Speak Up About Student Loan Consumer Protections

 Allesandra Lanza
  19th-Nov-2017

This week the U.S. Department of Education is convening a negotiated rule-making panel to try and hammer out the rules around student loan consumer protections. This is a do-over of sorts, since the panel will hash out two rules that were already negotiated previously: borrower defense to repayment, which is technically already on the books but was slated to be updated last July before being put on hold, and gainful employment, which was put into effect during the Obama administration but has not been fully implemented.

Negotiated rule-making is a process whereby representatives from the federal government and affected constituencies work together in a committee to reach consensus on proposed rules. In the case of student loans, federal rules can have a big impact on a lot of Americans: More than 44 million Americans hold $1.4 trillion in student loans these days. And with thousands of pending borrower-defense-to-repayment claims, as well as growing concerns that student loan servicers aren't always looking out for borrowers' best interests, it's never been more important for student loan consumers to stay informed on their rights and protections.

But the public is by and large unaware of how the negotiated rule-making process works or how they can make their voices heard – either on shaping consumer protections in general or about consumer protection violations they've experienced individually.

Here are a few outlets borrowers can use to make their voices heard.

• Ombudsmen: The Department of Education and many student loan agencies employ ombudsmen, who are neutral, confidential and informal mediators who typically work independently of their employer and help consumers settle disputes. Ombudsmen will listen to your complaint, conduct research and identify options for resolution. Many states are also starting to put in place their own student loan ombudsmen, as part of state-specific legislation that creates a student loan bill of rights. Illinois recently became the latest state to pass such a bill, when its state legislature voted to overturn the governor's initial veto of the legislation.

• State attorneys general: If your state has not enacted any student loan protections on its own, the attorney general's office is a good place to learn more about your rights as a borrower.

For example, in Massachusetts, Attorney General Maura Healey has established a Student Lending Assistance Unit that provides a hotline and free mediation service to borrowers who are having difficulties with student loans.

• Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: This bureau continuously collects student loan borrowers' complaints, investigates trends and regularly issues reports on its findings. In addition to forwarding complaints about the company handling your loan so that it can hopefully resolve the issue, the CFPB may also use your feedback to inform its rule-making process as it creates and enforces federal consumer financial laws.

• Negotiated rule-making: As mentioned above, few people know what negotiated rule-making is, and probably fewer still realize that these meetings typically follow a series of public hearings or "listening sessions" where anyone can propose policy or procedure changes. The public hearings for this round of student loan rule-making occurred over the summer, and as noted above, the negotiators are in place for this week's rule-making session. As in previous sessions, consumer advocates have a seat at the table to represent borrowers' interests. These meetings are also open to the public.

• Consumer advocates: A number of consumer advocacy organizations work on behalf of student loan borrowers.

Two prominent ones are the National Consumer Law Center's Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project and the Project on Predatory Student Lending out of Harvard Law School. Both groups offer direct assistance to borrowers, as well as frequently integrate testimony from their clients when they participate in student loan policy discussions and debate.

• Your congressional representatives: Of course, there's always the tried-and-true method of contacting your congressional representatives in Washington, D.C. You can find contact information for the House of Representatives and Senate and then raise your concerns with each representative's office.

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