A recent article on Forbes.com lashes out against the state of student lending and student debt in the United States. The author makes several salient points regarding the problems surrounding student debt, which cripples many graduates largely because it is very difficult to discharge in bankruptcy.
But what makes a loan “predatory?” The nation conspicuously lacks a legal or official definition for “predatory lending,” but the Forbes article cites many attributes of student loans that suggest they might fall into this category. These include:
- Student loans do not come with “free-market consumer protections.” Student loans cannot easily be discharged in bankruptcy (compared to other unsecured loans); borrowers do not have the option to restructure their student loans; and these loans come with no real statute of limitations in most cases. Lacking these protections, borrowers are more or less bound for life to repay any money they borrow for their education.
- The organizations that are meant to oversee student lenders (called “guarantors”) make roughly 60 percent of their revenue from fees and penalties associated with loans that have gone into default. In other words, the groups intended to protect borrowers from lender abuse actually have a financial interest in borrowers not being able to repay their loans as outlined in their loan terms.
- Student lenders have broader debt collection rights than other types of lenders. This means that they have a better chance of collecting some or all of the money owed to them (including money owed as part of penalties and fees).
Comparing Other Types of Predatory Loans to Student Loans
To refresh your memory about problematic predatory lending that has made headlines in recent months and years in the U.S., here’s a quick outline of how two different types of predatory loans were outed and then blasted by pretty much every consumer advocate in the country.
- Subprime mortgages: These fueled the housing bubble (and bust), and essentially amounted to lending money to people who had no real chance of repaying it. One of the hallmarks of many subprime mortgages issued was that those in the lending, loan servicing, and investment fields had financial incentives for the loans to fail. In other words, these people stood to make money when borrowers defaulted on their loans, because of late fees and other penalties (sound familiar?).
- Payday loans: The target of several pieces of legislation in recent years, payday loans are profitable to the lenders exactly because borrowers are not expected to be able to repay them as originally agreed. Payday loans become most lucrative when borrowers must pay late fees and penalties—meaning, of course, that they were designed to extend money to those who did not have a good chance of repaying it.
Congress has made some noise about reforming the student loan industry, but as of now, no real, meaningful changes have been implemented.