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Getting to a “Zero Student Loan Struggles” Society

Feb 03rd, 2016

As the Ombudsman at American Student Assistance for the past 15 years, I’ve been able to spot lots of emerging issues facing student loan borrowers. That’s the beauty of the Ombudsman role – you’re tasked with solving past problems, many that are longstanding and have grown tangled over the years, but in so doing you can uncover better methods of operation for the future. Looking backward can inform how you act moving forward, so the same mistakes aren’t made again.

That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about ASA’s new Center of Consumer Advocacy. At ASA, our vision is for a world with zero student loan struggles, where no student fails to realize the full potential of education because of finances. To put it simply, we want students to never regret their education debt.

To help make our dream a reality, we need to shine a light on what isn’t working so well for consumers in the student loan program currently. Are there enduring industry processes that actually impede (even if unintentionally) the intent of our public policies? Are there practices that are doing more harm than good? What’s actually broken in the student loan system –the entire design of the program, or how aspects of it are communicated? Do we need a complete overhaul or a slight tinkering around the edges?

The new Consumer Advocacy Center will serve as “futurists,” seeking answers to past and current problems so we can pave the way for a better tomorrow. Bringing together some of our most experienced leaders, we’ll use our collective experience, customer insights, real world practice, and research to identify rising trends among higher education consumers, and advocate for solutions that stem problems at the root before they can affect future generations. We’ll advocate for consumers in the college financing and repayment process, widen public understanding of this critical educational and economic issue, and conduct new and innovative research, all while working to ensure students of all backgrounds have the opportunity to succeed in college and beyond.

Through our advocacy and Government Relations work, we hope to bring forth recommendations for refocusing the student loan system to better align with student borrowers’ needs, and alleviate the individual and societal burden of college debt. As the ombudsman, we’ll continue to review and resolve escalated complaints from borrowers, act as a neutral third party mediator, fact finder, and arbitrator, and be the all-around voice for a fair process. We’ll reach beyond day-to-day operations and put our skills to use for specific constituencies of vulnerable borrowers, i.e., veterans, senior citizens, individuals dealing with mental health issues, and others. And we’ll provide data-supported answers to important consumer and borrower questions, producing research like our Life Delayed and Retirement Delayed reports and generating forward-thinking approaches to college financing problems.

The members of the new consumer advocacy group include myself, vice president and ombudsman; Julie Lammers, managing director, consumer advocacy and government relations; Betsy Mayotte, director, consumer outreach and compliance; and Kevin Fudge, manager, consumer advocacy and community affairs, among others. Together, the team represents more than a century of knowledge and expertise in higher education financing.

We’re excited to attack this challenge and get to that “moonshot.” Zero Student Loan Struggles and Debt Without Regret are within our grasp.