Sapping borrowers of their ability to save for the future and live comfortably in the present, student loans are an enormous and escalating national issue. As of 2019, 44 million Americans owed more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, to the tune of $37,000+ per student.
But I probably don’t need to mention that to readers of this site, many of whom are drowning in significantly more than $37,000 in student loan debt.
It’s bad enough to be saddled with that kind of debt, but to add insult to injury, borrowers often log into their Navient accounts (or any of the other major servicers!) and discover errors.
Although those errors sometimes appear to be in the student’s favor, that’s rarely the case. For instance, Andrew Josuweit, the founder of Student Loan Hero, vaguely realized that two of his 16 original student loans never showed up on with his servicer. Busy with a post-graduation swirl of activity, Josuweit didn’t pursue the matter. However, those loans came back to haunt him when his servicer slammed him with default alerts, ultimately resulting in thousands of dollars of collection fees and interest.
Reddit user ajaydub also had problems with AWOL loans. In a December 2018 post, ajaydub recounted that his loan company, Navient, split his loan into four parts without giving his contact information to the three other companies. He realized something was amiss when his credit score began tanking. Not only was he in collections for two of the loans, but he had to chase one of them since it had been sold to another collections company. His initial debt of $55,000 doubled to over $110,000.
Disappearing-and-resurfacing debt is a surprisingly common problem with student loans. In other cases, students find that they’ve mysteriously acquired debt that doesn’t belong to them. The credit bureau somehow recorded their loans twice or even assigned someone else’s loans to them due to similar names or Social Security numbers. Those could be clerical errors or identity theft. In either case, the damage to a person’s credit can be substantial.
Another common error borrowers contend with is incorrect student loan info, including:
- Paid-off student loans marked as active.
- Closed student loans marked as active.
- Incorrect credit report balances reported.
- Incorrect loan origination or payment dates recorded.
Student loan servicing errors are commonplace and frustrating. It’s enough to make you want to take the Earnest bonus and refinance. However, you don’t always have that option and with tens of thousands of dollars and creditworthiness on the line, it’s necessary to get to the root of student loan problems.
How can borrowers stay on top of student loans?
Multiple loan origination dates, payments, interest rates, and terms are enough to make a borrower bury her head in the sand about student loan issues. However, with so much money and misery at stake, debtors should deal with loan servicing issues in a patient, business-like manner.
Even if their past record-keeping was sketchy or nonexistent, student borrowers should begin maintaining meticulous records of loan payments, conversations with loan servicers, problems, and resolutions. If students don’t make headway with their loan servicers, they’ll be required to produce documentation that they did, in fact, make sincere efforts to resolve issues on their own.
This is especially true if you are seeking forgiveness. I’ve written about how you can take control by tracking your payments.
Here are some other general actions you can take to fix and avoid problems:
1. Check government records to verify federal student loans
In the flurry of graduation and, hopefully, starting a new job, lawyers often maintain their student loans account on autopilot. However, as the disappearing-and-reappearing student loan sagas recounted above demonstrate, students need to be proactive with their often-confusing array of student loans. The best way borrowers can make sure that all their accounts are present, correct, and accounted for, and to find out which servicing company holds their loans, is to reach out to the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS).
At NLDS, you can cross-check those accounts against the ones listed on their credit reports (which you can get for free, see below). If the NLDS search turns up an account a borrower doesn’t recognize, you should follow up to resolve the discrepancy. You can ask for all the original loan documentation from the servicer to verify it was for a school they went to and at a time that they were attending.
2. Check and Compare Credit Reports
Once a year, borrowers can request free copies of their credit reports from The Big Three credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—through AnnualCreditReport.com. This is the only place where you can get the credit reports for free. All of the other sites are trying to get you to buy some kind of monthly credit report monitoring service. You don’t need that.
Cross-checking all three reports on an annual basis allows loan holders to catch reporting errors on student loan accounts before too much damage is done. Building a record of past credit reports also allows borrowers to cross-check current reports, so save each credit report that you run so you’ll have access to it in the future.
3. Reach out to student loan servicers ASAP.
As soon as borrowers spot an error, either after logging on to their account or through checking the NSLDS database, they should contact their loan servicer. Since the reporting agency will verify with the servicers, contacting the servicer is the most important part.
Navigating the loan servicer maze can be challenging. When speaking to a customer service rep (politely, of course—more flies are caught with honey than vinegar), know that most services will connect you with an ombudsman, otherwise known as a consumer advocate, who investigates, reports on, and helps settle complaints. Borrowers should take note of that person’s name and direct phone number for easy contact in the future.
The Navient ombudsman is at 888-545-4199 or [email protected]. Borrowers should also keep servicers up-to-date with their contact information so that you receive all relevant communication, which you should save. Don’t rely on the servicer to maintain accurate records or prior communication.
If working with a loan servicer doesn’t resolve an issue . . .
Sometimes a loan servicer provides more blame than service. In that case, it’s time to:
Reach out to state and federal offices
Borrowers who get no satisfaction from their loan servicing company can turn to their state attorney general; many of those offices employ consumer advocates. At the federal level, debtors can file complaints with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) ombudsman online or by phone at 855-411-2372. In addition, the CFPB website also includes other tools to help borrowers understand their student loan options. The CFPB Ombudsman helps resolve private loan issues.
For federal loan issues, turn to the US Department of Education, the agency that oversees student loan servicers. The DOE offers limited, “last-resort” services to student borrowers through their Federal Student Aid Ombudsman Group. Although the ombudsman group will not directly advocate for borrowers, they will help them figure out their options and remedy any discrepancies in loan or repayment figures. Borrowers can submit problems online, by phone at 877-557-2575, by fax at 606-396-4821, and by mail addressed to the US Department of Education, FSA Ombudsman Group, P.O. Box 1843, Monticello, KY 42633.
There are happy endings
The best advice to students is to incur as little educational debt as possible. However, for those who have already racked up a little or a lot of student loan debt, there’s still hope, as exemplified by Joel Winston’s story.
A University of Michigan graduate whose loan servicer erroneously kicked his loan into default after three years of on-time payments, Winston politely but firmly navigated his servicer’s channels to rectify the mistake. It took two internal investigations, but the lender eventually corrected its error. However, because the company violated the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, which regulates how collections companies can contact borrowers about their debt, Winston filed a lawsuit and won a legal settlement that he applied to his loan balance.
To people facing similar problems, Winston counsels, “You have to keep meticulous records. You have to keep all of your files. If you feel that something has happened, be patient. Ask nicely. Be polite. Do not get upset with the people over the phone because those are the only people right now that can help you.”
With 20 million student loans being serviced, and a patchwork of private and federal loans, there are bound to be problems. However, with proactivity, persistence, and patience, most of these problems can be resolved.
Plus, you’re a lawyer, so you’re good at this stuff. Keep good records and stay persistent.
Joshua Holt A practicing private equity M&A lawyer and the creator of Biglaw Investor, Josh couldn’t find a place where lawyers were talking about money, so he created it himself. He is always negotiating better student loan refinancing bonuses for readers of the site or finding honest companies that provide student loan advice for a fair price.