With a growing number of Washington adults owing money on student loans, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson wants new legislation to license and regulate student-loan servicers.

Share story

One of every seven adults in Washington owes money they borrowed to pay for college or career training, and taken all together, those borrowers owe more than $24 billion in student loans.

A report detailing student-loan indebtedness, released Thursday, forms the backdrop of a push by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson for legislation that would give college borrowers greater safeguards against deceptive loan practices. The bill, which died in the Senate after he requested it last year, would set new standards for student- loan servicers and give the state the authority to license and regulate those servicers.

About 800,000 Washington borrowers owe money on student loans, a number that has increased by about 35 percent in the last decade, according to the report by Ferguson’s office. Over that time period, public and private college and university tuition skyrocketed, and many more students attended a growing number of for-profit colleges.

“The numbers are staggering,” Ferguson said. “We have a big problem, and it’s getting worse, at the highest level … the impact could be profound for our state and our country if this trend continues.”

The Seattle Democrat has made college borrowing one of the themes of his tenure during the past year, even as the Trump administration changed some of the rules for borrowers who took out loans to attend for-profit colleges that later went out of business.

Ferguson said one of the most troubling figures in the report is the number of borrowers age 60 and over. They have increased by more than 35 percent in the last five years in Washington, and hold student-loan debt of $2.1 billion.

He said he’s talked to a number of 60-plus borrowers who co-signed for a son or daughter’s college loan, and are responsible for the payments. Those loans can have a devastating effect on retirement plans, he said.

Student debt also varies by gender and socioeconomic status, according to the report. Women hold nearly two-thirds of outstanding national student-loan debt. Students from low-income backgrounds are more likely to need to borrow for college, and have higher default rates after graduation.

Black graduates have about $7,000 more debt upon graduation than their white classmates, but four years after graduation, that gap widened. And while Hispanic borrowers have about the same level of debt as white graduates, they are more than twice as likely to default.

The report describes the trend, in the last decade, of growing enrollment at for-profit colleges, where students were more likely to take out large student loans, and more likely to default on those loans.

The legislation Ferguson is requesting passed the Democratic-controlled House in 2017, but died in the Senate, where the chair of the higher education committee was a Republican. In 2018, Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, will chair the Senate Higher Education Committee — and he’s also a sponsor of the bill.

Called the Student Loan Bill of Rights, the legislation would give Washington the authority to license and regulate student-loan servicers, and would establish some rules of the road for those services, said Mike Webb, chief of staff for the attorney general’s office. A loan servicer is a company that handles a loan, including sending bills, processing payments, answering questions and changing payment plans.

Among other things, the bill would require a loan servicer to detail all the options for repaying a loan, including such options as income-driven repayment plans, to borrowers. Under the current rules, that doesn’t always happen, Ferguson said. And it would also establish a student-loan advocate at the state level to respond to complaints and direct borrowers to resources.

At the start of the year, Ferguson’s office joined with the Illinois attorney general to sue the student-loan servicer Navient for pushing expensive, high-interest-rate loans on borrowers who had little chance of repaying them. Navient has called the lawsuit politically motivated.

In October Ferguson joined with other attorneys general to sue Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for delaying, or refusing to enforce, an Obama-era rule intended to keep for-profit college and trade schools from offering worthless degrees.

Ferguson also says his office has recovered more than $1 million in the last year in cases that involve student-loan debt adjusters preying on borrowers.

The average debt held by Washington student-loan borrowers, about $23,000, is lower than the average in many other states. Nationally, 43 million student-loan borrowers collectively owe $1.34 trillion, more than they owe in credit-card debt or auto-loan debt.

If that trend continues, Ferguson said, student-loan debt could interfere with the ability of families to buy homes or support the economy, and he noted that some economists have compared it to the bubble that caused the housing-foreclosure crisis.

“The impact could be profound for our state and our country if this trend continues,” he said.