Know how to resolve student loan disputes

ANALYSIS: Obama's New Student Loan 'Bill Of Rights' Won't Do Much

​In federal fiscal year 2014, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau received more than 5,300 complaints from consumers about their private student loans. The Department of Education ombudsman handled approximately 7,800 ​federal student loan disputes during a similar period. These numbers do not include those student loan borrowers who chose to fight their battle themselves, directly with the loan holder or through the court system.

The proposed student loan complaint system within the Obama administration's Student Aid Bill of Rights and the more recent announcement from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau of a student loan servicer survey are indicators that policy makers and program administrators recognize the issue and are trying to improve the borrower experience.

But nobody's perfect, so even if student loan servicing reached a 99.9 percent accuracy rate, disputes would still come up. Regardless of the problem, the important thing is understanding how to get your student loan dispute resolved.

It's All in the Presentation

If you have a dispute with your student loan servicer, how you present that dispute can make all the difference in the world. Your first reaction might be to call, demand a supervisor, and if that doesn't work, demand the next level up.

While that could work, you should handle disputes in writing as much as possible to ensure that you have proof of what has happened and what has been agreed to.

Aim to present the servicer with a clear, concise and polite listing of the facts of the situation, as well as a specific, reasonable outcome you are trying to achieve. Sending the dispute in writing also ensures that you are able to present any additional documentation you might have to back up your claim or request.

Make sure you keep copies of everything you send and receive during the dispute process. If it comes to it, the burden of proof will be on you.

Finally, ensure that what you are asking for is reasonable, or even legal. Federal student loans are heavily regulated, so the loan holder may not even be allowed to do what you are asking. It's sometimes a good idea to go back through the promissory note terms before filing a dispute to see if that explains the problem.​

Who Do I Complain To?

Where you send your dispute can be almost as important as what you send. Most disputes can be sent to the servicer's general correspondence address that can be found on their website. You can expect the loan holder to respond within 30 days.

If you are not satisfied with the response, most loan holders have an escalated customer care or ombudsman office. These areas are generally charged with being neutral parties whose goal is to ensure that the dispute is fully vetted and that the dispute process is handled thoroughly and accurately.

What to Do If You're Still Unhappy

If you think the answer you get from this office is still incorrect, advocates would recommend reaching out to a senior staff member such as a vice president or CEO of your student loan holder​. But in the case of a student loan dispute, doing so may just cause your dispute to loop back around to where it started. Instead, it might be time to forward your dispute to the organization that provides oversight to the loan holders themselves.

The federal Department of Education maintains an office of the office of the ​ombudsman to help resolve federal student loan disputes. If there is a resolution to be had, this team will find a way.

Keep in mind that this group should be considered a last resort rather than a first one. If they find that you haven't given your loan holder the opportunity to resolve the dispute on its own, the ombudsman may just forward your dispute directly to the loan holder to give them that opportunity. This is where your paper trail will come in handy, as it will allow you to show the ombudsman what has already been presented and the response you received.
Private and federal student loan borrowers also have the resource of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to help them resolve escalated defaults. Consumers can submit complaints through their online database and use that same database to follow the process of the dispute.

Some consumers have had success contacting their members of Congress for assistance. While this can be very effective, remember that they can only request or effect change within existing law or regulation. If your dispute is that your interest rate is too high, and that rate is set in federal law, your congressman isn't going to be able to force your loan holder to change it.

In the end, most disputes can be avoided by ensuring you understand the terms of your student loan before you even sign the promissory note. Many disputes originate from the stress of a consumer realizing that they may not be able to afford their loan payments, or by how long it may take to pay in full.

Knowing what you are getting into ahead of time can help you plan and understand how these products work, and avoid future disputes. But if there is a mistake, knowing an effective process for resolving those mistakes is half the battle.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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