You’re not alone if you’re confused about your student loans or feel stymied by your student loan servicer. More and more resources out there can help, but you can’t use them if you don’t know they exist.
We talked to Seth Frotman, who works at the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as student loan ombudsman and assistant director of its Office for Students and Young Consumers. The CFPB was created to help consumers after the financial crisis of 2008; Frotman’s office collects consumer complaints about student loans, publishes reports about the industry, and drafts policy recommendations to improve student loan servicing.
Here’s how Frotman says you can use the CFPB and other tools to get your loans in shape. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re the CFPB’s student loan ombudsman. Lots of readers are probably wondering: What does an ombudsman do?
We protect consumers from harmful practices and take actions against companies that break the law. We were created in the wake of the financial meltdown — the mortgage crisis of 2008 to 2009 — and the president and Congress recognized the need to address widespread failures in consumer protection and the rapid growth in irresponsible lending practices. Congress then created a special position at the CFPB to work on behalf of the over 40 million student loan borrowers. That’s the office that I lead.
We take complaints directly from consumers, so we hear every day about the challenges they are facing with their student loans. We hear from too many student loan borrowers who, for one reason or another, can’t get the information they need from their student loan company or feel like they’re getting the runaround.
So in one regard, it’s a way for individual borrowers to get answers and hopefully get their issues resolved. But what we hear from consumers also directly impacts the larger work we do at the bureau, whether that’s helping us prioritize what enforcement actions we should take — but also the issues we highlight to help clean up the marketplace.
What’s your office working on right now?
A top priority of our office is cleaning up the student loan servicing marketplace. We have estimated that 1 in 4 student loan borrowers is either behind or in default. And unfortunately, we see too many borrowers needlessly defaulting when there are affordable repayment plans that they have the right to under federal law.
The prototypes of this playbook are available online, and we’re asking for feedback from the industry, from consumers, from your readers to tell us what they think of them, how we can improve them. But essentially what they are are personalized disclosures [or descriptions of your choices] which will have information about the borrower’s repayment options so they can secure a monthly payment they can afford.
We hope that in the not-too-distant future that these [playbooks] will be available to borrowers on their monthly bills, regular email communications from their student loan servicers and when they log on to their student account. We’re hoping to get as much feedback as we possibly can by the June 12 deadline.
In your October 2015 annual report, you noted that many student loan borrowers complained about “servicing and debt collection practices that create barriers to enroll in alternative repayment plans, including income-driven repayment plans for borrowers with federal loans.” Can you talk more about that?
We have real concerns over the student loan servicing market. For those who don’t know, the student loan servicer is the company that you send your payments to and, if you’re struggling, you reach out to to try to figure out what your options are. And while we’ve seen borrowers in other products like mortgage and credit cards somewhat regain their footing after the economic recession, unfortunately that is not the case in the student loan market.
We saw some disturbing statistics recently come out of the top federal auditor, who found that of borrowers in default, 70% actually had the income eligibility to be in one of these income-driven repayment plans, but unfortunately wound up in default despite that protection available to them.
I think what we continuously hear from consumers is lost paperwork, misapplied payments and getting the runaround from their servicers. And unfortunately, what we have seen is an eerie similarity to the mortgage breakdown, when people were struggling to stay in their homes and they reached out to their servicers and were never able to get the information to get themselves set up for success.
What do you wish more people knew about their student loans?
If you are having a problem with your student loans, you can file a complaint with the CFPB. And our complaint system has already helped many borrowers when faced with billing errors, lost paperwork and other servicing issues.
I think the second issue is the real growth in student debt relief scams. So unfortunately, just as we saw in the mortgage context, when borrowers are struggling, too many unscrupulous businesses often find a way to prey on those vulnerable borrowers. The bureau and now a host of state law enforcement officials have taken action against these student loan debt relief scams.
Don’t pay for help with your student loans if you’re struggling or looking for an alternative repayment plan. Reach out to your student loan servicer or go to our website at consumerfinance.gov and check out the resources we have to help you get enrolled in a repayment plan you can afford, for absolutely no cost.
What advice do you have for families who are trying to figure out how to pay for college? How about for college seniors who just graduated?
For many people, the choice about where they go to school and the debt load they take on will be one of, if not the, largest financial decision they will make. Really understanding that decision and the corresponding amount of debt that will continue with you for 10, 15, 20 years — we just can’t emphasize enough the importance of making a sound decision around this choice.
For those who are just graduating, I think it’s really important to understand your repayment options. But due to breakdowns in the marketplace, unfortunately, we still see too many people needlessly ending up in default. I think that’s something that we are going to continue to work on.
There is support available to you if you’re unable to make student loan payments or if you’re having trouble communicating with your servicer. Check out these student loan resources from the CFPB, the U.S. Department of Education and NerdWallet: