If you borrowed money to go to college, a student loan might be your first experience with long-term debt. You probably don’t know a lot about how to handle what will be a lengthy relationship with a lender. And you often can’t count on the company you’re directly dealing with, your loan’s servicer, to help you navigate the process.
Servicers manage loan accounts and process monthly billing; they’re essentially a middleman between you and your lender (usually the federal government). But the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has found that sloppy customer service practices have led to higher interest charges and late fees, confusion for borrowers, and ultimately, prolonged repayment schedules.
More than 10 million borrowers have had their loans transferred to a new servicer in the past five years, according to the CFPB. Different servicers can have different policies and practices, but borrowers have no control over which servicer gets their debt, or when, or how many times their debt is transferred.
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There also aren’t any federal standards to protect borrowers, even with something as basic as having the right to a response within a certain period of time, says Maura Dundon, who covers student loans for the Center for Responsible Lending.
The CFPB wants to change that, saying it plans to create regulations for the industry. But those still-to-be-drafted rules wouldn’t go into effect for some time. Until then, what can you do if you aren’t getting the help you need?
“The best defense is a good offense here,” Dundon says. “It’s knowing what your rights are.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. With federal loans, you can almost always get a more affordable payment. The standard repayment term for federal loans is 10 years, or 120 equal monthly payments. If that amount is too high, though, most federal student loan borrowers are entitled to enroll in a plan that ties their payments to their earnings, either 10% or 15% of discretionary income. Yet the CFPB has found that servicers aren’t proactive in telling borrowers about this benefit. And borrowers report getting conflicting advice from servicers depending on which customer service representative they’re talking to. As a result, borrowers are wrongly pushed into forbearance or deferment, both of which can result in higher interest charges overall, too often.
To get answers on your own, read about the different income-driven repayment plans at studentaid.ed.gov, and then use that site’s Repayment Estimator for an idea of how much you’d owe under each plan. If you’re having trouble communicating with your servicer, the CFPB has a sample letter you can work from, as well as a helpful step-by-step repayment tool.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of these flexible payment plans: About 70% of people who defaulted on their loans could have qualified for an income-driven plan that would have lowered their payment and likely kept them in good standing, had they known about it, a recent Government Accountability Office report found.
2. If you have a public service job, make sure to have your employment certified by the Education Department. That way, you can have your loans forgiven after 10 years. Again, far fewer than the millions of borrowers the CFPB estimates are eligible sign up for this. Who qualifies? Public school employees, firefighters, non-profit workers, and more. The advocacy group Jobs for Justice has a helpful guide to walk you through who’s eligible, with information about signing up if you are.
3. Be formal. Heather Jarvis, an attorney who specializes in student debt repayment, recommends that you do all your communications with loan servicers in writing. Not only does that tend to elicit a more official response from the servicer than a phone call randomly assigned to a customer service rep, but you’ll also have documentation of what you said and when, Jarvis says. Want to write a letter asking for a lower monthly payment? The CFPB has a sample you can pull from.
4. Be clear about how you want your money divvied up. If you’re trying to pay down your debt faster, you’ll want to direct any dollars that exceed the minimum due to the loans with the highest interest rate. But servicers won’t automatically do that. Instead, they apply your payment evenly across all your loans. So you have to give clear instructions. The CFPB has another sample letter to help.
“You have to accept the reality that no one cares about your loans as much as you do, and if you don’t understand your options, you can end up paying too much,” Jarvis says
5. Request the promissory note. When it comes to private loans, the promissory note will lay out all the details you need to know about your loan, including options for temporary postponement or repayment modifications, Jarvis says. Many notes don’t provide for payment relief, but some servicers will give borrowers some flexibility if they ask for it.
6. Call in backup. If you’ve tried working with your servicer and are still struggling to get what you need, consider filing a complaint. The Department of Education has a loan ombudsman. Less widely known is that many lending and guaranty agencies in the student loan system also have their own ombudsmen. The National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance project has compiled this list of them.
7. Beware of companies that charge. The rapid growth of student debt and the complexity of student loan repayment has bred a small industry of debt relief scammers. In Minnesota, the state attorney general’s office says 800 people paid between $500 and $1,500 for services offered for free by the Education Department. Similar incidents have taken place in New York, Illinois, and Washington. Aside from hiring a lawyer in extreme cases, you should never have to pay someone to help you lower your loan payments.
For more advice on paying for—or paying off—college costs, check out the MONEY College Planner.