If you’ve ever been through federal student loan entrance counseling, then you know that failing to make payments on federal student loans can have serious consequences. If you fall behind on your required monthly payments after you graduate, the Department of Education may take steps like garnishing your wages before they ever reach your bank account, withholding your tax refund, or even suing you.
But did you know that failing to pay back your federal student loans could also make you liable for collection fees?
If you have federally-financed student loans that are in default—which in most cases means that you haven’t made payments for 270 days—the federal government may refer your account to a collection agency. What may come as a surprise is that these collection agencies typically charge fees or commissions, and these fees can be added to the balance that you owe.
Though the fees vary depending on the agency and the type of loan you have, they can exceed 15% of your total balance, and can even reach up to 40% of your total balance in the case of Perkins loans. This means that if your current loan balance is $20,000, you could suddenly have between $3,000 and $8,000 in fees added to your account.
So how can I avoid having to deal with a collection agency?
Avoid default: The best way to avoid collection fees is to ensure that your student loan does not go into default. If you are struggling to make your monthly payments, contact the Department of Education right away to explain your situation and figure out a plan. For example, you may be able to reduce your required monthly payment amount through an income-driven repayment plan. You can find more information about how to apply for income-driven repayment here.
Check into deferment or forbearance: Depending on your situation, you may also be eligible for loan deferment or forbearance. You should look into applying for deferment or forbearance if you have returned to school, if you have an illness or financial hardship that affects your ability to make payments, or if you have recently served in the military. More information about loan deferment and forbearance is available here.
Heed warnings: If you do fail to make your required monthly payments, your loans will become delinquent and you will receive warnings from the Department of Education. Do not ignore these warnings. If you ignore them, your loans will go into default after 270 days and may be referred to a collection agency.
Monitor your credit: Additionally, if you have missed any payments on your student loans, be sure to check your credit score and get a credit report. If your credit score has been brought down by one or more missed payments, you can try writing a letter of goodwill to your loan servicer explaining your situation and politely requesting that they remove the missed payment from your credit report. You can find more information on how to write a letter of goodwill here.
But what if my loans have already been sent to a collection agency?
Take action immediately: If you receive a notice from a collection agency, this means your loans have gone into default. It is critical that you respond to the agency immediately to work out a plan for repayment. If you enter into a repayment agreement within 60 days, you will not be charged collection fees.
Try to pay back in full: If you are able to pay the full amount back, pay it immediately. This may not be an option for many people, but it is the fastest way to get your loans out of default.
Set up a rehabilitation plan: If you cannot pay the full amount, work with the collection agency to create a repayment plan—known in this case as a rehabilitation plan—that is manageable based on your current income. If the agency suggests a monthly payment amount that you feel is unmanageable, let them know that you need a lower amount, and send them documentation of your current income as proof.
Don’t miss a payment: Follow through on the rehabilitation plan! If you fail to make the payments you have agreed to, collection fees will be added to your account.
Ensure default status gets removed: After you have made nine on-time monthly payments according to the terms of your rehabilitation plan, your loan will be removed from default status. A loan can only be rehabilitated once.
Resources to help you
- How to make a payment to a collection agency here.
- 7 things to know if you have debt in collections here.
- The Department of Education has a page about student loan default here.
- The Department of Education’s page about getting out of student loan default is here.
- The Department of Education provides contact information for the collection agencies it works with here.