Student loan debt is real. Consumer protections do not exist, and these realities are suffocating an entire generation of Oklahomans. I know because I am one of those borrowers who has struggled with the student loan system.
I beat cancer, but I cannot beat my student loan problems. I had a dream to become a librarian but as a child of a single mom, there was no money for college. I borrowed a total of $38,353, but my current balance is $47,554.11, 16 years after graduating. Yes, my balance went up, not down. I still struggle with financial stability and worry about my long-term health expenses with this looming debt.
There are no consumer rights or protections on the federal or state level for student debt, one of the only type of financial transactions that doesn’t have consumer protections. Rep. Melissa Provenzano recently filed House Bill 2922, a “Borrower’s Bill of Rights” protecting Oklahoma student borrowers. It would help reduce predatory servicer practices.
Imagine: You take out a loan to buy a car. Your terms are that at the end of five years, you own the car. But … what if the loan company informed you of a new deal to forgive your balance after you paid in three years … and you agree.
The loan company then changed your payment amount, interest rate and lost your paperwork. Eventually, you discover your payments actually didn’t qualify and you’ll have to pay three more years.
What if you had no consumer rights? No way to arbitrate, negotiate or sue. This is our student loan system in its current form. While I held up my end of the agreement, the Department of Education and three different loan servicers have not.
Some examples of the problems I encountered:
• Fraudulent information about the Public Service Loan Forgiveness has left me with five extra years in repayment status (I made 118 of the required 120 payments, but only 62 are counted). These extra payments will total $17,610.00.
• Inaccurate credit bureau reporting stating I owed double. That took over a year to resolve and ruined my credit in the interim.
• Extra payments even when declared and requested to apply toward principal were applied instead to the “next” month’s payment.
• Paperwork denied for technical mistakes increasing the total balance.
• My servicer, pushed forebearance as the only alternative when financially stretched. The servicer didn’t disclose other options.
• Changes in minimum payment increased $300 with eight days’ notice.
Student loan issues have long-term effects just like cancer. I can’t save for retirement, my child’s education, health emergencies or take risks as an entrepreneur. Today, student loans are a new type of cancer that may lead to lower enrollment in higher education, lower participation in public service careers and fewer future business owners. The Oklahoma economy is directly impacted.
Oklahoma needs highly skilled workers. Our future as a state requires professionally degreed citizens. As a librarian, I believe in the transformative and priceless value of earning a college degree. Student loans are one tool to help students achieve their goals, but students naively enter a federal financial market that can and does take advantage.
The proposed legislation isn’t about broad bankruptcy protections nor mass loan forgiveness, and it isn’t about helping students avoid repayment. House Bill 2922 is a common sense bill that will require any loan servicer doing business with Oklahoma students to honor loan terms, provide truth-in-lending statements and credit bureau reporting, practice fair debt collections and establish due process when mistakes happen. Oklahoma has an opportunity to help protect the consumer rights for all those who seek higher education through financial aid loans.
Lynn Wallace is an academic librarian and business owner in Tulsa.