DeVos Doubles Down: One Servicer to Rule Them All

After rolling back modest consumer protections last month, Education Secretary Best Devos’ tenure has released its biggest change yet.

In an example of doublespeak that would make Orwell proud, DeVos said this in the announcement:

From day one, my priority as Secretary of Education has been to put students’ needs first. This amended solicitation does just that. It maintains superior customer service and borrower protections while increasing oversight and protecting taxpayers.

With changes in the new amendment, we have simplified the process to ensure meaningful borrower protections while saving taxpayers more than $130 million over the next five years. Savings are expected to increase significantly over the life of the contract. Borrowers can expect to see a more user-friendly loan servicing interface, shorter email and call response times and an improved payment application method that will maximize the benefit of each payment the borrower makes. Our amendment makes no changes to repayment plan requirements.

But what the amendment actually does is consolidate the servicer program into one mega-contract in 2019 with no meaningful stipulations for accountability and no demand that the contractor work in the best interest of (or even be fair to) borrowers.1

Yes, the solution to a bad servicing situation is just to consolidate the program and give it to one private for-profit company, and the shortlist of three finalists includes Navient, universally considered the worst servicer, the one with the most complaints, the one with the most opaque and unusable website, the only one currently being sued by another government agency, and the one that despite that lawsuit continues to mislead borrowers.

Here is how Navient responded to being sued by the government for misleading borrowers:

There is no expectation that the servicer will “act in the interest of the consumer.” Courts therefore routinely hold that servicers and lenders “do not owe borrowers any specific fiduciary duties based upon their servicer/borrower relationship.”

From the Consumerist:

According to the CFPB’s April complaint snapshot, Navient was the most complained about student loan servicer, receiving an average of 1,400 complaints from Nov. 2016 to Jan. 2017, a 1,073% increase from the same three-month period the year before.

The Direct loan program tops $1 trillion. Navient already services over $300 billion in student loans and profited around $308 million from servicing those loans last year, down from $338 million in 2015 in part because of $17 million in extra legal expenses for basically being an awful company.

GreatNet, one of the other three finalists (the third is PHEAA aka FedLoan), is the combined venture of Great Lakes and Nelnet, two of the four largest servicers. Both companies have yet to be sued by the government and aren’t quite as hated, which for all I know may disqualify them from making a competitive bid in the current regime.

The budget savings of $130 million over five years is only a small fraction of total servicing expenses, but—more importantly—the increased cost of the Obama-era plan was to pay for genuine customer service to help reduce delinquency and default. Reduced default would likely generate more payments from borrowers, thus paying for some if not all the difference (Americans currently hold $137 billion in defaulted federal loans).

Lastly, the government profits from student loans. This is not a situation in which a budget shortfall affects uninvolved taxpayers; it’s a scenario in which a portion of the profits from student loans are reinvested into the same system to help American citizens who utilize it.

Servicers other than FedLoan don’t handle PSLF

I’ve heard a few stories of attendings calling their servicers after making years and years of payments to get started filing for PSLF and being laughed off the phone because of their high salaries.

To be clear, PSLF has no maximum salary.

The master promissory note you signed says this:

A Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program is also available. Under this program, we will forgive the remaining balance due on your eligible Direct Loan Program loans after you have made 120 payments on those loans (after October 1, 2007) under certain repayment plans while you are employed full-time in certain public service jobs. The required 120 payments do not have to be consecutive. Qualifying repayment plans include the REPAYE Plan, the PAYE Plan, the IBR Plan, the ICR Plan, and the Standard Repayment Plan with a 10-year repayment period.

PSLF is all about months of qualifying payments made for qualifying loans while working full-time at a qualified employer. As of now (and probably never for old/current borrowers), there is no “means test” to see if you still deserve to have your loans forgiven even though you’re a “rich doctor.”

Furthermore, the only servicer that handles PSLF is FedLoan. When you submit your first employment verification form (which the Feds recommend doing annually), you’ll be switched to FedLoan if you weren’t already with them by chance.

