Sallie Mae responds to college graduates online petition

Carl Robinette

Sallie Mae, a major student loan provider under pressure from online petitioners, changed one of its fee policies after a recent college graduate Stef Gray delivered 76,000 signatures to the lending company’s Washington, D.C. office last month.

Sallie Mae had previously issued a $50 fee for postponing payments on private unsubsidized loans, according to Gray’s petition, which said there is no fee forgiveness for unemployed debtors, as with federally subsidized loans.

The company changed its policy after Gray delivered the signatures. The $50 penalty will now apply to the total payoff amount of the loan once the borrower’s account is in good standing again.

“Sallie Mae does not provide many safety nets to student borrowers against default,” said Gray in a recent teleconference.  “I think that a safety net is the right thing to do.  There’s been so much talk about the responsibility on the part of the debtor.  Well, what about the responsibility of the lender to protect its clients?”

Gray conceded that her debt is her responsibility, but when she agreed to the terms of her loan at 18, she was not made aware of the potential penalties in the contract.  She claims it is the “predatory” lending practices of companies like Sallie Mae that lead to student loan default.

“It’s my opinion that Sallie Mae has no incentive to provide these safety nets and that’s because they directly profit from these defaults,” Gray said during the teleconference.  “I just want the same protections that are guaranteed free of charge for federal loans to be applied for private loans.”

The petition, created in January, now has over 120,000 signatures and was inspired by a similar petition that caused Bank of America to remove its $5 monthly account fee for debit transactions in November, Gray said.  The Bank of America petition, which drew 300,000 signatures, was created by another recent college grad who struggled to find employment in her field after earning her degree.

“There’s a debt crisis,” said Steven Graves, professor of geography at CSUN who studies spatial dynamics and the effects of predatory lending.  “There’s more debt in student loans in this country than any other area.  That constitutes a crisis if the economy is bad, and people aren’t able to pay because they can’t find jobs.”

The total student loan debt in the U.S. rose above $1 trillion in 2011, according to a report on the National Association of Consumer Banruptcy Lawyers website, surpassing the national credit card debt for the first time. The report goes on to say, “Even in the best of economic times when jobs are plentiful, young people with considerable debt burdens end up delaying life-cycle events such as buying a car, purchasing a home, getting married and having children.”

“What I want to do is be a probation officer,” said Brenda Morales, 2011 CSUN alumna.  “But there’s a freeze on employment in the probation department and there’s no telling when that will be over.”

Morales fears that she will not be able to pay her loans if she is unable to find full-time employment soon.  She  is now considering relocating to find work or going to graduate school.  She said she did not get the help she needed from the financial aid office, and accepted an unsubsidized loan that she will now owe interest on.

“It’s almost like they’re passing the wand,” she said about CSUN’s financial aid office.  “I understand they are overwhelmed.  I don’t want to blame them, but they have to understand that their job is to serve students.”

Gray also blamed financial aid offices at campuses around the country during her teleconference for promoting lenders such as Sallie Mae and not properly informing borrowers on the terms of their loan agreement.

“The private educational loans, sometimes called alternative loans or consumer loans, are offered by various lenders,”  Lili Vidal, director of CSUN’s financial aid and scholarship department, said in an email. “Students must research these on their own.  We do not give advice or recommendations on individual lender’s loans.  In fact, we are precluded from recommending private lenders.  We strongly encourage students to accept their federal loans before considering private loans.”