Student loan companies are responsible for informing borrowers about affordable repayment options that can help them stay on track

College students / Student Loan Borrowers Were Not Enrolled in Affordable Repayment Plans
Image: Pexels
May 22, 2017

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has released an analysis of a student loan industry data sample showing that 9 in 10 of the highest-risk borrowers were not enrolled in federal affordable repayment plans.

The analysis looks at hundreds of thousands of the highest-risk borrowers who are exiting default and may be eligible for federal programs that allow them to pay based on how much money they make.

Student loan companies are responsible for informing borrowers about affordable repayment options that can help them stay on track. The CFPB also found that nearly half of the highest-risk borrowers not enrolled in an affordable repayment plan redefault—compared to less than 10 percent of those who are enrolled.

"Too many struggling borrowers fall through the cracks in a broken, outdated student loan system," said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. "These people did everything that was asked of them to get back on their feet, only to end up deeper in debt. We will continue to work to make sure this industry provides borrowers with the kind of service they deserve."

"For far too many student loan borrowers, the dream of a fresh start turns into a nightmare of default and deeper debt," said CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman Seth Frotman. "When student loan companies know that nearly half of their highest-risk customers will quickly fail, it's time to fix the broken system that makes this possible."

The CFPB points out that the student loan market has grown rapidly in the last decade with about 44 million Americans now owing money. The combined total for outstanding federal and private student loan debt now exceeds a whopping $1.4 trillion—with the vast majority being from federal loans. The Department of Education estimates that more than 8 million federal student loan borrowers have gone at least 12 months without making a required monthly payment and have fallen into default. Nearly 1.2 million borrowers defaulted in the past year. These borrowers face negative consequences such as wage garnishment, loss of federal benefits, and negative credit history.

Federal student loan borrowers have access to programs that are intended to provide a fresh start through two primary options. Under the first option, borrowers can work with a debt collector to "rehabilitate" their defaulted debt—a process where borrowers have to make nine on-time payments over 10 months to exit default. Generally, the federal government pays debt collectors to take these payments and then transfers borrowers back to a servicer or to the government for assignment to a servicer. Servicers then can help these borrowers enroll in an affordable repayment plan.

Under the second option, borrowers can refinance the defaulted debt by consolidating it into a new federal Direct Consolidation loan, which immediately moves them into an affordable repayment plan. The CFPB says that most debt collectors use rehabilitation to get borrowers out of default, which constitutes more than 70 percent of all federal loan collections.

Last year, the Bureau sent student loan servicers a voluntary information request seeking new information on how previously defaulted borrowers perform over time. Servicers collectively handling accounts for more than 20 million student loan borrowers provided information in response to the Bureau's request. This included data about borrower performance for more than 600,000 of the highest-risk student loan borrowers. The highest-risk borrowers are those who previously defaulted on a federal student loan, exited default, and were then transferred to a student loan servicer.

Today's report provides the public with a preliminary update on this information, including data related to the performance of certain previously defaulted student loan borrowers. See the CFPB's full report.

The CFPB says that this data offers new evidence that borrowers, taxpayers, and student loan companies would benefit from a clearer, more streamlined process to help previously defaulted borrowers succeed over the long term, and to ensure borrowers avoid default in the first place.

The Bureau has called for an overhaul of these programs to place greater emphasis on the long-term success of economically vulnerable student loan borrowers.