As designed and envisioned, student loan ombudsmen are government officials tasked with helping borrowers struggling with repaying their student loans. Among other varied means, they are designed to protect consumers from unfair debt collection practices and help them understand their repayment options. In recent years, a growing number of jurisdictions, including Connecticut, Illinois, and the District of Columbia, have established such officers. Via legislation proposed on January 10, 2018, and approved by Governor Ralph Northam on April 4, 2018, Virginia is set to join this group on July 1.
Per this now codified bill, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, a 13-member state commission, will establish the Office of the Qualified Education Loan Ombudsman (the “Ombudsman”). Intended to work as an advocate for borrowers, this office will:
(1) “[r]eceive, review, and attempt to resolve any complaints from qualified education loan borrowers, including attempts to resolve such complaints in collaboration with institutions of higher education, qualified education loan servicers, and any other participants in qualified education loan lending”;
(2) “[c]ompile and analyze data on qualified education loan borrower complaints”;
(3) “[a]ssist qualified education loan borrowers to understand their rights and responsibilities under the terms of qualified education loans”;
(4) “[p]rovide information to the public, state agencies, legislators, and other persons regarding the problems and concerns of qualified education loan borrowers and make recommendations for resolving those problems and concerns”;
(5) “[a]nalyze and monitor the development and implementation of federal and state laws and policies relating to qualified education loan borrowers and recommend any changes . . .”;
(6) “[r]eview the complete qualified education loan history of any qualified education loan borrower who has provided written consent for such review”
(7) “[d]isseminate information concerning the availability of the Office of the Qualified Education Loan Ombudsman to assist qualified education loan borrowers and potential qualified education loan borrow”; and
(8) “[t]ake any other actions necessary to fulfill . . . [its] duties . . . .”
In addition, this law requires the Ombudsman to create and maintain a qualified education loan borrower education course that shall include educational presentations and materials regarding qualified education loans on or before December 1, 2019, and submit a report to the relevant state legislative committees regarding its effectiveness and the state of implementation of this law every year on January 1. In general, the Ombudsman will strive to help borrowers by renegotiating their loan terms, asking servicers to delay payments, and helping borrowers get into careers where student loan forgiveness is an option, such as in public service.
In defending this enactment, Virginia’s leaders pointed to the state’s worsening student loan problem. Even as student loan debt topped $1.5 trillion by March 31, 2018, more than one million Virginians owed more than $30 billion in student loan debt in 2017. Depressing anecdotes, meanwhile, have come from all corners of the Old Dominion. “Virginians owe more on student loans than we do on credit cards or car loans, but only student loans lack consumer protections,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, a liberal advocacy group, when the ombudsman bill was first announced. Scholl continued: “Student loan borrowers should be treated just like everyone else and afforded basic protections to ensure the cost of education doesn’t ruin their financial future.”