Student loan fraud impacts campus: Loan provider Navient accused of mishandling payments

Andy Monserud, Staff Reporter

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It’s an uncertain time for Whitman students, and especially for those accumulating debt to pay for their education. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau sued student loan servicer Navient earlier this month, accusing the company on its website of “systematically and illegally failing borrowers at every stage of repayment.”

Navient was accused Jan. 18 of a bevy of misconduct including mishandling payments, advising borrowers to unnecessarily take on payment plans that would lead to their loans accruing more interest and failing to inform borrowers of deadlines and other crucial information about loan repayment. They also allegedly falsely reported that disabled and veteran borrowers defaulted on their loans; they reportedly deceived borrowers about the conditions of co-signer release, thereby forcing borrowers to lose any progress they had made on repaying their loans and illegally misrepresented the federal government’s loan rehabilitation program, according to the Bureau’s website.

Navient, which according to the New York Times is the largest student-loan servicer in the country and handles approximately $300 billion in private and federal loans, has denied wrongdoing. The company’s website offers a statement in which it claims that the suit is unfounded and harmful to borrowers.

“The timing of this lawsuit–midnight action on the eve of a new administration–reflects [the Bureau’s] political motivations,” the statement reads. “Navient welcomes clear and well-designed guidelines that all parties can follow, and we had hoped our extensive engagement with the regulators would achieve this objective.”

The outcome of the lawsuit could impact the 366 Whitman alumni whose loans are handled by Navient, as well as any students who have their loans assigned to Navient in the future. Borrowers are assigned to loan servicers by the Department of Education, so Whitman has no way of ensuring that students will not end up serviced by Navient if the federal government continues to contract with them. What that impact will be, however, is still unclear. The future of federal student loans could depend on the Trump administration and controversial Secretary of Education nominee Betsy Devos.

The 366 figure comes from Director of Financial Aid Marilyn Ponti and Director of Admissions Tony Cabasco, who both say that the best approach students can take right now is to “wait and see.” Even if Navient is removed from the Department of Education’s list of approved federal student loan servicers, those loans will end up in the hands of another servicer and still need to be repaid. And students looking to borrow from the federal government can still do so.

“What we want to make sure of is that people understand … that their loans are not in danger of going away or of the eligibility changing,” Ponti said.

Cabasco agreed.

“Today, if a student says ‘should I take on a student loan?’ the answer is ‘yes, you can,’” he said. “That’s not going to change. This is all about who follows up with you and who you pay after the fact.”

The one thing that the federal government could change is the interest rate on student loans, Ponti said. Student loan interest rates are tied to the interest rates of Treasury Bills or T-Bills. That has kept rates low for several years, Ponti said, and there is currently no indicator of a rise in rates on the horizon, but she notes that the federal government has control over both interest rates. Even if those did change, however, they would not affect those who have already taken out loans, and neither Ponti nor Cabasco anticipate any immediate danger to potential borrowers.

Approximately 45 to 50 percent of Whitman students have taken out loans, by Ponti’s estimate, and those students graduate with an average of $18,000 in debt. That’s substantially lower than the national average, which in 2015 was just over $30,000, according to the nonprofit Institute for College Access and Success. Ponti and Cabasco are also proud of the college’s 0.04 percent rate of default on student debt. All these factors mean that most Whitman students who borrow have a good chance of paying off their loans without incident.

In the Navient case, Ponti and Cabasco say that they haven’t heard any complaints from those 366 borrowers from Whitman. But they’re keeping a close eye out, and encourage any students or alumni with questions or complaints about their student loans and servicers to contact them.

“If [students or alumni] have had some bad experiences, come let us know, because we can then forward that information … and get the word out that ‘hey, here’s what we’re experiencing, and here’s what our students are telling us,’” Cabasco said. “Maybe they don’t know that they can do that with us. They should certainly come talk to us.”