private loans are past due or have not made a payment in nine months, signaling that servicers are not doing enough to make people aware of their options to stay current, the report says.

[Not enough people know of a critical way to manage student debt. And it’s the government’s fault, GAO says.]

The bureau received more than 30,000 comments from borrowers, servicers and other stakeholders through a public request for experiences with and solutions to improve loan servicing.

People reported their servicers spreading out payments across multiple loans and triggering late fees. Others said that they ran into trouble trying to lower the interest on their private loans, a charge confirmed by accounts from refinancing companies that received inaccurate payoff statements.

Many borrowers accused servicers of losing paperwork, processing payments too slowly or sending inaccurate billing statements. All of those practices are reminiscent of the problems that arose out of the housing foreclosure crisis, Treasury Deputy Secretary Sarah Bloom Raskin said.

“Servicers were supposed to play a critical role in helping people avoid foreclosure, and I see similarities in the student loan space,” Raskin said in an interview. “The rigidity and complexities of the system are things I’d like to see improved upon as we redesign the student loan finance system.”

Treasury, alongside the CFPB and the Education Department, issued a set of general principles to guide the servicers as they overhaul servicing practices, as President Obama directed earlier this year.

[Obama plans to make it easier to pay your student loans]

The agencies said that they will make sure borrowers have access to the information they need to responsibly repay their loans, to protections that will be treated fairly and to assurances that servicers will be held accountable for their behavior.

Ultimately, the CFPB has the authority to institute marketwide servicing standards, which several servicers, including Navient and the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, support.

In a comment letter to the bureau, Navient wrote that a “standardized approach across servicers and across loan types will support an enhanced borrower experience, particularly for borrowers with federal and private loans, or loans with more than one servicer.”

Navient spokeswoman Patricia Christel said in an e-mail that of the borrowers who default, 90 percent have not responded to multiple attempts to reach them over the year. She also noted that only 2.1 percent of the company’s borrowers were more than 271 days delinquent, 11 percent below the next-best-performing servicer.

Even if the bureau drafts new standards today, some consumer advocates worry that the process will be drawn out and borrowers will continue to struggle while they wait for a resolution.

“It will take years for the CFPB to draft, finalize and implement rules, and in the meantime, millions of student loan borrowers will continue to face the same problems they are experiencing right now,” said Chris Hicks, an organizer for Jobs With Justice’s Debt-Free Future campaign. “Even worse, the Education Department has been sitting on its hands for five years and not addressing any of these problems that they’ve allowed to occur under their supervision.”

The department has renegotiated its contracts with the companies that manage the government’s portfolio of student debt, offering bonuses to those that reduce delinquencies or defaults. The agency is in the middle of creating a Web site for borrowers to file complaints and provide feedback about federal student lenders, servicers and collection agencies.

Want to read more about student loan servicers? Check out:

Private student loans may be more of a headache than you want

A guide to paying off your student loans

Sidelined by disability and saddled with student loans

There’s a way to dramatically lower student debt payments, but hardly anyone use it