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The strong labor market and economy isn’t helping the student debt crisis. The stats are shocking: 70% of college graduates will leave school with student loans, and they owe a collective $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, according to The Federal Reserve.
On top of the mounting student loan burden 45 million Americans face, the options for help and information seem to be dwindling, and problems with loan servicers are growing rapidly. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, complaints about student loans increased 325% in 2017, compared with the previous year.
While the CFPB has filed lawsuits against student loan servicers like Navient, the largest student loan servicer in the U.S., for “systematically and illegally [failing] borrowers at every stage of repayment,” the recent resignation by director Seth Frotman is raising concerns about the bureau’s capability in helping lenders. In Frotman’s resignation, he claimed the CFPB “has turned its back on young people and their financial futures.”
Although the CFBP’s role to protect student loan borrowers has been diminished, all hope is not lost. If you have loans and are having problems with your lender, here are some things you can still do to get free help.
1. Find out if your loan servicer has an ombudsman
Once you’ve gathered your records, reach out to your loan servicer and check to see if they have a consumer advocate within their organization, also known as an in-house ombudsman who can step in to help resolve your loan issues and disputes. An ombudsman is a neutral party, which means they are not your advocate in your student loan dispute. Rather, they evaluate the data and information provided, and help both parties come to an agreement over the loan.
2. Turn to your state
If your loan servicer doesn’t have an in-house office, turn to your state for a student loan ombudsman. The ombudsman’s job is to protect state’s constituents who struggle with unfair and unlawful lending practices. Not all states have them, but more have been stepping up to sign onto new legislation that enforces a borrower’s bill of rights.
Live in a state without an ombudsman? Then reach out to your state’s attorney general if you think fraud has been committed by your student loan servicer. Depending on where you live, certain states have attorney generals that are more aggressive in their methods of providing relief for its constituents, says student loan expert Kevin Fudge with the American Student Assistance group.
3. Think about your career path — far in advance
According to Fudge, finding your purpose before you commit to an expensive degree could help you focus on your future goals — and avoid crushing debt. As an ombudsman and higher education expert, Fudge creates programs that help teens discover their career options well before college.
“How can we support earlier awareness of your options so that you’re not dealing with financial problems on the back end?” Fudge says. “Maybe you can go to college or maybe you can check out a certificate program first — [we’re] helping students go to school with a purpose.”
4. Resources for free help
The CFPB still offers solid guidance and educational resources for those who are having problems with both federal and private loans, says Natalia Abrams, executive director of Student Debt Crisis. Her organization supports borrowers, free of charge, with their student loan issues through tools on their website, informational webinars and advocacy.
“I understand the borrowers’ frustration. People need to get involved to get the laws changed. We need to vote in candidates that are pro-education,” says Abrams.
Beware of companies that charge you a fee to provide debt relief. The only person you should consider paying to help you with your student loan problems is a bankruptcy attorney, says Abrams. Most debt relief companies that promise a quick and easy solution are too good to be true and not worth the fees.