PhotoAt last estimate, about 43 million Americans – mostly young – owed student loans totaling more than $1.3 trillion.

Paying back that money has strapped many consumers, just at the time they are forming households and should be making key purchases, such as homes and cars.

What is important for these borrowers to understand is that they have options when it comes to paying back the money. There is no one-size-fits-all payment plan.

Payback Playbook

To help student loan borrowers understand their range of options, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has assembled a Student Loan Payback Playbook, a set of disclosures that can guide borrowers to finding a payment plan that minimizes financial stress.

CFPB Director Richard Cordray says millions of borrowers are falling behind on their student loan debts, probably unaware that federal law gives them the right to an affordable payment. Working with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and others, Cordray says the CFPB developed a way to make sure student loan servicers provide personalized information to each borrower.

“This will help these borrowers take action, stay on track, and steer clear of financial distress,” Cordray said.

The Department of Education has several repayment plans that afford student loan borrowers with tailor payments that work within their monthly budgets. For example, one plan lets borrowers specify their own payments, based on income.

High default rates

Despite the availability of these repayment options, many borrowers continue to struggle. The CFPB says 25% of student loan borrowers are either behind on their payments or are in default.

The agency believes that part of the problem is a lack of awareness among borrowers that they have options. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that 70% of direct federal loan borrowers in default had incomes low enough to qualify for reduced monthly payments.

The Playbook evolved from work begun last year to reform student loan servicing practices. In particular, the CFPB would like to enlist servicers in the effort to help borrowers understand their options, since there is already an established relationship.

The CFPB has taken regulatory action against some companies for alleged illegal student loan servicing practices.

This isn't the CFPB's first effort to inform borrowers of their rights. Last year the agency announced its Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) plan to allow five million more direct loan borrowers to cap their monthly student loan payment amount at 10% of monthly discretionary income.

The REPAYE Plan was an upgrade of the original Pay As You Earn Plan, while extending its protections to all student borrowers with direct loans.

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