Currently, total outstanding student debt (both federal loans and private loans) has risen to roughly $1.1 trillion dollars. That figure represents an over 50% increase since 2008 and makes student loans the largest source of unsecured consumer debt – surpassing credit cards. At the same time, at least with respect to federal student loans, delinquencies have risen sharply during the same time period and, with unemployment rates for recent graduates still high by historic standards, the risk of continued high delinquency rates remains significant. Complicating matters is that student loan servicers, and servicers of private student loans in particular, have limited ability vis-à-vis a mortgage lender to modify those loans for borrowers in default.

Not surprisingly, given this backdrop, borrowers have lodged complaints with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB or Bureau) focused on their inability to obtain loan modifications, concerns about improper payment processing, and concerns about servicers’ debt collection practices. All of these factors have prompted the Bureau to draw comparisons to the recent mortgage servicing crisis and to increase focus and attention on the student lending and servicing industry in an effort to stave off a problem of those proportions.

In addition, the Bureau has focused its attention within student lending and servicing on other, more traditional areas of regulatory concern.  For example, the Bureau in the past year indicated it intends to closely scrutinize student lenders on fair lending issues – especially the use of non-credit bureau attributes such as cohort default rate – as well as unfair, deceptive, or abusive trade practices.

“For non-bank private student lenders, regulation by the CFPB represents a significant increase in the type of regulatory scrutiny to which lenders have traditionally been subject,” explains Ben Saul, partner in BuckleySandler’s Washington, DC office. “Even for large bank student lenders, which have long been subject to examinations by their prudential regulators, CFPB regulatory oversight will present new challenges insofar as the Bureau’s focus is solely on consumer protection and compliance and it has made clear that understanding and regulating private student lending is one of its high priorities.”

Saul suggests several steps that student lenders and services can take now to proactively mitigate risk in the current environment, including:

  1. Developing, implementing and, as applicable, updating fair and responsible lending programs (including training of key employees in this area)
  2. Conducting periodic fair lending and UDAAP risk assessments
  3. Conducting gap analyses of collections and servicing practices to ensure compliance and CFPB readiness

“It bears emphasizing that the future likely holds increased regulatory scrutiny, especially from the Bureau and especially in the area of student loan servicing and debt collection,” warns Saul. “Private student lenders will also see increased scrutiny with respect to fair and responsible lending compliance, including their use of non-credit bureau attributes in underwriting and pricing and their marketing practices, e.g., how borrowers are solicited and whether a lender uses different marketing efforts based on loan products, such as those specific to a particular major, school, or geography.”

In December 2012, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released their student loan examination procedures, and since doing so, has commenced several examinations of bank and non-bank private student lenders. Lenders will have to show compliance with a variety of federal laws applicable at various stages (called modules) of the lending process and will be examined for potentially unfair, deceptive or abusive acts and practices.

The procedures indicate that exams will be composed of several modules:

  1. Advertising, marketing and lead generation
  2. Application, qualification, loan origination, and disbursement
  3. Repayment and account maintenance
  4. Customer complaints
  5. Collections and credit reporting
  6. Information sharing and privacy

The CFPB’s examination personnel will review the lender’s organizational documents and process flowcharts, board minutes, annual reports, management reports, policies and procedures, rate and fee sheets, loan applications, account documentation, notes and disclosures, file contents, operating checklists and worksheets, computer system details, due diligence and monitoring procedures, lending procedures, underwriting guidelines, compensation policies, audit reports and responses, training materials, service provider contracts, advertisements, and complaints. Examiners may also interview the lender’s personnel and observe customer interactions.

Examiners will review potential legal and regulatory violations in modules roughly corresponding to the processes by which education loans are developed, marketed, originated and serviced, and the processes for handling consumer complaints, delinquencies and defaults, credit reporting and privacy protection. The examination process is intended to help the CFPB determine whether consumer financial protection laws have been violated and, if so, whether supervisory or enforcement actions are warranted.