Economy First Look

Why the US government is suing the biggest student-loan servicer

On the eve of a new administration, the Consumer Financial Protection Board is accusing Navient of systematically misleading borrowers.

In this May 10, 2014 file photo, a graduate of Northwest Florida State College wears her cap during commencement in Niceville, Fla.
Nick Tomecek/ Northwest Florida Daily/ AP Photo
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Federal regulators at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have sued Navient, the nation’s biggest student loan company, claiming that it cheated borrowers out of billions of dollars by giving them bad information, processing payments incorrectly, and failing to act on complaints.

"For years, Navient failed consumers who counted on the company to help give them a fair chance to pay back their student loans," said CFPB director Richard Cordray in a statement. "At every stage of repayment, Navient chose to shortcut and deceive consumers to save on operating costs."

The Bureau is seeking restitution for those affected, as well as money penalties. The lawsuit was accompanied by two others filed by the states of Washington and Illinois that alleged similar deceptive practices.

Navient disputes the allegations in all three cases, calling the Bureau’s suit a politically motivated “midnight action” taken just before the arrival of a new administration.

"We will vigorously defend against these false allegations," it said in a statement.

The case returns attention to an issue that became an animating one during the presidential campaign, as student debt loads hit record levels.

In October, a study by the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) found that class of ’15 graduates who took out loans in order to attend college – almost seven-in-ten college seniors – left school with an average burden of $30,100, as The Christian Science Monitor reported.

"This average is higher than ever before, and it represents a huge range of average debt loads at different schools, from $3,000 to more than $50,000," Lauren Asher, the president of the Institute for College Access and Success, told the Monitor at the time. "These growing numbers signify that in the United States, more and more people are having to borrow to get a college education."

The study found that the average debt load for members of the class of 2015 varied from state to state, from $18,873 in Utah to $36,101 in New Hampshire.

Student debt loads aren’t just being shouldered by young people, either. In December, a Government Accountability Office report found that tens of thousands of Baby Boomers were bogged down under the weight of old student debt, drawing from retirement or disability benefits to pay off loans taken out decades ago. Some had returned to school as older students, and others had co-signed loans for family members. 

Many defaulted on their loans, leading the government to cut the Social Security retirement or disability benefits of some 114,000 people over age 50. Some saw their monthly incomes drop to below the federal poverty line, according to the report. 

Formerly part of Sallie Mae, Navient is one of several student loan servicers to come under scrutiny by regulators in several government agencies. It handles more than $300 billion in loans from 12 million borrowers, according to the CFPB, including 6 million under an arrangement with the Department of Education.

It isn’t the first time it has drawn rebuke from federal authorities. In May 2015, the Justice Department announced that nearly 78,000 military servicepeople would be reimbursed as part of the terms of a $60 million consent decree with Navient, after they were charged excess interest on student loans.

The present case, though, comes at a time of serious uncertainty at the CFPB.

Established in 2010 as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, the Bureau has been opposed by Republicans since its inception. Several top lawmakers from the party hope President-elect Donald Trump will fire the agency’s director once he takes office.

He may get the chance: in October, a federal appeals court ruled that the agency’s structure was unconstitutional, saying it gives excessive power to the director and improperly limits the president’s authority to fire directors. And last week, according to HousingWire, Trump met with a former Texas representative whom he is considering to run the agency, although Cordray’s term doesn’t end until July 2018 – what many Democrats are taking as a signal that the president-elect could move before then to remove him.

On the issue of student debt, Trump has made comments that put him more in the league of Democrats than of his fellow Republicans. In a 2015 book, he called student loans “one of the only things the government shouldn’t make money from,” according to CNBC. In October, he unveiled an income-based proposal that would make borrowers eligible for loan forgiveness after 15 years, more generous than the 20-year limit under the Department of Education’s latest repayment plan.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.