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NYC Consumer Debt Defense Project

Debt Collectors Cashing In on Student Loans

Saturday, September 08, 2012

t a protest last year at New York University, students called attention to their mounting debt by wearing T-shirts with the amount they owed scribbled across the front — $90,000, $75,000, $20,000.

On the sidelines was a business consultant for the debt collection industry with a different take.

“I couldn’t believe the accumulated wealth they represent — for our industry,” the consultant, Jerry Ashton, wrote in a column for a trade publication, InsideARM.com. “It was lip-smacking.”

Though Mr. Ashton says his column was meant to be ironic, it nonetheless highlighted undeniable truths: many borrowers are struggling to pay off their student loans, and the debt collection industry is cashing in.

As the number of people taking out government-backed student loans has exploded, so has the number who have fallen at least 12 months behind in making payments — about 5.9 million people nationwide, up about a third in the last five years.

In all, nearly one in every six borrowers with a loan balance is in default. The amount of defaulted loans — $76 billion — is greater than the yearly tuition bill for all students at public two- and four-year colleges and universities, according to a survey of state education officials.

In an attempt to recover money on the defaulted loans, the Education Department paid more than $1.4 billion last fiscal year to collection agencies and other groups to hunt down defaulters.

Hiding from the government is not easy.

“I keep changing my phone number,” said Amanda Cordeiro, 29, from Clermont, Fla., who dropped out of college in 2010 and has fielded as many as seven calls a day from debt collectors trying to recover her $55,000 in overdue loans. “In a year, this is probably my fourth phone number.”

Unlike private lenders, the federal government has extraordinary tools for collection that it has extended to the collection firms. Ms. Cordeiro has already had two tax refunds seized, and other debtors have had their paychecks or Social Security payments garnisheed. Over all, the government recoups about 80 cents for every dollar that goes into default — an astounding rate, considering most lenders are lucky to recover 20 cents on the dollar on defaulted credit cards.

While the recovery rate is impressive, critics say it has left the government with little incentive to try to prevent defaults in the first place.

Though there are programs in place to help struggling borrowers, the companies hired to administer federal student loans are not paid enough for lengthy conversations to walk borrowers through the payment options, critics say. One consequence is that a government program called income-based repayment has fallen short of expectations. Under the program, borrowers pay 15 percent of their discretionary income for up to 25 years, after which the rest of their loan is forgiven. But participation has lagged because borrowers are either not aware of the program or are turned off by its complexity.

“If people were well informed, how many defaults could be averted?” asked Paul C. Combe, president of American Student Assistance, a loan guarantee agency based in Boston. “We are hurting people here.”

For borrowers, the decision to default can be disastrous, ruining their credit and increasing the amount they owe, with penalties up to 25 percent of the balance.

Ms. Cordeiro, a single mother, dropped out of Everest College, a profit-making school, 16 credits shy of a bachelor’s degree. She said she could not get any more loans to finish. “I get these letters about defaulting, and I get them and throw them in the bin,” she said.

Jake Brock, who graduated in 2008 from Keuka College, a private liberal arts school in upstate New York, defaulted in May on a federally guaranteed loan of $8,000. With penalties and accumulated interest, the loan balance is now $13,000, he said. “I just fell behind and couldn’t dig myself out,” said Mr. Brock, who is 29 and owes a total of $100,000 in student loans.

There is no statute of limitations on collecting federally guaranteed student loans, unlike credit cards and mortgages, and Congress has made it difficult for borrowers to wipe out the debt through bankruptcy. Only a small fraction of defaulters even tries.

“You are going to pay it, or you are going to die with it,” said John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com, a credit monitoring service.

The New Oil Well?

Business is booming at ConServe, a debt collection agency in suburban Rochester. The company recently expanded into a neighboring building. The payroll of 420 is expected to double in three years.

“There is great opportunity,” said Mark E. Davitt, the company’s president and founder.

Where some debt collection firms have made their fortunes collecting on delinquent credit cards or hospital bills, ConServe is thriving because of overdue student loans, a large majority of its business.

With an outstanding balance of more than $1 trillion, student loans have become a silver lining for the debt collection industry at a time when its once-thriving business of credit card collection has diminished and the unemployment rate has made collection a challenge. To recoup unpaid loans, the federal government, private lenders and others have turned to collection agencies like ConServe.

Mark Russell, a mergers and acquisition specialist, writing in the same trade publication as Mr. Ashton, the consultant at the N.Y.U. protest, suggested student loans might be a “new oil well” for the accounts receivable management industry, or ARM, as the industry is known.

“While the Department of Education debt collection contract has been one of the most highly sought-after contracts within the ARM industry for years, I believe it is now THE most sought-after contract within this industry, centered within the most sought-after market — student loans,” Mr. Russell wrote last October.

In 2010, Congress revamped the student loan program so that federal loans were made directly by the government. Before that, most loans were made by private lenders and guaranteed by the government through so-called guarantee agencies.

Of the $1.4 billion paid out last year by the federal government to collect on defaulted student loans, about $355 million went to 23 private debt collectors. The remaining $1.06 billion was paid to the guarantee agencies to collect on defaulted loans made under the old loan system. That job is often outsourced to private collectors as well.

The average default amount was $17,005 in the 2011 fiscal year. Borrowers who attended profit-making colleges — about 11 percent of all students — account for nearly half of defaults, while dropouts were four times as likely as graduates to default. A loan is declared in default by the Department of Education when it is delinquent for 360 days.

Borrowers are most often declared in default when they cannot be found. That is when the collection agencies take over. While some in the industry, like Mr. Ashton, worry about public revolt over aggressive collection tactics, there is no holding back at this point.

At ConServe, in a room of cubicles with college pennants lining the walls, collectors comb through databases and public records hunting for contact information for borrowers. If ConServe reaches a borrower who refuses to cooperate, the company considers garnisheeing wages or withholding a government check, which requires approval from the Department of Education.

Dwight Vigna, director of the department’s default division, says the government does not give up easily. If a vendor like ConServe has not found a borrower in six months, the department turns the case over to another collection agency.

In fiscal 2011, the department wrote off less than 1 percent of its loan balance, for such things as death or disability of a borrower.

“We never throw anything away,” Mr. Vigna said.

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