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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

DOE moves to empower student loan oversight for better borrower support

Federal Issues Student Lending Department of Education Student Loan Servicer

Federal Issues

On November 9, the DOE announced it is outlining a framework for how it will increase borrower support and ensure student loan servicers are accountable for errors. Richard Cordray, Federal Student Aid (FSA) Chief Operating Officer, noted, “The landscape of loan servicing has substantially changed since the Department began collaboration with multiple servicers in 2009. FSA is dedicated to evolving servicing contracts to meet borrower requirements. As we approach the Direct Loan program’s unprecedented return to repayment, our upcoming transition to new contracts in 2024 will bring updated servicer obligations and increased avenues to ensure borrowers receive adequate support.”

The DOE has implemented various strategies to bolster oversight and monitoring of servicers:

  • Direct Servicer Monitoring: FSA staff actively evaluate the quality of customer service provided by loan servicers, which involves scoring interactions between servicers’ representatives and borrowers, reviewing calls and chats, and conducting secret shopper calls to assess the accuracy of servicers’ responses to borrower inquiries.
  • Partnership with Federal and State Regulators: The DOE collaborates with agencies like the CFPB and state attorneys general responsible for enforcing consumer financial laws. Updates in the interpretation of federal preemption provide clear guidance for the ability of states to enforce state consumer protection laws and allow for coordination between the DOE and state partners.
  • Utilizing Borrower Complaints: The DOE leverages complaints filed through the FSA’s Office of the Ombudsman, which collaborates with the oversight team to discern if complaints signal wider servicer issues. The DOE also monitors social media and news stories to identify broader patterns of complaints, which allow the DOE to discern isolated instances from systemic errors affecting multiple borrowers. These listening tools serve as mechanisms for borrowers to report issues impacting their repayment directly.

The DOE and the Biden administration wield several measures to ensure servicers meet their obligations and maintain standards. The announcement highlighted that the DOE could withhold payments from servicers failing to serve borrowers adequately, as exemplified by the recent $7.2 million withheld from a Missouri servicer for delayed billing statements to 2.5 million borrowers. The DOE also has the authority to suspend or re-allocate borrowers to other servicers, which impacts the financial compensation of underperforming servicers. In addition, Contractor Performance Reports assess servicer performance and influence future contract awards, while Corrective Action Plans demand remedies for servicing errors to ensure borrower satisfaction and prevent reoccurrence. The DOE also safeguards borrowers from servicer errors by instructing servicers to grant affected borrowers a temporary administrative forbearance during error resolution. Additionally, the DOE directs servicers to count these periods as qualifying for loan forgiveness and adjusts accrued interest to zero when errors might impede borrowers’ progress toward forgiveness.

Finally, the DOE mentioned it is gearing up to transition to the USDS, a new loan servicing system, by spring 2024. This shift aims to enhance accountability, transparency, and performance evaluation for over 37 million federally managed student loan borrowers with a focus on rewarding good performance and ensuring servicers meet higher standards. By incentivizing servicers to maintain borrowers’ repayment status and improving tracking mechanisms, the DOE will prioritize borrower success and aim for a smoother repayment experience.