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Seeking answers for struggling student loan borrowers

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Thousands of borrowers have told us their stories on how they manage tough times with their student loans. Some students ended up borrowing much more than they expected in order to complete their degree, often because a parent lost a job in the midst of the financial crisis. Others had a tough time finding a job after graduation, making student loan payments difficult to afford.

Many borrowers have found help through income-driven repayment plans, where your payment is capped as a portion of your income. In the past year, more than one million student loan borrowers signed up for income-driven repayment plans on their Federal Direct student loans – an increase of 64 percent.

Too many private student loan borrowers are trapped

The private student loan market boomed in the years leading up to the financial crisis, where many lenders aggressively marketed loans and quickly sold them to investors. While these practices have subsided, too many borrowers with these loans find themselves out of luck and out of options. Unlike federal loans, most borrowers with private student loans don’t have flexible repayment options when they run into trouble. They report receiving very little information or help when they get in trouble, that there are no affordable loan modification options available, and that the alternatives to default are temporary at best.

Last year, Director Richard Cordray and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, along with senior officials from across the government, brought together the nation’s largest student lenders and servicers. We urged them to develop more options to help borrowers avoid default and increase the likelihood of full repayment.

Will student lenders and servicers make a deal?

Today, we’re asking several players in the student loan industry to find out what progress they’ve made. We’re looking to find out what loan modification options lenders and servicers provide, how customers can learn about their repayment options, and how borrowers can get approved. This effort also complements the work of the CFPB and our other regulators to help prevent repayment problems for future borrowers.

Borrowers across the country have told us that they aren’t looking to get off the hook, they just need a payment plan that they can afford. One borrower told us:

“I have no options left in regard to lowering my payment, forbearance, deferment or delaying my payments. I work full time as a teacher, but my student loan payment is more than a third of my income. My [specialty student loan company] just told me that there is nothing I can do but let my private loans go into default and to try to work something out with the collections agency. I have no qualms about paying a monthly fee that I can afford, but currently the money just does not exist.”

But many consumers have asked why their private student lenders won’t make a deal. After all, if lenders and servicers offered lower payments during a tough time, borrowers could avoid default and lenders could get fully repaid over the long run – a “win-win” for all.

In addition, several industry players have shared with us that they are willing to make deals with borrowers and will be launching new programs. But even today, many borrowers still have questions about these new repayment plans: What are the options? How do I enroll? Will other lenders offer similar repayment options?

The inquiry we are launching today can help us get to the bottom of these questions. Here’s an example of the information request that we’re issuing.

If you need student loan help today

If you’re in trouble today, check out our advice for borrowers. You can find a sample letter you can send to your student loan servicer to help get clear options – if they exist – on how to avoid default.

To learn more about other options when repaying private and federal student loans, check out Repay Student Debt. If you still need help resolving a student loan issue, like a surprise default or a payment processing mistake, submit a complaint.

When we hear back from the student loan industry on their efforts, we’ll be sure to update you.

Rohit Chopra is the CFPB’s Student Loan Ombudsman. To learn more about our work for students and young Americans, visit consumerfinance.gov/students.

Struggling private student loan borrowers are still searching for help

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In the years leading up to the financial crisis, many of the same subprime lending practices that led to troubles in the mortgage market also existed in the private student loan market. Like the homeowners who turned to their mortgage servicer to modify their loans but ran into customer service dead ends, lost paperwork and other breakdowns, many private student loan borrowers are looking for a clear path to stay current and avoid default.

Today we’re releasing a new report summarizing complaints from private student loan borrowers about difficulties faced when working with a lender or servicer to avoid default.

While federal student loans have a number of loan modification options to help borrowers avoid default, private student loan servicers and lenders may not make it easy for borrowers to get help in times of distress, which may have consequences for not only your financial future, but also for the broader economy.

For example, our analysis of complaints reveals that many of you tried to find out more information by calling your lender or servicer, but received conflicting or inaccurate information as you were bounced between call center staff. Many of you told us how you were provided no option at all, driving you into default, even though a reduced payment plan might be in the best interest of both you and your lender.

Request for repayment options

After listening to you and to the student loan industry, we’ve developed some advice for borrowers who want accurate information on alternative repayment plans and loan modification options, including a set of instructions that you can consider sending to your private student loan servicer (the company that sends a bill each month).

You can download the sample letter and mail it to your lender or servicer, or you can use the text below to provide instructions using the “Send a Message” or “Contact Us” feature when you log into your account on the servicer’s website.

Although some companies are willing to help borrowers during a time of financial distress, unfortunately, not all private student loan companies offer assistance when consumers are struggling to repay their loans. Using this letter may help you get a clear answer and avoid long hold times and transfers from one call center representative to another.

I am writing to you because I need to reduce my monthly private student loan payment due to a financial hardship. I am requesting a payment that allows me to meet my other necessary living expenses.

Please conduct a review of my account to determine whether I am eligible for an alternative repayment plan.

[This paragraph is optional] I believe I can afford to pay $____ per month toward my loan(s). If you require details on my monthly income and expenses, I have attached a worksheet which you can use to make an evaluation.

