PORTLAND — Short of living under a rock, it has been almost impossible not to have heard about the budget “crisis,” and subsequent retrenchments, and then subsequent reversals of the retrenchments at the University of Southern Maine and University of Maine System. However, there appears to be something happening within the University of Maine System that has gotten much less attention.

Although referenced occasionally by faculty, the system’s involvement with national consulting firms and the large amount of money paid to them have not been examined in detail.

Of all of the consulting firms that UMS contracts with, one name seems to appear consistently throughout the budget projections, the board of trustees’ minutes, financial statements and expense statements: Noel-Levitz.

According to UMS documents, Noel-Levitz has been paid more than $300,000 “to conduct a comprehensive study of markets, strategic pricing, and financial aid.” The last portion of their study, financial aid, is the most common theme in Noel-Levitz’s suggestions, which is significant when one examines the history of Noel-Levitz.

Noel-Levitz is a former subsidiary of the private student debt purchaser Sallie Mae and is managed by Kevin Crockett, who was a vice president at Sallie Mae when Sallie Mae still owned Noel-Levitz. Crockett became the CEO of Noel-Levitz while Noel-Levitz was still owned by Sallie Mae.

The largest repurchaser and repackager of student loan debt, Sallie Mae profits by the billions off student debt and is infamous for its unethical business practices, which have elicited a Department of Justice investigation and a “60 Minutes” segment.

According to its website, Noel-Levitz is an “enrollment management consulting firm.” Enrollment management consulting firms tend to offer advice on something called “financial aid leveraging.”

According to an article in The Atlantic, financial aid leveraging involves repackaging financial aid so that funds are specifically directed at students whom a complex algorithm determines can make the university the most money. Frequently, this means taking financial aid away from the people who need it the most and giving it to people who will stay enrolled for longer periods of time.

Because the exact methodologies Noel-Levitz uses for its financial aid suggestions are proprietary, and some of the university system board of trustees’ minutes regarding Noel-Levitz’s suggestions appear to have been removed from the system website, it’s difficult to learn precisely what the methodologies were.

However, according to the University of Maine at Augusta’s Board of Visitors, the advice they received from Noel-Levitz led to their students’ loan default rate doubling in 2012. So, whatever they’re prioritizing in their methodologies and advice for financial aid, it isn’t students’ ability to repay.

The fact that Noel-Levitz’s advice led to drastically increased default rates lends support to the idea that there is still a perverse relationship between Noel-Levitz and Sallie Mae.

Sallie Mae actually profits more when students default on their loans. By law, Sallie Mae is allowed to shave off 20 percent of payments made on defaulted loans and not apply it to the student’s interest or principal balance. Thus, defaulting on a loan effectively raises the interest rate on a student’s loan. The effective interest rate increase can often double the total amount a student pays back.

Since student loan debt cannot be forgiven in bankruptcy, the only option for a student who can’t pay his or her bill is to enter into “forbearance,” in which he or she pays a negotiated monthly fee to Sallie Mae to prevent Sallie Mae from garnishing wages or taking legal action.

The forbearance payment does not decrease the principal or interest balance. Thus, the amount the student owes grows during the forbearance period. There is a clear conflict of interest between a consulting group with strong formal and informal ties to Sallie Mae giving advice to universities on how to package and target their financial aid.

Because the University of Maine System has not been very transparent with its financial and managerial decisions, and because it’s hard to know what exactly Noel-Levitz, Mindpower Inc., Windhaven Investments and the other consultant firms the system has paid more than $6 million to are doing, it’s impossible to know what the actual state of the university is and what effect current management is having on it.

Because there are conflicts of interest throughout the university, and because the board of trustees manages nearly $1 billion of assets with no oversight, it is prudent that the Legislature consider independent Portland Rep. Ben Chipman’s bill next session. L.R. 2883 would establish a commission of students and faculty to analyze the UMS finances. Not to introduce oversight would be irresponsible.

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