For Sarah, streamlining student loan repayment for easy access to affordable repayment plans is critical. Sarah teaches second grade in Minnesota, and works to ensure that all her students have hope for their futures and “know that the possibilities are endless for them.” After paying her monthly loan balance, she lives paycheck-to-paycheck. Public service loan forgiveness options are available to help make debt more manageable and affordable, but many teachers like Sarah struggle to learn about whether or not they qualify. The Obama Administration knows that families across the country are working hard to pay off their loans. This Administration wants to ensure that students do not have to choose between a job that serves their communities and paying their debt, and that borrowers like Sarah do not struggle to navigate student loan repayment. That’s why the US Department of Education is taking steps to reinvent customer service for federal student loan borrowers to ensure that every borrower has the right to an affordable repayment plan like Pay As You Earn (PAYE), quality customer service, reliable information, and fair treatment as they repay their loans – objectives the President put forward in his Student Aid Bill of Rights.
Since the President’s announcement, the Department has worked in partnership with the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as well as with students, colleges and universities, higher education and loan experts to identify and incorporate best practices for supporting the more than 40 million Americans with student loans. We’ve moved to identify and protect federal student loan borrowers who may be eligible to have their loans forgiven under the Total and Permanent Disability loan discharge program. Last October, we released a report outlining a series of statutory, regulatory, and administrative recommendations to safeguard student borrowers. In December, we announced the results of a pilot program intended to reach and provide assistance to seriously delinquent borrowers. We also published new quarterly data updates on Private Collection Agency performance and implemented a new set of student loan statement disclosures to provide clear and direct information to borrowers. And while the majority of federal student loan borrowers continue to successfully repay their student loans, there are still too many borrowers who are struggling, or who may be at risk of defaulting on their loans, and the Department is focused on making sure they are well-supported in repayment.
Today, we’re launching one of our biggest initiatives to date to make sure all borrowers are getting the customer service they deserve, by challenging the industry to compete to provide world-class service to our Direct Loan borrowers. Six years ago, the President signed into law the landmark student loan reform legislation that shifted $60 billion in subsidies that would have been paid to banks and lenders and instead made historic investments to help millions of American families pay for college and allow student loan borrowers to access consistent, high-quality loan servicing in the future. Under the old system, banks and lenders were paid to make loans and the Department had little flexibility to ensure that borrowers were getting quality servicing and fair treatment. Now that the Department is both the lender and the servicer, the Department is able to better address any challenges facing borrowers, manage the student loan portfolio, and continuously work to strengthen the borrower experience.
Currently, the US Department of Education has contracts with a number of companies that manage the student loan repayment process. Some are strong at developing state-of-the-art data management systems, and others are pros at reaching out to borrowers and helping them when they’re in trouble. Right now, all servicers have to do everything – not just what they’re good at. This year, our goal is to build a new state-of-the-art loan servicing system – one that creates incentives and guidelines that support a more user-friendly single online loan management platform with high-quality, one-on-one customer service that provides the help and guidance borrowers need when they have questions or their circumstances change.
We envision a new system where it is easier for borrowers to navigate loan repayment and clear enough to show how the system is performing and where improvements are needed. In our new customer service model, borrowers and taxpayers can expect:
- Department of Education-branded communication that is standard–eliminating differences that now exist among multiple servicers that co-brand borrower communications–and that will help borrowers stay on top of their debt and avoid confusion about who is servicing their loan.
- A streamlined borrower experience via a single web portal through which all borrowers can find the latest information about their loans, make payments and apply for benefits–eliminating the need to know the name of their servicer.
- Better customer service practices that will be common for all borrowers and that meet high standards to ensure borrowers’ needs are met consistently, regardless of what contractor is providing that customer service.
- Reduced, and, to the extent practical, eliminated loan transfers and other borrower disruptions that can make it hard for borrowers to keep current with their loan payments and seek help when they need it.
- Enhanced oversight and accountability that will ensure that borrowers are treated fairly and given clear, actionable information at every step of the repayment process, including enhanced customer service practices and a new complaint system to empower borrowers when something is not right.
- A single platform for all Federal student loans allowing for a more seamless connection for future customer service centers.
This system will lay the foundation for forthcoming contract actions to acquire additional customer service centers.
In the coming weeks, as we design the contours of this new system, we want to hear from borrowers, experts, and others about their experiences with student loan repayment and will be identifying opportunities for us to hear from you. Stay tuned.
Ted Mitchell is U.S. Under Secretary of Education.
April is National Financial Capability Month. Decisions about paying for higher education can have lasting impact on individuals and our economy. In keeping with our ongoing efforts to increase financial literacy among college-bound and postsecondary students, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) is working with Treasury’s Financial Literacy and Education Commission (FLEC) to teach students how to save and manage money for their postsecondary education.
The Far-Reaching Impact of Financial Literacy
Financial literacy, which can be defined as an understanding of how to earn, manage, and invest money, has a critical impact on students’ ability to make smart choices about which institute of higher education to attend, what to study, how to pay for college, and how to manage student loan debt after graduation.
Students who are financially literate are better equipped than those who are not to make wise choices regarding school selection, what degrees to pursue, and how to pay for postsecondary education. The choices students make while in school often have a direct impact on their financial futures.
“The most expensive degree remains the one you don’t get,” Secretary John King, Jr., said at a recent FLEC meeting at the Treasury Department.
King pointed out that two of the biggest threats against students’ ability to manage their loan debt are:
- not completing the degree program for which the loan debt was accrued
- earning a degree that is not competitive in the twenty-first century
With this in mind, we emphasize college completion, in addition to college affordability and accessibility.
Getting the Word Out
To help students make wise decisions about higher education, our office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) offers several learning resources, including:
- Responsible Borrowing and Budgeting videos
- An early preparation and saving fact sheet
- A workbook to help middle and junior high school students think through their education goals and how to pay for them
- ED’s College Scorecard
The FLEC webpage offers additional resources that focus on early college preparation, and links to its 2016 report on the state of financial education among postsecondary students titled, “Opportunities to Improve the Financial Capability and Financial Well-being of Postsecondary Students.” This report describes how important it is to build the financial capability of students to promote not only college access and completion, but also lifelong financial health. The report also includes the activities of a number of postsecondary institutions and other entities focused on helping students make critical financial decisions that can lead to economic security.
Elizabeth Coogan is a Senior Advisor in in Federal Student Aid’s Customer Experience Group. She is responsible for postsecondary financial literacy strategies and initiatives.