The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Thursday urged student loan servicers to provide more help to consumers who apply for income-driven repayment plans.
The government is focused on the income-driven plans as a way to help student loan borrowers pay off their debt. The repayment plans are based on income or family size and can be as low as zero dollars per month for low-income borrowers or the unemployed, the CFPB said.
But borrowers have complained of prolonged delays in processing repayment plan applications or of being rejected outright from participating. One obstacle is that there are no federal standards for third-party private servicers that manage the repayment of federal student loans.
Last month, the Education Department told servicers to set better standards for handling applications for income-driven repayment plans to address the current $1.3 trillion in outstanding student debt. The CFPB estimates that one out of four borrowers either are in default or scrambling to repay.
"Student loan servicing breakdowns can stack thousands of dollars of hidden costs on the backs of borrowers who can least afford them," Seth Frotman, the CFPB's student loan ombudsman, said in a press release. "Too many student loan borrowers are struggling to take advantage of their right to pay based on how much money they make. Servicers who want to better serve their customers can take the immediate steps recommended in this report to clean up this broken process."
The CFPB published a "fix it form" that it wants servicers to use to help borrowers understand whether their repayment application plan has been approved, denied or needs to be corrected.
The CFPB said student loan complaints have surged in the past few months. The bureau handled 3,500 complaints about private student loans in the eight-month period that ended May 31.
Not enough borrowers are enrolling in repayment plans despite the many benefits offered by the federal government, which would forgive remaining balances on loans when borrowers make timely payments for 25 years, or as little as 10 years with some conditions.
Borrowers who have enrolled in repayment plans also run into trouble when servicers require that they recertify their income and family size every year in order to stay in the income-drive repayment plans.
Processing delays also can cost more than $2 a day and can continue for weeks or months, costing consumers thousands of dollars over the life of the loan, the CFPB said.