The other servicers—and probably especially Navient (currently being sued by the federal government for defrauding and misleading borrowers)—have a vested interest in keeping you on the rolls so that they can continue to make money off your payments. When you call the servicer, you’re getting some random employee who is probably making around twelve bucks an hour whose primary role is to provide customer service and troubleshooting with the website, not provide good financial advice. They are much much more likely to deal with somebody on the phone trying to get out of delinquency or default than they are to talk to somebody who is approaching 10 years of payments and is ready for public-service loan forgiveness. Despite the government stating that customer service is a priority, the servicers essentially have no fiduciary duty to work in your best interest.

Since the first loans won’t be forgiven until October 2017, no one can guarantee that there won’t be attempts to limit the damage from the somehow-unexpected popularity of this program, but that hasn’t happened yet and is likely to take some time to occur. Do not take your servicer seriously on this if you think you should otherwise qualify. Just get the paperwork filed out and submit it. Worst thing that happens? Your servicer is changed and you have to set up autopay again.

Betsy DeVos: It’s okay for servicers to mislead borrowers

What a mess.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has decided to roll back two Obama-era memos that were intended to guide servicers in their customer service efforts with borrowers. I discussed one the other week. Now that second shoe has dropped, peeling away the reasonable-sounding requests that basically servicers should be held accountable if “the company had misled or provided wrong information to borrowers or engaged in abusive consumer service” (remember, Navient is currently being sued for this).

Instead, DeVos said:

We must create a student loan servicing environment that provides the highest quality customer service and increases accountability and transparency for all borrowers, while also limiting the cost to taxpayers.

Of course, providing good customer service or making sure defaulting borrowers re-enter repayment shouldn’t need to cost any extra public dollars; it only does because the government would have to pay servicers more money in incentives to make up for the loss of their loan sharking business.

This furthers the tension between borrowers and servicers and cements the contention that servicers are actively working against borrower’s best interests. This has already been happening, but now it appears that it will no longer raise any of the red flags it was supposed to.

I’ve spoken with attendings who thought they would qualify for PSLF soon (but hadn’t filed for certification and been switched to FedLoan) call their servicers and get laughed off the phone, being told that they made too much money to have their loans forgiven. Most people reading this site know that’s not how the program works, and servicers like Navient don’t even handle PSLF. But of course, it’s in their best interest to lie and keep reaping payments.

Apparently you can’t trust FedLoan

The wrinkles continue on the story that first appeared last December about folks being denied PSLF-eligibility for jobs they’d previously gotten approval for. From the NYT (emphasis mine):

Last week, the [Education] department filed a reply that said that FedLoan’s responses to borrowers’ certification forms cannot be trusted.

A FedLoan approval letter “does not reflect a final agency action on the borrower’s qualifications” for the forgiveness program, the department wrote.

You know it’s bad when one federal agency says its partner cannot be trusted.

This is one of those situations where the actual detail at stake is not particularly concerning, but the underlying capriciousness certainly is. This all centers on FedLoan approvals for non-501c3 nonprofit organizations.

There is no evidence that the department has any basis or plan for disqualifying the kind of work most doctors do in academic or government (federal, state, local) medicine. Indeed, with the way the law is written, this tactic really wouldn’t work because there is no individual interpretation required for most qualifying work.

But for those who are still years away from achieving PSLF in a career that essentially requires forgiveness to make any sort of financial sense, this remains unreassuring.

This program is not going to last forever.

Trump’s first student loan action

In this “Dear Colleague” letter, Trump’s administration takes its first action on student loan policy. Unsurprisingly, it was to rollback an Obama administration Dear Colleague Letter that prevented some collection agencies from charging extremely high fees when collecting on old defaulted FFELP loans if the borrower tried to respond quickly and enter into a loan rehabilitation agreement (i.e. actually pay them off).

This won’t affect any recent borrowers from this decade, in which federal DIRECT loans replaced the older system of private companies lending and the federal government serving as a guarantor.

What it does demonstrate is that no one should be surprised if nothing consumer-friendly comes out of this administration, and student loans are unlikely to be an exception. Trump’s campaign student loan plan was so financially unsound and costly that it is highly unlikely to ever make it anything more than soundbyte.2