Today Rohit Chopra, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Student Loan Ombudsman – who also just announced he is stepping down after next week - released a report finding high rates of consumers are being rejected for co-signer release on their private student loans, based on its review of industry practices. The Bureau uncovered problematic industry practices that may be disqualifying some consumers from securing a co-signer’s release from their loans.
The CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman’s Mid-Year Update is available at: http://files.consumerfinance.
The report includes findings of the information request from industry participants as well as analysis of more than 3,100 private student loan complaints and approximately 1,100 debt collection complaints related to student loan debt received between October 1, 2014, and March 31, 2015. Overall, private student loan complaints increased by 34 percent compared to the same time period last year.
Among the findings:
- Companies rejected 90 percent of consumers who applied for co-signer release: Many private student lenders advertise options to release a co-signer from a private student loan. However, an analysis of industry responses to the CFPB’s information request found that the lenders and servicers surveyed granted very few releases—of those borrowers that applied for co-signer release, 90 percent were rejected.
- Consumers left in the dark on co-signer release criteria: The CFPB found that consumers have little information on the specific borrower criteria needed to obtain a co-signer release. Consumers reported being confused about their eligibility for obtaining a co-signer release as well as not understanding why they had been denied.
- Most private student loan contracts continue to contain auto-default clauses: Last year, the CFPB reported that private student loan servicers were putting borrowers in default when a co-signer died or filed for bankruptcy, even when their loans were otherwise in good standing. Following that report, some financial institutions stated that they would no longer hit borrowers with auto-defaults. The CFPB’s analysis of private student loan contracts, however, found that most private student loan contracts continue to include auto-default clauses.
- Borrowers are at risk when loans are sold and packaged by Wall Street: Even if individual companies state that they will not trigger auto-defaults in certain cases, loans are often sold to other banks and securitized on Wall Street. This exposes borrowers to risk that the new owner of the loan will trigger an auto-default.
- Company policies can permanently disqualify borrowers from co-signer release: Student loan borrowers reported that some companies’ policies penalize or disqualify borrowers who prepay their loans and are in good standing. Some companies also disqualify borrowers from releasing a co-signer if the consumer accepts the servicer’s offer of postponing payment through forbearance. These company policies can permanently ban a consumer from seeking co-signer release for the life of the loan and penalize consumers that may have graduated during tough economic times.
- Potentially harmful clauses found in the fine print: In addition to auto-default clauses, the CFPB found other potentially harmful clauses hidden in fine print of some loans including “universal default” clauses. Financial institutions use these clauses to trigger a default if the borrower or co-signer is not in good standing on another loan with the institution, such as a mortgage or auto loan, that is unrelated to the consumer’s payment behavior on the student loan. These clauses can increase the risk of default for both the borrower and co-signer.
The CFPB states that the report describes opportunities to improve the private student loan industry’s co-signer practices. The report identifies practices that could benefit consumers and industry, including:
- Improving transparency around co-signer release criteria: Consumers and industry would benefit from increased transparency around the availability of co-signer release, including what specific requirements exist that a borrower needs to meet to obtain a release.
- Improving consumer notifications for co-signer release eligibility: Private student loan servicers could notify consumers before placing them in a repayment status, such as forbearance, that it would disqualify them from co-signer release. In addition, private student loan servicers could improve their customer service by proactively notifying borrowers when they meet prerequisites for releasing a co-signer, such as making a certain number of on-time payments.
- Examining potentially harmful clauses in the fine print: The CFPB report notes that policymakers should consider whether auto-default, universal default, and other potentially harmful terms in the fine print of private student loan contracts are appropriate.
Last month, the CFPB launched a public inquiry into student loan servicing practices that can make paying back loans a stressful or harmful process for borrowers. The issues that the Bureau is seeking information on include: industry practices that create repayment challenges, hurdles for distressed borrowers, and the economic incentives that may affect the quality of service. The comment period is open until July 13, 2015. The CFPB also launched a new version of the Repay Student Debt tool, which helps borrowers get unbiased tips on how to navigate student loan repayment, along with other sample letters they can send to their student loan servicers.
The CFPB began accepting consumer complaints about private student loans in March 2012. More information is at: consumerfinance.gov/
It should be noted that the report includes the statement that the information included represents the ombudsman’s independent judgment and does not necessarily represent the view of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Also, the report covers the private student loan market, not the much larger federal student loan arena, administered by the Department of Education.
It goes without saying (but of course I will say) that both federal and private student loans have been incredibly hot button issues in the last year+, including the Department of Education student loan collection contract drama, the acquisition and then demise of for-profit Corinthian College, and the mounting public pressure to forgive student loans on a mass scale.
The debt load on young consumers is bound to be a significant issue in the 2016 elections; whether it will become an actual matter addressed by Congress remains to be seen.