Feds say student loan debt exceeds $1 trillion, seeks comments from public

Grant Engle

The federal government is taking suggestions on how to make student loan payments more affordable for graduates who borrowed money from private lenders.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a government agency launched in 2010 to protect consumers from exploitation, told reporters Thursday that it is accepting comments from private lenders, students, universities and others on solutions to drive down student loan debt across the country.

Rohit Chopra, a spokesman for the bureau, said student loan debt has surpassed the $1 trillion mark, and $150 billion of that was borrowed from private lenders — not the federal government.

“In today’s times, taking out a student loan is no longer the exception,” Chopra said. “It’s the norm.”

Chopra said the most common complaint the bureau has heard is that it’s difficult to renegotiate interest rates or payments with private lenders. He pointed out that federal loans have plans such as the extended repayment plan, which allows graduates to make smaller payments over a longer period of time.

While Chopra said it’s unlikely the bureau would suggest lawmakers pass laws or mandates that would force private lenders into restructuring student-loan payments to make them more affordable, he said the bureau’s goal is to see what ways lenders can be “more flexible.”

A possible point of flexibility would be for private lenders to renegotiate interest rates when a person lands a job after graduation, Chopra said.

“While [students] may be seen as a high risk up front, later on they might not be,” Chopra said. “Many borrowers feel they’re stuck in loans they got freshman year and are unable to refinance to lower rates.”

Comments to the bureau are due by April 8, and Chopra said the advice, guidance, input and stories will be made public shortly after they are reviewed and could possibly be available for people to see on the due date. The bureau would then consider sending some of the ideas to lawmakers.

Chopra said while college debt is going up, some reports the bureau has analyzed show wages are down for college graduates. He also pointed out that outstanding student loan debt is greater than credit card and auto loan debt.

The bureau also analyzed data that showed home loans to first-time home buyers is at a 10-year low. While Chopra said there’s no proof that is strictly because of student loan debt, he said it is a likely factor, among several, why young people are shying away from buying a home.

For students who managed to avoid loans from private lenders and solely relied on loans from the federal government, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said they made the right move.

“Federal student loans remain the best option for borrowers, but we know some students have turned to private student loans and are struggling to repay,” Duncan said. “We’re glad to see the [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau] is taking steps to help create options for those who are having trouble managing their private student loan debt.”

Grant Engle is a city reporter for the Daily Kent Stater.Contact Grant Engle at [email protected].