The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau formally announced Tuesday that it will explore new regulations on student loan servicing companies, calling for changes in an industry it says is bedeviled by widespread failures that are harming borrowers.
Officials at the consumer agency issued a new report that outlines some of those problems, which include poor customer service, surprise fees and a lack of assistance for borrowers struggling to make payments or enroll in income-based repayment programs.
The report draws on more than 30,000 comments the bureau received over the past several months as part of its public inquiry into the student loan servicing market. It follows years of growing scrutiny of student loan servicers, by the CFPB, other federal agencies, consumer groups and members of Congress.
“With one out of four student loan borrowers struggling to repay their loans or already in default, cleaning up the servicing market is critical,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a statement. “Today’s report underscores the need for marketwide student loan servicing reforms to halt harmful practices and boost assistance for distressed borrowers.”
The bureau confirmed Tuesday that it “intends to explore potential industrywide rules to increase borrower protections.” Officials also said that they have prioritized enforcement efforts against companies that engage in illegal servicing practices.
Any new regulations from the CFPB would likely cover loan servicers for both private and federal student loans. But the Obama administration has been roundly criticized in recent years, often by lawmakers in its own party, for how the Education Department oversees federal student loan servicers.
Maura Dundon, senior policy counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, an advocacy group that studies student loan issues, said that a good set of regulations would both “outlaw specific unfair practices and set in place specific procedures that will help people be successful in repayment.”
Dundon said that it was important for the CFPB to set “legally enforceable basic standards” for loan servicing even as the Education Department plans to revamp next year how it structures its contracts with federal loan servicers.
“It won’t be left up to the discretion of the Department of Education,” she said. “It will be a rule with the force of law.”
The CFPB on Tuesday also joined with the Departments of Education and Treasury to produce a “joint statement of principles” for ways to improve student loan servicing.
The document calls for more consistency in how loan servicers operate and process payments for borrowers, as well as making sure that the companies provide accurate information about borrowers’ repayment options. And it also says the public needs greater access to information about the performance of private and federal student loans, including the performance of the companies that service those loans.