The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's annual report on private student loans shows that the agency handled an estimated 2,900 consumer complaints between March and September. The median age of borrowers - meaning half are older and half younger - is 29.
An estimated 65 percent of the complaints concern repayment issues - such as billing, deferments, fraud and credit reporting. Thirty percent involve problems with being unable to pay.
Sallie Mae, the largest student loan servicer, was named in 1,145 of the 2,473 complaints mentioning a company, a 46 percent frequency. American Education Services was second with 296 complaints.
The type of complaints shows that student loans have some of the same problems that have plagued the mortgage industry. Complaints included mistakes by servicers in applying payments, trouble fixing errors, an overabundance of paper work and the inability to find anyone at the servicer to help.
The most common complaint, according to the report, involved negotiating a repayment plan, and frustration with finding the right person to speak to. Another key complaint was an inability to refinance to a lower rate. Students end up paying higher interest rates because they have little or no credit history when they take out loans. But even after they graduate and get jobs, they can’t refinance to a lower rate, CFPB officials said.
Struggling borrowers also said that they make “good faith” payments of less than the amount owed - sometimes at the encouragement of the servicer’s staff - and find that they still end up in delinquency or default.
In a conference call Monday, CFPB’s Rohit Chopra, the author of the report, said the complaints are early warnings that can help regulators understand the extent of the problems. He noted that some complaints come from a backlog of borrowers who have been searching for help for years and some of the disclosure problems raised by these old cases have already been addressed under federal law that took effect two years ago.
The CFPB has recommended that Congress find ways to increase the availability of modifying and refinancing private loans. It also suggested Treasury and government agencies explore whether the same fixes for the mortgage servicing industry could apply to student loans.
Student loans have now surpassed credit cards as the largest source of consumer debt in the United States. Earlier this year, the CFPB announced that outstanding student loan debt crossed the $1 trillion mark.