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Elizabeth Warren On Student Debt Collectors And More Education News

Bloomberg/Getty Images

As we head toward Tax Day, we've got student debt and state education plans on our minds in another edition of the NPR Ed Team's weekly roundup.

Student debt
We reported at the start of the week that the total balance of student loan debt has nearly tripled in the past decade to $1.3 trillion. That growth is happening in several ways. More people are borrowing. They're also borrowing more money. And repayment has slowed down. That's all according to a new analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The analysis also showed that student loans reduce a borrower's likelihood of owning a home.

In other student debt news, the Education Department suggested in a court filing that some nonprofit and public sector workers who signed up to have their loans erased after a decade of public service and on-time payments may not be approved for the program after all.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness started in 2007; the first participants were set to have their loans forgiven this coming fall. "The retroactive aspect of this filing reasonably causes people to be nervous," Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, told NPR Ed. He was also a deputy undersecretary in the Obama Education Department, where Shireman was responsible for overseeing the program during its early years.

And, a few notices about debt collectors...

The Trump administration decided to give four student-debt collectors a second chance.

Pioneer Credit Recovery, Enterprise Recovery Systems, National Recoveries and Coast Professional are all "servicers" — middlemen that collect student loans on behalf of the federal government. In 2015, the Obama administration ended their contracts, accusing them of misinforming borrowers who were trying to get out of default. The companies sued.

According to a court filing reported this week by Politico, the Education Department now intends to reverse course and consider giving these servicers new business as soon as the lawsuit is resolved.

By the way, Pioneer is owned by Navient, the nation's largest servicer of federal and private student loans. In January, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau filed its own lawsuit against Navient, alleging that it "illegally cheated borrowers" out of their rights and their money — as much as $4 billion — through patterns of deception and misapplying payments.

Navient has denied wrongdoing, calling the suit "unsubstantiated, unjustified and politically driven."

In a motion to dismiss the case, obtained by Bloomberg, Navient argued, "there is no expectation that the servicer will act in the interest of the consumer."

"That's appalling," wrote Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in a Facebook post. "The federal government paid this company more than $100 million last year to help borrowers manage their student loans, yet this company doesn't believe it should try to act in the best interest of students? Then why the heck is the Education Department still paying them?!"

State education plans arrive

It's been more than a year since Congress passed the big, federal education law known as theEvery Student Succeeds Act or ESSA, and earlier this week, we got our first glimpse of how some states have responded to its most important requirements.

Monday, April 3 was the earliest deadline for states to submit their new ESSA plans. This comes not long after Congress voted to scrap Obama-era regulations that clarified and toughened some of the law's key demands. The plans must include long-term goals for student achievement and the benchmarks they'll use to measure success or failure.

Illinois, for example, is giving itself 15 years to meet a handful of big goals, including at least 90 percent of third-grade students "reading at or above grade level" and, at the other end of the age continuum, 90 percent or more of students graduating from high school "ready for college and career."

Compared to the previous law, ESSA also gives states freedom to define school quality using more than just test scores. That can include factors like attendance and access to arts, science and physical education. For more, here's a handy Education Week breakdown of some of the ideas states have turned in so far.

One more thorny issue states have to resolve in their ESSA plans: how to rate schools and explain those ratings to parents and politicians. Most of the early filers are using some form of four- or five-tier system, from the familiar A-F model (Tennessee) to Vermont's color-coded bull's eye scheme, with green schools hitting the mark and red schools "off-target."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.