Student Loans and Financial Distress: A Qualitative Analysis of the Most Common Student Loan Complaints


Student loan servicers are the face of the U.S. student loan system, and they are not well-liked. Using the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (the CFPB) consumer complaint database, we study borrower perceptions of the student loan system. We qualitatively analyzed a sample of complaint narratives drawn from every student loan complaint ever filed with the CFPB. Our analysis of these complaint narratives reveals clear patterns of discontent in four primary areas: 1) a mismatch between ability to repay and repayment options, including problems with forbearance, deferments, the public service loan forgiveness program, income-driven repayment plans, and loan cancellation options; 2) customer service, including sudden and unexplained changes in payment obligations, 3) inappropriate payment processing, such as misapplying payments; and 4) unauthorized loans or outright scams. The first issue was, by far, the most common. Our results high-light areas where better regulation, whether through contract with the government, ex ante supervision by regulators, or ex post lawsuits in court, has the potential to improve the function of the student loan ecosystem.