The number of student borrowers who have filed complaints with the government about their private student loans has increased significantly in the past year.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau received more than 5,300 complaints between October 1, 2013 and September 30, 2014, an increase of nearly 40 percent from the previous year, according to an annual report out today.
Distressed borrowers say they don't receive information on switching to income-based repayment plans or other modifications to avoid default. Borrowers who are trying to make more than the minimum payment also run into issues with companies unwilling to apply the additional payments to the loan with the highest interest.
In part, that's because private student lenders have little incentive to help borrowers - after all, a lender can demand a borrower pay the whole balance in full immediately if the borrower defaults - and there are few ways to force them to help borrowers.
As Rohit Chopra, student loan ombudsman for the CFPB, pointed out on a call with reporters, the student loan industry isn't held accountable the way that banks are held accountable for mortgages through the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act.
The consequences for borrowers are damaged credit and negative background checks that can make it hard to get a job, a house and other forms of credit.
There are some steps the government could take - allowing people to discharge student loans in bankruptcy, for instance, or creating standards around how loans are serviced - but legislation isn't likely anytime soon.
The upshot is that forcing private lenders to work with borrowers to avoid default is hard, and lenders know it.
As the report notes, "complaints and other market data received by the CFPB suggest the industry is not making significant progress toward increasing the pace of loan modifications."
But Chopra said the monitoring his agency does is important because the CFPB can identify potential issues early on and work with a company to address them.
There are certain steps the agency can take if it thinks a company is egregiously violating borrowers' rights. The CFPB recently sued Corinthian Colleges for urging thousands of people to take out private student loans with false promises of jobs and career services. But such measures are considered so harsh they are relatively rare.
The CFPB on Thursday rolled out several tools it says may help borrowers who run into trouble.
There's a letter borrowers can send to their student loan servicers requesting information about lower monthly payments or alternative repayment plans, a financial planning worksheet to help borrowers calculate how much money they can devote to student loan payments, and an interactive tool aimed at helping borrowers in default learn their options.
These can certainly be helpful tools, but until loan servicing companies are actually compelled to help borrowers or at least provide clear information about their options, they're more of a band-aid than a real fix.
"The response by the private student loan industry to distressed borrowers is failing to help them avoid default," Chopra said in a statement. “Too many borrowers are barely treading water, losing hope that these companies will throw them a lifeline.”
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.