Students Could Still Struggle With Debt Despite Loan Servicer Incentives
NEW YORK ( MainStreet) Just before the Labor Day weekend, the Department of Education (ED) revealed features of it contracts with Federal student loan servicers that are designed to expand the role of the customer. The new contracts are part of the Obama administration's attempt to shrink student loan debt. Surveys that rate the satisfaction of the borrower will play a bigger part in servicer evaluation.
Borrowers will also be able to limit payments to 10% of their monthly incomes under a plan endorsed by Obama in June that will make more borrowers eligible for ED's income base repayment (IBR) program.
"All hard-working students and families deserve high-quality support from their Federal loan servicer," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement, "and we are continuing to take steps to make sure that's the case." Duncan's inclusion of "families" as well as "students" among student loan bagholders suggests the degree to which students are unable to shoulder this burden alone.
ED's four main loan servicers include Great Lakes Educational Loan Servicers, Navient (the former Sallie Mae) Nelnet Servicing and PHEAA, or the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency.
Non-profit servicers include Aspire Resources Inc., Educational Servicers of America, Inc. (ESA), Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (MOHELA), New Hampshire Education Loan Corporation (NHHELC), Oklahoma Student Loan Authority (OSLA), the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC) and the Utah Higher Education Assistance Corporation (UHEAC).
Student loan servicers have long been criticized by consumer advocates and even Federal regulators, including ED's inspector general earlier this year. Now the National Student Loan Coaltion has joined the fray with its task force that seeks way to improve servicing contacts.
The performance-based benchmarks in ED's contracts are supposed to guarantee that servicers go the extra mile in making sure borrowers stay current on their loans and avoid default. Loans will be assigned to servicers based on how they score on customer satisfaction surveys. Payment structures must be implemented that help borrowers stay on track with their loans.
Some critics argue that this in an exercise in kicking the can or the loan down the road, a process that has become all too familiar inside the Beltway.
Moving compromised borrowers out of standard repayment and into IBR programs will lower payments but will increase what is owed in interest over time. The loans will take longer to pay off and become more expensive. ED may hail an increased participation in these programs as a sign that this system is working when it may be evidence of a growing amount of stress among borrowers.