Seth Frotman, the former student loan watchdog at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is launching a new nonprofit, the Student Borrower Protection Center, with two other former colleagues to advocate for students and take on the nation's bureaucratic student-loan complex.
A student borrower defaults on a college loan every 28 seconds, an event with potential devastating economic consequences for individuals, the Inquirer reported earlier this month. American student debtors now owe $1.5 trillion to private banks and the federal government through the Department of Education. These debts are growing faster than auto loans, mortgages, and credit card balances.
Pennsylvania students graduate with some of the highest debt in the nation, according to multiple private research reports. And two of the largest student loan servicers, Navient and the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, are based in Delaware and Pennsylvania, respectively.
"What became abundantly clear at the [CFPB], particularly over the last three years, is that we are in the midst of a student debt crisis," Frotman said. "There was no desire. There was no effort. There was no plan to help student loan borrowers who were struggling. The only way to continue do this work was to leave the federal government."
Frotman, 40, quit the federal regulatory agency in August to protest Trump administration policies he believed aligned the regulatory agency with the industry rather than 44 million debt-ridden student borrowers.
The two additional former CFPB officials who are launching the Washington-based Student Borrower Protection Center with Frotman are Mike Pierce, a deputy assistant director, and Bonnie Latreille, a policy analyst. They specialized in student loans oversight.
Frotman said he expects to "engage the front lines of the student debt crisis" by talking with lawmakers in state capitals — he spoke at a hearing in Albany, N.Y., on Tuesday about a student loan oversight bill — and law-enforcement officials. Frotman said he expects broad financial support from foundations and a network of researchers and fellows as part of the group.
The CFPB hasn't replaced Frotman since his departure as student loan ombudsman, the CFPB confirmed, but per Congress's instructions, there is an inter-agency process for filling the role that is underway.
Persis Yu, the director of the student borrower project at the National Consumer Law Center, said that Frotman and his team leveraged their access inside CFPB to analyze and publicize the breadth of the student loan crisis, bringing attention to the problems at Navient and other servicers.
Navient shares dropped last week after an ongoing government audit found deceptive practices at the company that may have resulted in tens of thousands of students opting into higher-cost loans.
The results of the audit, reported by the Associated Press, implied that the nation's third-largest student loan servicing company appeared to boost profits by steering some borrowers into higher-cost plans without discussing options that would have been less expensive over the longer term.
The company has denied wrongdoing, and the stock price has recovered somewhat to trade at around $11.25 a share.
Navient is currently battling lawsuits in Pennsylvania and other state courts, where multiple Attorneys General accused the company of misleading practices. The AP received a copy of the audit from the office of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), a frequent critic of Navient and current U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
"Navient's brazen insistence that it has acted appropriately, even when they knew there was evidence proving that it had not, is pretty astonishing," said the Roosevelt Institute fellow Julie Margetta Morgan. "But I think it just speaks to their level of certainty in the Department of Education's willingness to protect servicers at all costs."
On Tuesday, in a conference with the Education Department's Student Aid division in Georgia, DeVos told attendees that "when the federal government loans more taxpayer money, schools raise their rates," adding that federal student aid "accounts for 80 percent of the actual tuition and fee revenue received by the schools."