The vast majority of student loan borrowers who default and rehabilitate their loans are set up to fail again because of bad advice, a new government study claims.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says a stunning 9 out of 10 of these high-risk borrowers were not enrolled in affordable repayment plans, such as income-driven repayment — meaning their monthly payments were much higher than they had to be. Predictably, those borrowers were five times more likely to re-default on their loans, racking up $125 million in unnecessary interest charges along the way.
Conversely, students who were enrolled in income-driven repayment plans, which reduce payments based on the borrower’s income, were much less likely to have trouble making on-time payments. Fewer than one in 10 re-defaulted when enrolled in income-derived repayment, the CFPB said.
Loan servicers are responsible for informing borrowers about their options, but the CFPB has alleged previously that they do a poor job of it.
A Government Accountability Office report in 2015 found that while 51% of borrowers were eligible for a repayment program that could lower their payments, only about 15% were enrolled in it. The CFPB complaint database is littered with allegations that servicers make enrollment unnecessarily hard. And earlier this year, the CFPB and the state of Illinois both sued Navient — the nation's largest servicer — and alleged the firm systematically failed to inform borrowers of their options. (Navient denied the allegation.)
Tuesday's report focuses on a more narrow group — those who had stopped paying their student loans but had recently restarted payments and "rehabilitated" them. The group, which consists of about 600,000 borrowers, is considered the riskiest of the 43 million Americans who owe student loans.
Their plight shows the system is broken, said CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman Seth Frotman.
"For far too many student loan borrowers, the dream of a fresh start turns into a nightmare of default and deeper debt," Frotman said. "When student loan companies know that nearly half of their highest-risk customers will quickly fail, it's time to fix the broken system that makes this possible."
The Student Loan Servicing Association, a trade group that represents servicers, didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
Roughly one in three student loan borrowers are late to some degree on their monthly payments. The Department of Education estimates that more than 8 million federal student loan borrowers have gone at least 12 months without making a required monthly payment and have fallen into default.
At-risk borrowers should know there are multiple programs designed to help them avoid default — income-contingent repayment, income-based repayment, and "pay as you earn" are all designed to keep payments at between 10% and 20% of income. Some offer payments as low as $5 per month, depending on income.
Details are available at the Department of Education website. Consumers should not take advice from websites claiming to offer student loan help — many are scams — but should instead contact their loan servicers directly.