Editors' pick: Originally published Oct. 24.
For the last year, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has said that an essential cause of the student loan crisis lies with the borrowers. They just don't want to apply for ED's income-driven loan repayment programs designed to reduce their payments. A 2015 report by the General Accountability Office came to the same conclusion.
Now, over a year after Obama's Student Loan Bill or Rights and the introduction of PAYE and REPAYE, the new income-driven repayment programs, comes a report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) draws a different conclusion: it largely blames the loan servicers, and not for the first time.
"Too many student loan borrowers are struggling to take advantage of their right to pay based on how much money they make," said Seth Frotman, the CFPB's student loan ombudsman. "Services who want to better serve their customers can take the immediate steps recommended in this report to clean up this broken process."
To remedy the problem, the CFPB released its own complaint form in August—dubbed the "Fix It Form"—which it says gives borrowers a short cut to getting satisfaction from their servicers. It also competes with ED's complaint process.
Three months later, how're they doing?
A CFPB spokesperson could not be reached for comment, but this is most likely a work in progress. The CFPB brain trust will likely remain on the job next year--director Richard Cordray's five-year term expires in 2018. Meanwhile much of the ED's leadership, including secretary John King, will have left with the Obama administration. How the two complaint regimes complement each other—or come into conflict—remains to be seen. The CFPB may also be signaling that it will use its UDAAP authority to scope out unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices during enforcement actions to speed up changes in servicing loans that are in an income-driven repayment program--something ED admits will require changes to loan servicing contracts.
Income-driven repayment plans have been touted by the Obama administration as a shining path toward the reduction of monthly payments, but some borrowers have trouble taking the first step. In August, the CFPB's catalogued complaints about needless hassles borrowers face in applying for income-driven repayment of student loans, which include income contingent repayment, (ICR), income-based repayment (IBR), PAYE and REPAYE. The report said applications delays lead to thousands of dollars in extra costs.
Borrowers are beginning to get with the program; about five million enrolled in income-based repayment plans as of the first quarter of 2016 according to the CFPB's report. But the report concludes many more eligible borrowers are not benefiting from the program, leading to needless defaults—that led the CFPB to produce a two-paged "Fix It Form" as an alternative the 12-page, 10,000 word federal Income Driven Payment Plan Request form.
The CFPB flagged servicer delays as a big reason for income driven repayment sign-up fails. "Borrowers note that their applications were rejected when servicers' application processing delays coincided with changes in borrowers circumstances, resulting in inaccurate information on the applications," the Bureau said.
One borrower the CFPB cited "complained that she submitted a complete application and, after nearly four months of processing, received a note rejecting her enrollment in income-driven repayment because her income information was 90 days old."
The servicers have been the object of some withering criticism by borrowers and regulators alike. However, not all student loan experts believe that the servicers, which ED hires an pays to collect payments and communicate with borrowers, should take all the blame.
"The main complaint I've been hearing from borrowers is that servicers have been requiring spouses to sign the forms, even though income-based repayment (IBR) and Pay-As-You-Earn Repayment (PAYER) is based only on the borrower's income if the borrower files as married filing separately," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy at Cappex.com "The Revised Pay-As-You-Earn Repayment (REPAYER) plan reinstated a marriage penalty and does require the spouse's income for calculating the monthly payment even if the borrower files as married filing separately."
Other sources who spoke on background believe this is a directive that originated with ED, not the servicers, and that ED is trying to steer borrowers into the REPAYER plan because it costs the government less money—and the borrowers more. Kantrowiz noted: "It is ironic that the CFPB's response to borrower difficulty with a U.S. Department of Education loan is to create a new form."
People with student loans have also played a role making this difficult, especially when it comes to blowing off communications from servicers.
"There have been problems with borrowers ignoring notices from servicers of the need to renew the authorization," Kantrowitz acknowledged, "in part because the email messages are required to be secure (per U.S. Department of Education rules), so the borrower has to login to the servicing web site to retrieve the message. Also, the servicer cannot provide a meaningful subject line, again because of privacy rules. So, some borrowers ignore the email from the servicers, causing them to miss deadlines for renewing the authorization."