On June 15, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report titled “Federal Student Loans: Education Could Improve Direct Loan Program Customer Service and Oversight.” As part of its study into the Department of Education’s (Education) oversight of the Direct Loan program, GAO reviewed, among other things, Education contracts, monitoring plans, policies, procedures, and guidance related to servicers as well as servicer websites, a sample of communications sent to the borrower, the summary results from Education’s 2014 and 2015 customer satisfaction surveys of borrowers, and Education’s quarterly and annual servicer performance reports and annual servicer reviews from fiscal years 2010-2015. In addition, GAO interviewed, among others, CFPB and Education officials, servicers responsible for serving more than 95% of Direct Loan borrowers, and a sampling of 24 Direct Loan borrowers – selected at random from Education data – who were in either (i) repayment; (ii) delinquency (less than 270 days); or (iii) deferment of forbearance. The report highlights borrowers’ limited telephone access to their assigned loan servicers to manage their loans as a key area of concern, noting particular limitations for borrowers on the West Coast assigned to a servicer on the East Coast. The results of Education’s 2014 and 2015 borrower satisfaction surveys revealed similar findings. GAO attributed consumers’ lack of access to servicers to Education’s failure to implement a minimum standard for servicer call center hours: “Education’s lack of a minimum standard for servicer call center hours, and the limited hours currently provided, impede borrowers’ access to customer service that is responsive to their needs and puts them a greater risk of delinquency and default.” The report further notes that Education lacks a systematic approach for capturing borrower complaints, including those received through servicers, and that its performance metrics and compensation structure for servicers, which is based on borrowers’ loan status, “can sometimes hinder Education’s strategic goals of providing superior customer service and ensuring program integrity.”
Based on its findings, GAO recommends that Education (i) establish a minimum standard for servicer call center hours to allow for improved access to servicers; (ii) ensure its complaint tracking systems sufficiently capture comprehensive and comparable information from servicers regarding the nature and status of borrower complaints; and (iii) analyze and modify its performance metrics and compensation. Generally, Education agreed with GAO’s findings and recommendations, but suggested that its current performance metrics reflect compliance; GAO maintains that they do not.