The average student loan debt for Pennsylvania college graduates in 2016 totaled $35,759 – the second-highest amount of any state in the nation.
Pennsylvanians collectively owed $61.8 billion in private and federal student loans as of December 2016.
Did you know? Both data points surprised me.
But it's no surprise that Attorney General Josh Shapiro has jumped into the student loan fray.
Last week, Shapiro's office won a key court decision in a lawsuit against Navient Corp., which it called America's largest servicer of federal and private student loans.
With headquarters in Wilmington and a Wilkes-Barre call center employing roughly 1,000, Navient has offices in Philadelphia's backyard.
The latest legal victory allows the attorney general access to loan records that Navient had refused to provide, arguing loan data were the property of the U.S. Department of Education. The ruling in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ordered Navient to turn over the records.
The AG's Office claims its October 2017 lawsuit could impact hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians who received private student loans from Sallie Mae, one of Navient's predecessors, or anyone who has federal or private loans serviced by Navient and experienced repayment issues.
Navient declined to comment but pointed to past statements. "The allegations are completely unfounded, and the case was filed without any review of Pennsylvania residents' customer accounts," the company said last fall in response to the Pennsylvania lawsuit.
That suit alleges widespread abuses in Navient's student loan origination and servicing, and it may pick up where the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau's January 2017 lawsuit left off. The CFPB's suit has languished under the Trump administration.
"Navient's deceptive practices and predatory conduct harmed student borrowers and put their own profits ahead of the interests of millions of families across Pennsylvania and the country who are struggling to repay student loans," Shapiro said in a statement last week.
Navient CEO Jack Remondi criticized the litigation in June: "If the parties were truly interested in addressing the real issues in higher education and student debt, they would direct their focus" to provide better information about the full cost of earning a degree and the cost of loans used to pay for it, he said. They would also work to increase graduation rates (Remondi blamed dropping out as the largest factor in student loan defaults), simplify repayment programs, and ease the enrollment process for these programs, he added.
"These steps are not easy and require hard work. It is, unfortunately, much easier to file a lawsuit, creating the perception that something is being done," Remondi said.
Academics agree something needs to change.
"We need somebody to fight back on this problem. There's a real problem with the servicers. That's such an important part of the system. We have this structural reliance on loan servicers. If they're not doing their job, it's a problem," said Laura Perna, a professor in the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education and executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy.
Student borrowers who believe they have been subject to unfair or deceptive practices can file a complaint with the Office of Attorney General at www.attorneygeneral.gov, or call 800-441-2555 or email email@example.com.
Separately, U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (D., Md.) said he would call for hearings in Washington regarding the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. More than 28,000 applied, but fewer than 1,000 were accepted. (Public service workers include public school teachers, social workers, police, emergency medical technicians, nurses, and nonprofit lawyers.)
Should the Democrats take control of the House after the November elections, "I would be among a number of members of Congress who would point to this as a priority for hearings and inquiry," Sarbanes said. He authored the loan forgiveness bill in 2007.
"If litigation in this arena moves to a point where it turns up relevant information, then I'm certain, with oversight, we'd take that and do further inquiry," he said. "This goes right to the heart of why Navient's behavior is so outrageous. It's undermining the incentives we're hoping to offer. For a while, the excuse on the part of the servicers was, 'We're trying to get our heads around this program.'"
He's not buying it any longer. Instead of cracking down on the servicers, he said, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos "has the student-loan servicing industry on speed-dial."