Sallie Mae received the full "60 Minutes" treatment Sunday night, in a segment that highlighted criticism that the student loan giant profits on the backs of students and taxpayers.
The issues raised in the segment (some highlights of which are available on the CBS show's Web site) wouldn't surprise anyone who has kept an eye on student-loan debates over the last decade. But by focusing on individual borrowers, the show put human faces on the issues -- and reached many millions more than the reports that policy analysts regularly release on loan policy.
The show gave several examples of borrowers who were shocked to find how much greater their loan repayments were than the sums they borrowed. Each of these borrowers also had various difficulties that the show portrayed Sallie Mae as being "unforgiving" in handling. One student found himself unemployed, another was diagnosed with an illness, and a third lost his home in an earthquake.
Sallie Mae was described as refusing to help these borrowers, one of whom helped create a Web site, Student Loan Justice, that criticizes the lending industry. One expert interviewed by Lesley Stahl described student borrowers as being "served up like turkeys at a Thanksgiving dinner."
The show also made hay of the fact that the company's chairman and former chief executive, Albert L. Lord, has been highly compensated and is building a personal golf course.
Officials declined to be interviewed on camera, and provided CBS with written answers to questions. The show was the subject of speculation by student aid experts in the last week, and anticipation grew when Sallie Mae sent out a memo to colleges about the pending show and sharing the written answers it gave to "60 Minutes."
"With nine million borrowers, it is disappointing that '60 Minutes' chose to spotlight three of our former customers who have not repaid their taxpayer funded loans. It certainly does not reflect the experiences of the vast majority of our customers, who have had the opportunity to attend your schools and fulfill their dreams of obtaining a college education," said the letter from Sallie Mae to its clients.
In an e-mail response to a question about the show, Martha Holler, a spokeswoman for Sallie Mae, called it "a one-sided and error-filled attack." She said that Sallie Mae educates student borrowers on "their rights as well as their responsibilities," and provides them with "all available repayment relief and flexibility available to them under the law." She said that Sallie Mae has created and supported programs to help borrowers "in times of difficulty." She noted as examples Sallie Mae's creation of interest-free financing for those affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a fund created to help borrowers in families of those killed on 9/11, and a new program to help borrowers with serious illnesses or disabilities.
From a policy perspective, the show questioned whether the student loan system is rigged in Sallie Mae's favor because of the payments it received from students who repay loans, from the government for defaulted loans, and from agencies it owns that profit from collecting student loans. The show also noted the significant contributions that Sallie Mae and its employees have provided to members of Congress who write student-loan legislation. "Sallie Mae gets to play every hand at the poker table," Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School professor and an expert on bankruptcy, said on the show.
Stahl said that several government reports had found that the direct lending program -- in which colleges provide loans directly to students rather than involving private lenders -- is more efficient than the guaranteed loan program in which Sallie Mae is the market leader. Direct lending, first enacted during the Clinton administration, has been praised in some reports by independent agencies as costing much less than the programs involving private lenders, although direct lending has also faced plenty of criticism and has seen its share of the loan market drop.
The answers provided by Sallie Mae on this question cited reports about the costs of the direct lending program. Sallie Mae also took issue with the "60 Minutes" contention that it benefits in any borrowing scenario. Sallie Mae said that it takes on real risks that students may default, and that the company does best financially when students repay on time, so that its interests and those of borrowers and the government are aligned.
The questions from "60 Minutes," Sallie Mae's statement added, "appear to accept without question that the government can administer and manager the student loan program more efficiently and less expensively than private lenders. This is not the case and, in fact, we believe that the competition and choice that schools have enjoyed ... have expanded and improved college access and fueled vast improvements in the delivery of student loans," said the company's letter.