If you require additional authorization in order to reduce the amount of my monthly payment, please consider this letter a written request that you contact my lender or other authorized party to conduct a review of my account and provide a response within 15 days of receipt of this letter.

If you do not grant this request for a reduced payment plan, I will be at risk of default. If I receive a reduced payment plan, I may be able to avoid default, which is in the best interest of all parties.

If you determine that you are unwilling to provide a reduced payment plan, please provide the following information:

  • What available reduced payment options do you offer other than forbearance?
  • For what reason(s) am I ineligible for these repayment programs?
  • If I am not eligible for these repayment programs, when will I become eligible?
  • What steps do I need to take to qualify for these repayment programs?
  • Do you anticipate modifying these repayment programs in the future?
  • Where on your website can I find additional information on these alternative repayment programs?

In addition, if you are unable to provide any of the information or documentation I have requested or otherwise cannot comply with this request, please provide an explanation.

I hope we will be able to agree upon an acceptable repayment plan.

Thank you for your cooperation.

These instructions may help you get valuable information on repayment options to reduce your monthly payment or to temporarily postpone making payments. You can also download a sample financial worksheet that you can use to determine the maximum amount of money you can put toward student loans.

Some student loan companies have told us that they may ask for recent pay stubs or a bank statement to verify income and expenses. Consider including these documents with your request, which you can mail or send through your private student loan servicer’s website after you login.

We also have other sample letters you can send to your student loan servicer to give payment instructions or request that your co-signer be released and others you can send to a student loan debt collector.

If you’re experiencing a problem with a student loan or debt collection, you can submit a complaint online or call us at (855) 411-2372.

If you have questions about repaying student loans, check out our Repay Student Debt tool to find out how you can tackle your student loan debt.

Rohit Chopra is the CFPB’s Student Loan Ombudsman. To learn more about our work for students and young Americans, visit consumerfinance.gov/students.

We’re protecting students from predatory lending

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Today, we filed a lawsuit against ITT Educational Services, Inc., accusing the for-profit college chain of predatory student lending. We believe that ITT used high-pressure tactics to push many students into expensive private student loans that were likely to end in default.

This is our first public enforcement action against a company in the for-profit college industry.

“Today’s action should serve as a warning to the for-profit college industry that we will be vigilant about protecting students against predatory lending tactics,” said Director Richard Cordray.

You can read the press release, read Director Cordray’s full remarks, and view the formal complaint against ITT.

You can also watch a recording of today’s press conference.

What sunshine for student financial products can show us

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Recently, we alerted financial institutions about the potentially risky practice of not readily disclosing arrangements with colleges and universities to market bank accounts, prepaid cards, debit cards, and other financial products to students. Director Cordray called on financial institutions to voluntarily make these agreements available on their websites.

According to a survey of school officials, 69 percent of debit card agreements are already available to the public, since many contracts with public colleges and universities are subject to state open records laws. We identified agreements available in the public domain by checking state open records databases and other websites where agreements were disclosed.

Some financial institutions offer low-cost student financial products as a way of developing long-lasting relationships with students as they start their financial lives. For example, one credit union told us that “over 85 percent of student accounts remain open one year following graduation.” But other financial institutions generate a significant amount of their revenue on these products while students are currently in school.

Here’s how they work

Some of these agreements were difficult to find, but here are a few examples of the different agreements financial institutions have with colleges and universities. We didn’t verify whether these agreements are current, but the examples give us a sense of how some of these agreements work.

1. Direct payments for using school logos

We found several agreements where a financial institution offers a licensing fee in order to use a school’s logo to market its financial products. (In 2008, Congress restricted this practice for student loans, but not for other financial products.) For example, we found an agreement which provides $25 million to a university for use of the school’s logo, among other benefits.

2. Bonuses for recruiting students

Other agreements provide bonus payments based on whether students sign up for a financial institution’s student checking account marketed on campus. For example, one agreement paid a university an upfront payment of $400,000 and an additional bonus of upwards of $200,000 each year if enough new students signed up for the accounts.

3. Discounted prices in exchange for marketing access

Some colleges receive discounted – or even completely free – services in exchange for allowing a provider to market financial products to students. For example, we found many agreements where a financial institution charges a university to transfer loan and scholarship funds to students.

However, some school officials have told us that these charges may be heavily discounted, since these agreements provide the financial institution with unique access to market to students receiving financial aid. This gives the financial institution a foot in the door to generate significant revenue in fees from students, making it worthwhile to provide discounted services to schools.

Committed to transparency?

Many financial institutions offer good products at competitive prices. But as we’ve stated before, voluntarily disclosing these arrangements is a sign of a financial institution’s commitment to transparency when marketing deposit accounts, prepaid cards, financial aid disbursement accounts, and other financial products to students. In doing so, they also want to make sure students know that they have a financial relationship with their school. Responsible financial institutions also want students to know they don’t have to choose their product if they don’t want to.

Actions you can take

Students, schools, financial institutions, or anyone else who wants to share information about the availability of these agreements can email us.

