In a vote last month that fell for the most part along party lines, the House Financial Services Committee approved the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which will expand federal oversight of nonfederal private student loans. At the same time, the committee rejected a proposal that would have included school-sponsored “gap loans” under the authority of the new CFPA.
The House panel, in a vote of 39 to 29, approved the Consumer Financial Protection Agency Act of 2009 (H.R. 3126), a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s pursuit to overhaul the nation’s financial regulatory system.
The approved legislation would create a new federal agency, the CFPA, which would have centralized oversight of various forms of consumer credit, such as mortgages and credit cards, as well as private student loans.
The New Consumer Financial Protection Agency
The CFPA would have the authority to write new consumer lending protection rules, monitor financial institutions for compliance with these rules, and penalize institutions for any infractions. The CFPA would also have the ability to ban products, marketing tactics, and other business practices that it deems “unfair, deceptive, or abusive.”
“The Consumer Financial Protection Agency will prevent predatory lending practices and other abuses and will ensure that consumers get clear information they can understand about financial products like credit cards and mortgages,” President Obama said in a commendation of the House committee’s approval of the bill.
The measure passed despite strong Republican opposition and forceful lobbying from banks and business groups.
“It’s not about protecting consumers; it’s about a new government bureaucracy making decisions for us,” said Representative Spencer Bachus of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the House panel.
Consumer Groups Back Oversight of Private Student Loans
A number of student and consumer advocacy groups had been urging the House committee to approve bringing the CFPA’s oversight to private student loans — non-federally guaranteed education loans issued by banks and private lenders rather than by the U.S. Department of Education.
Until this year, when private student lenders have been forced to make their credit requirements much more stringent in response to skittish investors and a risk-averse credit market, private student loans had been steadily attracting more and more borrowers as families struggled to meet ever-rising college costs.
“Private student loans are one of the riskiest ways to pay for college, yet a growing number of students have private student loans as well as, or instead of, federal student loans,” a coalition of student and consumer groups wrote in a joint letter to Representative Barney Frank, the Democratic chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.
“Private student loans are expensive, mostly variable-rate loans that cost more for those who can least afford them,” the letter reads. “They lack the fixed rates, consumer protections and flexible repayment options of federal student loans, and are not financial aid any more than a credit card is when used to pay for textbooks or tuition.”
The Fight for Regulation of ‘Gap Loans’
In their letter to Frank, the consumer and student advocate groups also pressed for a legislated clarification that school-sponsored “gap loans” wouldn’t be exempted from the CFPA’s oversight.
“Gap” student loans — so-called because they’re intended to cover students’ financing gaps, any attendance costs that aren’t covered by other financial aid such as grants and federal student loans — are increasingly being offered by for-profit colleges and vocational schools to boost enrollment as these institutions encounter a growing flood of unemployed and low-income students looking to return to school.
For-profit schools that provide gap financing, say that their financing programs allow students to attend school who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford a higher education.
But these gap financing programs are risky and expensive for students, consumer advocates maintain. Gap loans typically carry high interest rates and large monthly payments that the schools’ generally low-income students often aren’t able to handle — all while allowing the schools to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal money from the federal financial aid that students use to pay the bulk of their attendance costs.
Concerned about the potential for student loans made by for-profit schools to be exempted from the CFPA legislation under a small-business clause in the bill, consumer and student advocate groups had been lobbying in support of an amendment, sponsored by Democratic Representative Maxine Waters of California, that would have specifically placed gap loans under the authority of the CFPA.
“We just want to make sure that the risky financial products that some colleges, for-profits in particular, have been making to students are still covered by this agency,” said Lauren Asher, president of The Institute for College Access & Success.
Proprietary colleges argued against the proposed amendment, saying that gap student loans are already regulated by the federal Truth in Lending Act. New TILA rules, mandated under last year’s Higher Education Opportunity Act (H.R. 4137) and which will go into effect in February, will require student lenders to disclose more details about their private loan programs, including interest rates and estimated monthly payments, and to inform applicants for private student loans about federal student loan options.
Consumer advocates, however, hold that TILA regulations aren’t sufficient and that the stricter oversight of the CFPA is necessary in order to protect student loan borrowers.
“To effectively protect consumers, the CFPA must have full authority to regulate private student loans regardless of the institution offering them,” the consumer and student advocate groups wrote in their letter to Frank. “For consumers, a private student loan can pose the same serious risks whether issued by a financial institution or by a school. The CFPA should apply and enforce standards based upon the product and not the issuing institution.”