ATLANTA - Issuing a clarion call to Americans saddled by student debt, President Obama urged student borrowers Tuesday to stand up for their rights, and announced a medley of modest steps to bring some order to a notoriously chaotic system.
Obama unveiled his "student aid bill of rights" before a gymnasium packed with nearly 10,000 students at Georgia Tech, where he said the nation must mobilize to bring about deeper changes to student loans. Not only should every American be able to afford college, Obama said, they also should be able to afford the loan payments that kick in with a vengeance once they graduate.
"We're trying to tackle this problem from every angle," Obama said. "We want to make this experience more affordable, because you're not just investing in yourselves, you're investing in your nation."
The government estimates total U.S. student debt exceeds $1.1 trillion, with about seven million Americans in default.
In the Oval Office ahead of his brief visit to Atlanta, Obama signed a presidential memorandum with policy tweaks that does not require new legislation from Congress - a plus as far as the White House is concerned. The memo targets third parties like Navient - formerly Sallie Mae - that contract with the government to collect on loans. Those companies will be required to better inform borrowers about repayment options and notify them when they are delinquent, the White House said.
Obama also called for a website where students can see all of their federal loans in one place - a major problem for students with multiple loans or debt that has been sold from lender to lender. He also called for a website where borrowers can file complaints. The steps aim to crack down on a student loan system known for being complex and confusing to navigate. In recent years, lawsuits and critical government reports have cast a light on industry abuses and the difficulties facing borrowers.
A Consumer Financial Protection Bureau study last year found borrowers were getting little help when they ran into trouble and had few affordable repayment options. And in May, Sallie Mae reached a $60 million settlement with the Justice Department to resolve allegations that it charged military members excessive interest rates and improperly sought default judgments.
Obama also floated the possibility of proposing changes to how student loans are affected by bankruptcy. Currently, student loans cannot typically be discharged even in bankruptcy. His memo also requires servicers to apply early payments to loans with the highest interest rates, helping students pay off debt faster.