41 million Americans owe money on college loans. 10 million are late, or have stopped paying. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Education and Treasury Departments last week issued this joint report examining the disconnect between lenders (mostly the government), borrowers (students), schools (including the private for-profit trade schools where most deadbeat students go) and servicers (the collection firms that end up squeezing students and parents for payments years later) and said, in sum, We gotta find out more about this.
The agencies note that a lot of college borrowers don't understand how much they end up paying over the long run - and aren't equipped to distinguish between government-backed loan deferment, forbearance, forgiveness, slow-pay and pay-what-you-can programs, all to keep borrowers from going completely deadbeat.
Call the Education Department, your lender, and your loan collector or servicing firm, and you are likely to hear from each about different troubled-loan programs and alternatives, each with different short- and long-term effects on your payments and your loan's co-signers (hi, Mom and Dad!). There are so many choices that borrowers have to "evaluate trade-offs between competing benefits," the report says.
And whose fault is that? The servicers? "Shoddy student loan servicers are failing to enroll borrowers in income-based repayment plans when they get into trouble paying these loans," says Maura Dundon, counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending. "Student loan servicing is a mess in need of an urgent cleanup and more government oversight."
Or is it the borrower's fault? "Federal policy should make it a priority to educate borrowers before they sign on the dotted line," argued Navient, the Wilmington-based company that contracts with the government to service student loans and make sure they are repaid, in a presentation to investors the same day the government report came out.
Maybe borrowers too distracted to read a loan agreement and weigh the costs of not being able to pay the money back aren't ready to borrow for college?
Maybe we ought to test borrowers - make them take a loan SAT - before they sign up for college debt?
Even though one-quarter of borrowers are late, they are late on only about $175 billion, or one-seventh, of the $1.2 trillion-plus in outstanding student loans. So the typical student in trouble borrowed less than the average of all student borrowers. It's as if serious students who borrow a lot to complete a challenging pre-professional curriculum may be more likely to pay it back than those who casually take a few for-profit trade school courses before calling it quits.
The government points out that the typical student debt load - the amount owed on graduation - is up 60% from 2007 levels, outpacing inflation. But Navient, the Wilmington-based student loan servicer, replies that the actual monthly debt payment is up less than 20%, compared with 2000, when loan terms were more onerous.