In 2012 and 2013, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released several major reports and held field hearings focused on private student lending and servicing. In addition to recent CFPB activity, on June 25, 2013, the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing regarding private student loans at which, among other witnesses, the CFPB’s Student Loan Ombudsman Rohit Chopra testified.

The largest CFPB report, and the one most sweeping in scope, was the Bureau’s study of the private student loan market and characteristics of private student loans that was mandated by Dodd-Frank and issued in July 2012 (Private Student Loans Report). In addition, in October 2012, the Student Loan Ombudsman issued his Annual Report in which, among other things, he characterized the nature of the student loan complaints received through the CFPB’s student loan complaint portal up to that point (Annual Report of the Student Loan Ombudsman). Further, on May 8, 2013, the CFPB issued another report and held a field hearing focused on what it described as the “potential domino effect” of student loan debt on the broader economy and proposing several options to assist private student loan borrowers. Finally, testimony at the above-referenced Senate Banking Committee hearing focused largely on how to increase the low refinancing and modification activity in the private student loan (PSL) market. 

Ben Saul, Partner in BuckleySandler’s Washington, DC office explains “taken together the Bureau’s reports, field hearings, and Congressional testimony put student lenders and servicers on notice that the Bureau will be looking closely at servicing issues, including loan modification and debt collection practices, as well as fair lending and likely fair servicing issues going forward, i.e., consistency in loan modifications and work outs.”

With respect to the Private Student Loans Report, the report made clear that, in the fair lending space, the Bureau intends to scrutinize the use of cohort default rate (a statistic calculated by the Department of Education and used to determine which schools will be eligible to participate in federal student aid programs) as an eligibility metric. Likewise, the report recommends that lenders obtain school certification of the student’s education costs to prevent over borrowing.

As for the Annual Report of the Student Loan Ombudsman, from the Bureau’s perspective, the report likely validates the agency’s growing concern over student loan servicing insofar as the three main areas of consumer complaints described in the report are all focused in that area:  general servicing concerns, concerns about payment processing, and concerns about inability to obtain loan modifications. The report draws parallels between problems in student loan servicing and those in mortgage loan servicing. For example, the report describes consumer complaints focused on the misapplication of payments, untimely error resolution and consumer difficulty in contacting appropriate personnel (all areas that have been a focus in the mortgage servicing space). So evident were the similarities in the eyes of the CFPB that its student loan ombudsman, Rohit Chopra, urged the Treasury secretary, the CFPB and secretary of education to consider whether mortgage servicing program “fixes” can be applied in the student loan context.

To this end, the Bureau has been sharpening its focus on repayment options in the private student loan market, with signals pointing perhaps to possible new rules setting student loan servicing standards.  However, in the meantime, the Bureau has taken some notable steps.  First, on February 21, it issued a notice and request for information on policy options to “increase the availability of affordable payment plans for borrowers with existing private student loans.  Over 30,000 comments have been received.  In addition, on May 8, as mentioned earlier, the Bureau proposed several policy “solutions” to assist student loan borrowers, such as providing “refi relief” for borrowers who have made timely payments, providing a “road to recovery” for borrowers by allowing their loans to be restructured, and providing a “credit clean slate” for borrowers who satisfy the terms of a workout plan.  Importantly, though, the Bureau conceded that there are still significant accounting and operational impediments to implementing these “solutions” that require further consideration.

In light of Bureau’s reports, field hearings and other public statements, Saul advises private student lenders to focus now on tightening internal controls with respect to fair and responsible lending issues as well as servicing and debt collection practices as those will areas of primary focus by the Bureau in examinations and otherwise going forward.