Monday, March 13, 2017

Student Debtors and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: Trump needs to strengthen the CFPB, not weaken it

Last January, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sued Navient Corporation, a student-loan debt collector, accusing the company of "systematically and illegally failing borrowers at every stage of repayment."

According to CFPB Director Richard Cordray, Navient cheated student borrowers by making it more difficult for them to pay back their college loans. "At every stage of repayment, Navient chose to shortcut and deceive consumers to save on operating costs," Cordray charged. "Too many borrowers paid more for their loans because Navient illegally cheated them , , , "

Specifically, the CFPB accused Navient of these illegal practices:
  • Failing to correctly apply and allocate borrowers' payments to their student-loan accounts. "Navient repeatedly misapplies and misallocates payments--often making the same error multiple times,"  the CFPB alleged. And all too often, Navient would not correct its errors unless a borrower discovered the problem and brought it to Navient's attention.
  • Giving struggling borrowers bad advice about student-loan repayment options.  The CFPB also accused Navient of steering student debtors toward costly forbearance options when they were having trouble making their monthly loan payments. These options give borrowers a break from making their payments, but the interest continues to accrue during forbearance. CFPB believes Navient should have helped borrowers get into income-driven repayment plans (IDRs) that would lower their monthly payments instead of encouraging them to apply for forbearances.
  • "Obscur[ing] information" borrowers needed to remain in income-driven repayment plans. The CFPB also said Navient failed to adequately inform borrowers about what they need to do to maintain their eligibility for income-driven repayment plans. Once borrowers enter those plans, their monthly payments are determined by their annual income; but to remain eligible, borrowers must recertify their income every calendar year. Apparently, a lot of borrowers in IDRs do not know they are required to recertify their income on an annual basis.
As the New York Times said in an editorial, CFPB's charges against Navient "have the ring of truth." Without question, student borrowers who opt to skip loan payments temporarily under  a government-approved forbearance plan see their loan balances grow dramatically due to accruing interest, which accelerates their descent into default. And it seems evident that people in income-driven repayment plans don't understand what they need to do to maintain their eligibility; half the people who enroll in IDRs get kicked out of them for failing to recertify their income on an annual basis.

The student-loan debt collectors are hoping President Trump will dismantle or cripple the CFPB, which would prevent the agency from bringing lawsuits like the one it brought against Navient. And perhaps he will.

But I am hoping the Trump administration  surprises the corporate fat cats and throws its full support behind CFPB's lawsuit against Navient.  Indeed, the CFPB needs to become a lot more aggressive.

In my view, the CFPB should investigate the student loan guaranty agencies that are making a fortune in the student-loan collection business. As the Century Foundation reported last year, four of these agencies have amassed $ 1 billion apiece through servicing and collecting student loans.

Educational Credit Management Corporation, which holds a billion dollars in unrestricted assets, is particularly ruthless. Just last year, a federal bankruptcy judge assessed punitive damages against ECMC for repeatedly violating the automatic stay provision of the Bankruptcy Code by garnishing the wages of a Starbucks employee more than 30 times after she filed for bankruptcy in an effort to collect on a defaulted student loan.

In short, there is a lot for the CFPB to do, and the Navient lawsuit is only a small step in the right direction. It would be a tragedy if the corporate interests defanged the CFPB, which is only now getting serious about protecting student-loan debtors from abuse.

Richard Cordray, CFPB Director
photo credit: Getty Images

References

Bruner-Halteman v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 12-324-HDH-13, ADV. No. 14-03041 (Bankr. N.D. Tex. 2016).

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. CFPB Sues Nation's Largest Student Loan Company Navient for Failing Borrowers at Every Stage of Repayment. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Press Release, January 18, 2017.

Robert Shireman and Tariq Habash. Have Student Loan Guaranty Agencies Lost Their Way? The Century Foundation, September 29, 2016. Accessible at https://tcf.org/content/report/student-loan-guaranty-agencies-lost-way/

Bob Sullivan. Will a Trump presidency lead to more predatory lending? Market Watch, January 18, 2017.

Unfairly Squeezing Student BorrowersNew York Times, February 4, 2017.

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