More than 40 million Americans are in debt thanks to their education, and most of their loans come from Uncle Sam. So President Obama is aiming to clamp down on the private companies that service federal student debt with a presidential memorandum he will issue on Tuesday.
Obama's policy tweaks, to be unveiled during a speech at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, don't require new legislation from Congress -- a plus as far as the White House is concerned. But they won't be earth-shattering for student-borrowers, either. Instead, the new steps seek to tilt the student lending process more toward the student, with a particular focus on graduates struggling to make their monthly payments.
"We are trying to enhance the borrower experience from beginning to end," said Ted Mitchell, the Education Department's under secretary for higher education.
Obama's memorandum targets third parties like Sallie Mae/Navient that contract with the government to collect on federal student debt. Those companies will be required to better inform borrowers about their repayment options and notify them when they are delinquent on payments, the White House said.
The president is also instructing the government to create a website where students can see all their federal loans in one place -- a major problem for students with multiple loans, as well as those whose loans have been sold by one lender to another. He's also asking for a single website where borrowers can file complaints about loan servicers, in an apparent recognition that customer service for student borrowers has often been shoddy in the past.
Although Obama has long lamented the burden placed on young Americans and the broader economy by student debt and college affordability, he's run into obstacles that have limited his efforts to improve the situation.
Using his executive authority, Obama expanded a federal loan repayment plan to allow more low-income Americans to cap their monthly payments at an affordable percentage of their income. But when Obama this year proposed to eliminate the so-called "529" college savings plan to make way for education tax benefits, opposition was so strong he had to jettison the idea. And the president's State of the Union pitch this year for two years of free community college for every eligible American has gained little traction in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Obama will also direct federal agencies like the Education Department and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to determine whether more government rules are needed to keep student loan servicers in line. His memo also requires those companies to apply early payments from borrowers to loans with the highest interest rates, which could help students pay off their debt sooner.
Obama was to detail his student loan priorities during a trip Tuesday to Georgia, where the president will also headline a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee. Roughly 25 donors paid up to $33,400 to attend the private event at an Atlanta hotel.