The number of lawsuits against a prominent federal student loan servicer has grown recently.
Federal student loan servicers, such as Nelnet and Navient Corp., are companies that collect payments, respond to customer service inquiries and perform other administrative tasks on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education.
State attorneys general in California, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Washington have filed suits against Navient, one of the largest of these servicers.
The chain of recent lawsuits are in addition to an earlier suit brought by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in January 2017. The CFPB alleges that Navient processed student loan payments incorrectly and prevented struggling borrowers from making lower repayments.
Readers often send the Student Loan Ranger questions about these lawsuits and what they might mean for their outstanding student debt. Here are tips for student loan borrowers to consider.
Understand why states are suing Navient. While federal student loan servicers are contracted by the Department of Education to manage borrower communications and payments of federal student loans, consumer advocates say that the agency isn't doing enough to ensure borrower protections.
Under the Trump administration, the CFPB moved its Office of Students and Young Consumers -- a unit that had taken aggressive steps to regulate student loan servicers -- into the Office of Financial Education.
Just recently, the CFPB's student loan ombudsman, Seth Frotman, resigned in protest, saying in his resignation letter, "By undermining the Bureau's own authority to oversee the student loan market, the Bureau has failed borrowers who depend on independent oversight to halt bad practices and bring accountability to the student loan industry."
The CFPB's Office of Students had previously published a number of helpful resources for borrowers, such as sample instructions to loan servicers for applying monthly payments.
In response to what they see as the federal government shifting resources away from consumer protections, the state attorneys general cite their responsibility to protect their constituents as justification for these new lawsuits.
Similar to the 2017 CFPB suit against Navient, the California case and other lawsuits allege that the Delaware-based company inappropriately put borrowers into temporary forbearances instead of helping them sign up for income-driven repayment plans.
When borrower are in forbearance, they don't have to make monthly payments, but interest still accrues on their loans. Moreover, the borrowers are still responsible for making the skipped payments once the forbearance ends, or the borrowers exhaust their available forbearance period. Forbearance is intended as a temporary relief for borrowers experiencing a short-term financial hardship, such as the loss of a job or an unanticipated expense.
The attorneys general argue that borrowers would be better off in income-driven plans, since monthly payments can be quite low. That way, borrowers stay in the habit of making monthly payments and get closer to making the required number of payments to be eligible for a loan discharge.
Navient argues that the allegations in these lawsuits are unfounded, and that difficulties in selecting a repayment plan best suited for each borrower are ultimately caused by complexities in the federal student loan system, which features several loan types and repayment plans.
Meanwhile, the Department of Education asserts that because student loans and servicers are regulated federally, states lack jurisdiction to oversee servicers.
Know what student loan borrowers can do. Unfortunately, individual student borrowers are not able to join the state attorneys general lawsuits against Navient. While waiting on the court system to resolve these disputes, student loan borrowers should take extra steps to ensure their servicers are following their instructions and applying payments correctly.
If borrowers sends in extra money, for instance, they need to advise their servicer explicitly on how the additional amount should be applied. Student borrowers should also take the time to learn the difference between deferments, forbearances and repayment options for their federal loans.
With many different loan types and repayment plans, it's easy to get confused or overwhelmed. If you'd like to work with a certified nonprofit expert, the Student Loan Ranger recommends reaching out to a student loan counselor who can help you explore your options.
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