It seems private student loan borrowers have experienced significant obstacles when trying to restructure and pay down their debts, according to the annual report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau student loan ombudsman.
The report said the CFPB received more complaints than expected: 3,800 private student loan complaints from Oct. 1, 2012, through Sept. 30, 2013. The bureau started collecting such complaints in March of last year, so this is the second report — and it’s the first report that covers a 12-month period.
Though the complaints aren’t nationally representative, they give insight into the frustrations borrowers encounter when tackling student debt. Notably, the report highlights similarities between these complaints and the ones that surfaced among consumers in the mortgage market following the financial crisis. Rohit Chopra, the ombudsman, noted that these parallels indicate that student loan servicers are not taking actions necessary to avoid a meltdown like the one experienced by the mortgage industry.
The Common Complaints
The most commonly reported issue involved borrowers attempting to refinance their student debt during times of financial hardship. Nearly half of the complaints came from distressed consumers seeking options for lower monthly payments.
Chopra also focused on reports of military borrowers receiving improper treatment. The previous annual report also highlighted this troubling trend, and while it seems to have improved, the 2013 report notes that lenders continue to make improper demands of active-duty servicemembers seeking assistance under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.
Even for consumers who are able to make timely payments, the process has seemingly been messy. The complaints submitted to the CFPB note the confusing online platforms and poor customer service provided by loan servicers.
Borrowers looking to pay down their debt more quickly found it difficult to apply their payments the way they wanted — like paying off the loan with the highest interest rate faster — and many encountered issues when their loans were transferred to new servicers. Sometimes, these struggles resulted in more late fees than necessary, possibly translating to more delinquencies on a consumer’s credit report.
What Does It Mean?
All these roadblocks can turn into negative hits on consumer credit, leading to difficulty accessing other forms of credit and decent interest rates for mortgages, auto loans and other products.
The complaints mostly targeted the same servicers, which the report said isn’t surprising, since the loans are concentrated among a small group of servicers. Sallie Mae, which has the largest share of private student loans, was the subject of 49% of the complaints, and 87% of the complaints were spread among the same eight institutions: Sallie Mae, American Education Services/PHEAA, Wells Fargo, Discover, JPMorgan Chase, ACS Education Services, Citibank and KeyBank.
While the sample wasn’t representative of the student borrower population, the complaints indicate that consumers have serious issues managing their debts in the ways they want to.
Seeing the pattern of complaints shared by mortgage borrowers, credit card holders and student loan borrowers, the ombudsman recommended policymakers look at the measures taken to address mortgage and credit card consumer confusion and see if similar solutions can be applied to student loans.