The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said Friday that it is investigating whether loan servicing companies are making it difficult for people with past-due student debt to work out a solution because of their race, ethnicity, gender or age.
“We’re looking at disparities in outcomes … and we believe there may be some,” Patrice Alexander Ficklin, director of the office of fair lending at the CFPB, said on a call with reporters Friday.
She said her team has identified student loan servicing as an area with substantial risk of credit discrimination. Although Ficklin would not explicitly say how the CFPB reached that conclusion, she said her office decides what to prioritize based on consumer complaints, tips from advocacy groups and data analysis.
The CFPB will evaluate discrimination in the servicing industry by comparing outcomes for all student loan borrowers who are in default on federal and private education loans. Ficklin said the bureau has already zeroed in on servicers it views as high risk, but would not disclose names. The bureau has jurisdiction over the largest servicing companies, including Navient, Great Lakes and American Education Services.
The number of people severely behind on repaying their student debt has soared in the past year. Millions of people had not made a payment on $137 billion in federal student loans for at least nine months in 2016, a 14 percent increase in defaults from a year earlier, according to an analysis by the Consumer Federation of America.
Policy analysts have questioned the effectiveness of student loan servicing as tens of thousands of people are defaulting for at least a second time, even though there are programs that limit monthly payments to a percentage of earnings. Those income-driven plans are designed to help people avoid default, which can ruin their credit and result in the government garnishing their wages, tax refunds or Social Security. The Government Accountability Office has found breakdowns in servicers informing borrowers about affordable repayment options, as has the CFPB.
The bureau has also reported on problems in the federal student loan rehabilitation program, which erases a default from a person’s credit report after nine consecutive payments over a 10-month period to a debt collector. Participants in the program have complained to the CFPB of collection agencies setting incorrect monthly payment amounts, having trouble verifying their income and not applying payments toward the rehabilitation process.
Friday’s announcement arrives days after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos revoked federal guidance issued by the Obama administration to strengthen consumer protections in student loan servicing contracts. DeVos rescinded three memos that, among other things, called for financial incentives for targeted outreach to people at risk of defaulting on their loans. Servicers would have also had their compensation based on response time to answering calls, completing applications for income-driven repayment plans, errors made during communications and the amount of time it takes to process payments.
In the absence of those directives, advocacy groups have said they expect the CFPB to take the lead in holding loan servicing companies accountable. The bureau has documented instances of servicers providing inconsistent information, misplacing paperwork and charging unexpected fees. It has also been more aggressive in taking legal action than the Education Department, with lawsuits or enforcement orders regarding the loan servicing practices of Navient, Wells Fargo and Discover.
“The CFPB and our state law enforcement partners remain committed to addressing the widespread illegal practices identified across the student loan servicing industry,” Seth Frotman, the student loan ombudsman at the CFPB. “We will continue to use all of our authorities, including our law enforcement authorities, to protect the 44 million Americans with student loan debt.”
When asked whether the bureau considers the Education Department as a partner, Frotman would only say the CFPB “will continue to work with all parties who are interested in standing up with student loan borrowers.” He said holding servicers accountable “is going to require federal, state, local partnerships because borrowers simply deserve better than they’re getting.”
Education officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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