If you are a student, or family member of a student, you can check out our guide to Managing Your College Money and our consumer advisory on accessing student loans and scholarships.

If you have a complaint about a student loan, checking account, or credit card, you can submit a complaint online or by calling (855) 411-2372.

Consumer advisory: Stop getting sidetracked by your student loan servicer

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Over the last several years, many Americans have been able to save on monthly payments on their mortgages and other loans by refinancing to the low interest rates available in the market.

Unfortunately, with few refinancing options, many student loan borrowers tell us they feel stuck in loans with high rates, well after they’ve graduated and landed a job.

Since many borrowers can’t refinance, one of the only ways to avoid paying unnecessary interest is to pay their high-rate loans off more quickly. According to the Truth in Lending Act, your lender or servicer cannot assess any penalties or fees if you prepay your private student loan.

Recently, we released a report that describes how the payment processing policies of private student lenders and loan servicers may be sidetracking responsible borrowers looking to pay off their loans more quickly. If you have several loans associated with the same loan servicer (the company that sends you a bill each month) and you don’t provide instructions, your servicer will generally decide how to allocate your payments in excess of the amount due.

Leaving this decision up to them isn’t always the best choice.

Your student loan servicer should listen to your instructions about which loan your additional payment goes toward when you submit your payment.

Here’s why providing instructions to your servicer can be a good idea:

  • If you direct any extra money to your highest interest rate loan first, you may save hundreds of dollars or more in extra interest payments and you may be able to get out of debt faster.
  • If you don’t tell them what to do, your servicer will apply extra payments as they see fit, in most cases spreading your money out across all of the loans on your account.
  • This means that you’ll pay down your debt slowly, and you’ll pay more money in interest over the life of your loan.

To help you explain to your servicer what it should do with your money, we’ve put together some sample instructions you can send to your servicer to ask them that they direct any extra payments toward your highest-rate loan. Helpful servicers will generally accommodate your request. You’ll want to be sure your servicer responds to your request so you know if you need to send additional instructions.

You can download a sample letter to mail to your servicer, or you can use the text below to provide instructions using the “Send a Message” or “Contact Us” feature when you log into your account on the servicer’s website:

I am writing to provide you instructions on how to apply payments when I send an amount greater than the minimum amount due. Please apply payments as follows:

  1. After applying the minimum amount due for each loan, any additional amount should be applied to the loan that is accruing the highest interest rate.
  2. If there are multiple loans with the same interest rate, please apply the additional amount to the loan with the lowest outstanding principal balance.
  3. If any additional amount above the minimum amount due ends up paying off an individual loan, please then apply any remaining part of my payment to the loan with the next highest interest rate.

It is possible that I may find an option to refinance my loans to a lower rate with another lender. If this lender or any third party makes payments to my account on my behalf, you should use the instructions outlined above.

Retain these instructions. Please apply these instructions to all future overpayments. Please confirm that these payments will be processed as specified or please provide an explanation as to why you are unable to follow these instructions.

Thank you for your cooperation.

You’ll want to save the message you sent for your records.

For most borrowers, it makes sense to direct any extra payment toward your loan with the highest interest rate – this is the fastest way to save the most money over the long term. For other borrowers, saving the most money might not be their main goal. You may be interested in paying extra each month on certain loans in order to improve your credit profile, qualify for a mortgage, or eliminate a monthly bill. You should weigh all of your options.

You can also submit a complaint online.

If you have questions about repaying student loans, check out our Repay Student Debt tool to find out how you can tackle your student loan debt.

For more information on private student loans and other consumer financial products or services, visit Ask CFPB.

So, how do I submit a complaint?

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This post is part of a series for National Consumer Protection Week

We began taking credit card complaints in July 2011, and we now can help with complaints about mortgages, bank accounts and services, student loans, vehicle and other consumer loans, and credit reporting.

How do I submit a complaint?
Submitting a complaint and tracking your status is simple and secure. The fastest way to get started is to go consumerfinance.gov/Complaint. If you need help while you’re online, you can chat with one of our team members on the site.

You can also submit a complaint over the phone by calling us at (855) 411-CFPB (2372), toll free. Our U.S.-based call centers can help you in over 180 languages, and can also take calls from consumers who are deaf, have hearing loss, or have speech disabilities.

What makes an effective complaint?
The best complaints are the ones that explain, clearly and concisely:

  • What happened, including key details and documents,
  • What you think would be a fair resolution, and
  • What you’ve done to try and resolve it.

What happens after I submit?
After you’ve submitted your complaint you can check its status at consumerfinance.gov/Complaint or by calling us at (855) 411-CFPB (2372). We’ll also send you email updates along the way so you know where you are in the process, and what’s next.

After the company responds to your complaint, we’ll email you, and you can log back in to review the response and give us any feedback.

Every complaint helps us in our work to supervise companies, enforce federal consumer financial laws, and write better rules and regulations. You speaking up gives us important insight into the issues you face as a consumer, so thank you!

Learn more about submitting a complaint: consumerfinance.gov/Complaint