Locals applaud student loan changes


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University of Iowa student leaders probably won't take action following a recent change in Sallie Mae's forbearance policies.

Sallie Mae — the nation's largest distributor of private student loans — changed its fee policy Feb. 2 in response to a Change.org petition that received 77,000 signatures.

Forbearance occurs when a borrower cannot make a payment and the lender agrees to suspend payments temporarily, often at a smaller cost.

Michael Appel, vice president of the UI's Executive Council of Graduate and Professional Students, said the group planned to discuss the issue at today's meeting and would likely have taken action if Sallie Mae officials hadn't addressed the petition.

"Anywhere from signing the petition, or a letter-writing campaign … there's a plethora of opportunities we could've taken," Appel said.

Sallie Mae requires unemployed graduates to pay a $50-per-loan "good-faith" fee every three months if they are unable to make payments on their student loans.

The company previously had pocketed those fees, but it changed its policy after 23-year-old New Yorker Stef Gray handed the Change.org petition to Sallie Mae officials Feb. 2. Forbearance, or "good-faith" payments, will now be applied to the customers' balance. The change will be retroactive to forbearance started Jan. 1.

Some higher-education experts say the news surrounding Sallie Mae's lending practices reinforces the notion students should turn to federal loans first.

"I think this … has really shined a spotlight on one of the many differences between private and federal loans, and why students should take caution when getting private loans," said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success.

She said private loans tend to have higher interest rates while federal loans gives students more repayment options.

The Executive Council will further discuss Sallie Mae's practices at its meeting tonight.

Sallie Mae spokeswoman Patricia Christel explained good-faith payments will be applied to customers' balance after they start making on-time payments. Graduates will still be charged forebearance fees, though Christel said only 4 percent of Sallie Mae's loans are in forbearance.

Though she's happy with Sallie Mae's policy change, Gray said the fight for consumer protection isn't over.

"This fight will not stop at the forbearance fee battle; this is merely the beginning of drawing attention to, and action against, Sallie Mae's lending practices," Gray said in an email. "It is not much to ask that Sallie Mae extend the same consumer protections guaranteed to those with federal student debt to those with private student debt.

One American Student Assistance official said college students should exhaust all of their federal loan eligibility before turning to a private loan.

"Federal loans offer a lot more protection to the borrower. These benefits don't necessarily come with private student loans," said Allesandra Lanza, the company's public relations manager.

Students who take out federal student loans have many repayment options. They can consolidate their loans, stretch their repayment terms, or apply for income-based repayment, Lanza said.

"There are still students who do take out private loans, but they should really be for those instances when you're trying to fill a gap or need," she said.

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