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If you make student loan payments and you don’t have any gripes about your student loan servicer, consider yourself lucky. Consumers registered 17,175 complaints about student loans in 2017 through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Consumer Complaint Database. But some servicers received far more complaints than others.

Thousands of Complaints in 2017

Each complaint filed with the CFPB names the student loan servicer involved, the borrower’s state of residence, a broad description of the problem and an optional consumer narrative. While the CFPB does not attempt to verify each complaint’s accuracy, it does take steps to confirm a business relationship between the consumer and the company, including forwarding consumers’ complaints to the companies for response. The database also notes whether the company responded promptly, what the company’s response to the consumer was and what the company’s public response was. Anyone can view this information at the CFPB’s website.

Sample Complaint from the CFPB Database

A sample complaint from the CFPB directed at a student loan servicer 

The Student Loan Report (SLR), a student loan news site, used the CFPB’s database to determine which student loan companies were the most complained about in 2017. The website found that Navient was the most complained about in every state and Washington, D.C. SLR also determined the percentage of each state’s complaints that were about Navient. The numbers ranged from a low of 25% in Rhode Island to a high of 76.4% in Washington State.

When Consumer Complaints Lead to Lawsuits

Washington borrowers have experienced so many problems that the state attorney general filed a lawsuit against Navient in January 2017. Illinois also filed a lawsuit against Navient in January 2017. And Pennsylvania filed one in October 2017.

The CFPB also filed three lawsuits against Navient in January 2017 for misallocating customers’ payments, steering borrowers into expensive repayment plans in order to increase the company’s profits, giving borrowers incorrect information and ignoring borrowers' requests for help – practices the company is alleged to have engaged in since at least January 2010.

Then-CFPB director Richard Cordray told reporters, “Navient has systematically and illegally failed borrowers at every stage of repayment.” Navient’s response was that the lawsuit was “unfounded” and “politically motivated.” (For more insight, read more about why the feds sued the biggest student loan lender.)

As of August 2017, a judge had ruled against Navient’s motion to dismiss, and the case was in the discovery process of gathering evidence. In early 2018, under the CFPB's new acting director Mick Mulvaney, a settlement appeared to be more likely than a trial.

Navient has also been fined millions for violating laws about how much interest it could charge active-duty military service members.

Consumers Aren’t Unhappy With Just Navient

Navient isn’t the only servicer that has been sued. Other headline-worthy examples include these six:

  • Massachusetts sued PHEAA last year for improperly processing payments of borrowers in the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. (Be sure you really have student loan forgiveness) PHEAA's motion to dismiss was recently denied.
  • National Collegiate Student Loan Trusts, which includes Transworld Systems, reached a $21.6 million settlement with the federal government in 2017 over the collection of debt that National Collegiate couldn't prove it owned or consumers owed.
  • The CFPB fined Discover $18.5 million in 2015 over sloppy student loan servicing.
  • In 2016, Wells Fargo was fined $3.6 million for misleading student loan borrowers and charging illegal fees.
  • ACS Education Services was ordered to pay $2.4 million to the state of Massachusetts over abusive collection practices, overcharging active duty service members, delaying borrowers’ applications for income-based repayment and other problems.
  • The federal government settled with Nelnet for $55 million in 2010 over a lawsuit accusing eight student lenders of defrauding taxpayers by overbilling the government for interest rate subsidies.

Top 10 Most-Complained-About Student Loan Servicers, 2017

 

Source: CFPB data analyzed by the Student Loan Report

The 10,893 total complaints Navient received in 2017 is more than five times that of the second-most-complained-about company, American Education Services/Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (AES/PHEAA), which had 2,016 complaints, or 11.74% of the total. It should be pointed out that larger companies that process a larger percentage of student loans will tend to receive a larger percentage of complaints.

The three biggest student loan servicers are Nelnet, AES/PHEAA, and Navient. Nelnet and Great Lakes merged in early March, forming a company that will handle more than 40% of all federal student loan payments. AES/PHEAA services a little more than 25% of payments, while Navient services a little less than 25%.  But those percentages are only for federal student loans. When you add in private student loans, Navient becomes the largest servicer, so it isn’t surprising that it receives the most complaints.

Regardless of the company, consumers most commonly complained about their interactions with the lender or servicer. Within that category, the biggest problems related to how payments were handled and to receiving bad information about loans. The third-largest problem consumers experienced was not agreeing with fees charged.

Between Jan. 1 and March 15, 2018, borrowers filed 1,772 complaints about student loans. Here are the top 10 companies with the most complaints:

Top 10 Most-Complained-About Student Loan Servicers, Jan. 1, 2018–March 15, 2018

Rank

Company

Complaints

1

Navient Solutions, LLC

844

2

AES/PHEAA

322

3

Nelnet

130

4

Great Lakes

68

5

SLM Corporation

51

6

Wells Fargo & Company

29

6

Transworld Systems Inc.

29

8

ACS Education Services

24

9

MOHELA

22

10

Discover Bank

21

Source: CFPB data analyzed by the author

The 2018 rankings so far are similar to those for 2017. We got these numbers by filtering the CFPB’s consumer complaints down to those relating to student loans from Jan. 1, 2018 to March 15, 2018, downloading the results, sorting them by company, and counting the number of complaints about each company.

We also took a look back at the 2016 data compiled by the Student Loan Report. The top four companies with the most complaints – Navient, PHEAA (FedLoan & AES), Nelnet and Great Lakes – were the same as in 2017 and early 2018 and had the same ranking.

The Bottom Line

Unfortunately for borrowers, the only way to change student loan servicers is to refinance – and since there’s no such thing as refinancing a federal student loan (only consolidating them), refinancing can mean switching to a private lender and losing valuable federal student loan protections such as forgiveness, forbearance, and deferment. What's more, you won’t get to choose your servicer after refinancing, so you might end up with the same hated one.

If you are a borrower, your best option now is to educate yourself about the details of your student loan(s) and the problems other borrowers have had. You need to make sure your payments are being applied correctly and that you understand your loan terms and how your payment plan affects the total amount of interest you will pay over the life of the loan. And you should file complaints with federal and state regulators if you encounter serious problems – especially ones you can't resolve on your own. (For more insight, read up on the worst things that can happen if you don't pay your student loans.)

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