Navient Corp., the nation’s largest student loan servicer, is facing four lawsuits alleging that it harmed student loan borrowers throughout the repayment process.
Pennsylvania’s attorney general was the latest to file a suit, which came in early October. The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Illinois and Washington attorneys general sued Navient in January.
Among other things, the CFPB alleges that since at least January 2010, Navient misallocated payments, steered struggling borrowers toward multiple forbearances instead of income-driven repayment plans, and provided unclear information about how to re-enroll in income-driven repayment plans and how to qualify for a co-signer release. The CFPB is asking Navient to compensate the borrowers the agency says were harmed.
The Illinois, Washington and Pennsylvania suits make similar claims to the CFPB’s allegations and also allege that Navient, when it was part of Sallie Mae, made subprime loans to students, particularly those attending for-profit schools. Navient broke off from Sallie Mae Bank, one of the largest private student loan lenders, in 2014.
The allegations in Pennsylvania’s suit are “completely unfounded,” Navient said in an October 5 statement. The company has also rejected the allegations in the other three cases, filing motions to dismiss them. In a March 2017 fact sheet, it said the CFPB, Illinois and Washington suits are based on new servicing standards that are being applied retroactively.
In August 2017, a U.S. District Court judge denied Navient’s motion to dismiss the CFPB’s case. The case is now moving toward the discovery process of gathering evidence, which could lead to further motions, a trial or a settlement, says Suzanne Martindale, a staff attorney at Consumers Union, the policy and action arm of Consumer Reports.
The lawsuits could potentially take years to play out “because of the sheer amount of evidence” that the CFPB, Illinois and Washington have gathered during their investigations, Martindale says.
Regardless of the outcomes, borrowers should regularly check their student loan accounts to make sure their loans are being serviced correctly, says Betsy Mayotte, director of consumer outreach and compliance at American Student Assistance, a nonprofit that helps students pay for college.
Here’s what student loan borrowers should know.
How to check if Navient is your loan servicer
Your student loan servicer is the company you make payments to each month. It’s not always the same company that lent you money in the first place.
Since 2010, the U.S. Department of Education has been the direct lender for all federal student loans, but it contracts with private, third-party companies, including Navient, to handle loan servicing. Prior to 2010, private banks, including Sallie Mae, lent federally guaranteed student loans under the Federal Family Education Loan program.
Log on to the Federal Student Aid website to find your federal loan servicer. In addition to Navient, other major federal loan servicers include FedLoan Servicing, Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation & Affiliates and Nelnet.
Navient services more than $300 billion in federal and private student loans for more than 12 million borrowers, or over a fourth of the U.S.’s 44 million student loan borrowers. It’s important to know whether you have federal or private student loans, or both, Martindale points out, because different types of loans have different borrower protections. For instance, you’re eligible for income-driven repayment plans and potentially federal loan forgiveness programs if you have federal loans.
What to do if you’re frustrated with your student loan servicer
When it comes to student loan servicing, “consumers cannot easily take their business elsewhere,” Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said in a statement in January, when the agency filed the lawsuit.
It is possible to switch student loan servicers through federal consolidation or student loan refinancing. But you shouldn’t consolidate or refinance solely to switch servicers because there are potential risks associated with each, says Adam Minsky, a Boston-based lawyer specializing in student loans. Also, there’s no guarantee you’ll be better off with a different servicer.
“The other servicers aren’t exactly rainbows and sunshine,” Minsky says.
Even if you can’t change servicers, there are a number of things you can do to voice your concerns and protect yourself as a borrower: File complaints, check your credit report for errors, learn about your repayment options, and watch out for companies that charge fees for student loan help.
You can file complaints to one or more of the following entities:
The CFPB alleges that Navient ignores borrowers’ complaints. But getting your concerns in writing is still worth doing, if only to improve the system for others, Seth Frotman, student loan ombudsman and assistant director of the office for students at the CFPB, said in a press call in January.
“We receive thousands of complaints,” Frotman said. “That has dramatically informed our work around improving the student loan servicing market.”
Check your credit report for errors
The CFPB also alleges that Navient incorrectly reported disabled borrowers’ accounts as “in default” when the borrowers had actually gotten loan relief through the government’s Total and Permanent Disability discharge program. To guard against a mistake like that, which could severely hurt your credit score, check your credit report for errors. You can get one free credit report every year from each of the three major credit bureaus.
Get up to speed on your repayment options
Student loan servicers are supposed to help you understand the various repayment options. By learning about the options yourself, you can be empowered to hold your loan servicer to that standard. Keep in mind, though, that each of the following options has risks.
- Income-driven repayment plans can lower your monthly federal student loan payments by capping your payment at a percentage of your income. They also offer loan forgiveness after you make on-time payments for 20 or 25 years, depending on the plan.
- Student loan forgiveness programs, such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness, can relieve your federal student loan debt if you work for a certain type of employer and make on-time payments for a certain period of time
- Federal consolidation doesn’t lower your monthly payments or save you money, but it’s sometimes necessary in order to qualify for income-driven repayment or a forgiveness program. Consolidating is frequently confused with student loan refinancing, which is a way to save money on interest by getting a lower rate.
Watch out for companies that charge fees for help
You can sign up for the above options on your own for free. But some companies that aren’t affiliated with the Department of Education capitalize on subpar student loan servicing practices by charging fees to enroll borrowers in free federal student loan programs. So-called student debt relief companies often advertise messages such as “Obama Student Loan Forgiveness” on Facebook and Google. If you’re tempted by such an offer, know that you don’t have to pay for student loan help.
If your servicer isn’t answering your student loan questions, reach out to the Department of Education or your state’s attorney general’s office for help.