NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Critics of the President Obama's Student Aid Bill of Rights, introduced earlier this month, have raised questions about its vague objectives on student loans. It wants the Department of Education (ED) to ensure that debt collection on defaulted loans is done fairly without providing much detail. It wants to hold loan servicers to a higher standard without specifying what those standards would be.
It will also not allow privately-issued loans to be written off in a bankruptcy as with other types of consumer debt --something that Congress would have to change. The only tangible protection it appears to offer would direct servicers to apply pre-payments to loans with the highest interest rates. But does the buck--and new safeguards--stop there?
Now Senate Democrats seem ready to bolster this initiative with their add-on to Obama's proposal, The Student Loan Borrower Bill of Rights.
Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) introduced the bill on Tuesday to ensure that student loan borrowers get a fair shake and understand the repayment options and resources available to them.
“I commend the President’s announcement of additional relief for student borrowers earlier this month, but that doesn’t excuse Congress from addressing our national student debt crisis," said Durbin on Tuesday. While it wasn't clear whether this was a veiled criticism of the White House or his Republican colleagues--or both--Durbin pointed to the 40 million Americans he said were receiving inadequate assistance in paying of some $1.2 trillion in student loans as reason for drafting the legislation. Durbin also wants to allow the write-off of private loans in a bankrupty filing.
“Student loan borrowers should receive clear and accurate information about their loans and repayment options,” said Warren, who is a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension (HELP) Committee. “Since last year, nearly a million more borrowers have fallen behind on their student loan payments and total student loan debt in this country continues to grow. I’m joining Senators Durbin and Reed in introducing the Student Loan Borrower Bill of Rights to help strengthen protections for student borrowers and to improve accountability for servicers.”
Many students with federal loans that have strong consumer safeguards also have private loans with no limits on interest rates and few, if any, alternative repayment plans. Loan servicers sometimes misallocate payments to loans with lower interest rates which delays the pay off.
The Student Loan Borrower’s Bill of Rights, Durbin said, "would give borrowers the right to have options such as alternative payment plans to avoid default, the right to be informed about terms and conditions of the loan and the right to know your loan’s servicer and who to reach out to when there is a problem.”
It was not clear which Republicans might vote with Senate Democrats for this bill. Since the 2014 mid-term elections, the GOP now has a majority in the Senate. Whether or not this bill has a snowball's chance in Miami Beach, it may herald a showdown with the GOP over higher ed issues and the long slog toward reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), which is the font of all Federal aid to students and is expected to be completed this year. The HEA first became law in 1965 during Lyndon Johnson's administration and was last reauthorized in 2008.
On Monday Senate Republicans released three white papers under the imprimatur of the HELP Committee on accreditation, the availability of student consumer information and risk sharing, which contain suggestions that dissension exists within the GOP on these issues. The paper on consumer information advocates creating a data base for tracking students which HELP chair Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) opposes. The risk sharing paper advocates placing sanctions on colleges whose students have high rates of default.
--Written by John Sandman for MainStreet