After rolling back modest consumer protections last month, Education Secretary Betsy 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.
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.”
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.