In Oklahoma, the student loan debt issue is real.
Currently, we have about $14.5 billion of student loan debt in our state, with $2.25 billion of that in delinquency. That works out to about an average of $25,000 per graduating student. Add for those who didn’t obtain a degree, the average jumps to $31,000 owed. Many lenders use predatory tactics to receive higher payoffs from debtors who are just trying to better themselves and get an education.
On the surface, one might ask, “What did these borrowers expect? Are they trying to get out of paying their debt?” The truth is, most are not. Most of these borrowers have been paying in good faith and on time for years and continue to do so, only to see minimal drops in their overall balance. Others have been encouraged to go into forbearance rather than change repayment plans when faced with financial hardship, extending the life of their loan and compounding the interest. Still others have submitted payments to find them misapplied to their balance or not applied at all. The list goes on.
Student loan debt affects more than the debtor and the lender. The magnitude of student loan debt in Oklahoma and across the country negatively impacts large and small economies by making it harder on the average worker to have economic flexibility.
The way we finance higher education in this country is broken, and that has led to bad lending practices that take advantage of our students’ desire to pursue a degree, which ultimately impacts our workforce. Many Oklahomans are delaying key purchases such as homes and cars, and are failing to save for retirement or emergencies because of their student loan debt. Some even put off starting a family.
Oklahoma borrowers need fair and transparent lending practices from student loan lenders. A “Borrower’s Bill of Rights” would prevent student loan lenders from:
• Directly or indirectly employing any scheme to defraud or mislead student loan borrowers.
• Engaging in any unfair or deceptive practice toward any person with regard to terms, fees, payments or the borrower’s obligations.
• Obtaining property by fraud or misrepresentation.
• Misapplying student education loan payments.
• Providing inaccurate information to a credit bureau.
• Failing to report both the favorable and unfavorable payment history of the student loan borrower to credit bureaus.
• Refusing to communicate with an authorized representative of the student loan borrower.
• Making any false statement or making any omission of a material fact when reporting to any government agency or for investigation being conducted by the Oklahoma Banking Commissioner.
• Failing to inform borrowers of the federal income repayment options before offering forbearance as an option.
These practices seem like common-sense business behaviors that should already be in place for Oklahoma student loan borrowers, but based on recent testimony during an interim study presentation to the Oklahoma House of Representatives Banking Committee, it is clearly not. Countless Oklahomans have reached out to share their personal struggles with student loan lenders and to ask for help.
The Borrower’s Bill of Rights is not student loan forgiveness. Rather, it would create a fair, common-sense approach to lending that protects potential, current, and former students that have had to borrow money to pay for their education. Borrowers will still be responsible for repaying their debt. It is time we begin to address the issue of predatory lending practices in the student loan industry on behalf of our citizens. Student loan borrowers are not asking for handouts — but they do deserve a fair and honest process for repayment of their debts.
Melissa Provenzano, a Democrat from Tulsa, represents District 79 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.