On February 26, the CFPB filed its first enforcement action against a for-profit higher-education company, alleging that the company engaged in unfair and abusive private student loan origination practices.
In a civil complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, the CFPB asserts that the company offered first-year students no-interest short-term loans to cover the difference between the costs of attendance and federal loans obtained by students. The CFPB claims that when the short-term loans came due at the end of the first academic year and borrowers were unable to pay them off, the company forced borrowers into “high-rate, high-fee” private student loans without providing borrowers an adequate opportunity to understand their loan obligations. Moreover, the CFPB claims that the company’s business model is dependent on coercing students into “high-rate, high-fee” private loans, despite the low average incomes and credit profiles of the students, and a 64 percent default rate on such loans.
The company issued a statement denying the charges, criticizing the CFPB’s decision to file suit, and challenging the CFPB’s jurisdiction. The statement describes the suit as an “aggressive attempt by the Bureau . . . to extend its jurisdiction into matters well beyond consumer finance” and expresses the company’s intent to “ vigorously contest the Bureau’s theories in court.”
The complaint details a number of alleged “high-pressure” origination tactics the CFPB claims resulted in part from the compensation structure the company established for its financial aid staff, which included commissions based on loan origination volume. The complaint also details the loan programs at issue, asserting that the programs were ostensibly run by third parties, but were controlled and guaranteed by the company, which allowed it to establish lenient lending criteria to maximize student participation. The company also is alleged to have misrepresented to prospective students the company’s accreditation and the placement rates and salaries of its graduates.
For certain students who did not obtain private student loans to pay-off the short-term company product and instead carried balances on the short-term credit through graduation, the CFPB asserts the company offered a “graduation discount” if the borrowers agreed to pay off some or all of the balance in a lump sum rather than through an installment plan. The CFPB reasons that to the extent the lump sum discounts were not applied to the installment plans, such discounts constituted finance charges subject to TILA’s disclosure requirements. The CFPB asserts that the company failed to clearly and conspicuously disclose those charges in writing to borrowers who opted not to pay a lump sum and instead entered into installment plans.
The CFPB brings claims for violations of the Consumer Financial Protection Act’s prohibitions on unfair and abusive practices, as well as for violations of TILA. In addition to injunctive relief, the CFPB is seeking unspecified monetary relief, including restitution for harmed borrowers, disgorgement, rescission, and civil money penalties.