Maine people deserve basic consumer protection against shady student loan companies. As lawmakers, it’s our responsibility to make sure these large, unregulated financial institutions cannot get away with unethical business practices that trap Mainers into cycles of debt.

When the new Legislature meets early next year, lawmakers must join together and pass a student loan bill of rights.

Student debt has become a real crisis in this state and across the country affecting multiple generations. Americans currently owe $1.5 trillion in student debt, which is up almost 250 percent from 2008. And it looks like it’s not leveling out any time soon.

Many people take out student loans so they or their relatives (child or grandchild) can acquire the necessary skills and the credentials that qualify them for a good-paying job. This is the case whether it’s for a community college, a technical program or to earn a bachelor’s degree at a traditional four-year college.

But between the rising cost of higher education and the behavior of predatory student loan companies, many people are stuck in a bad financial situation even if they’ve kept up on their bills and done their best to be financially responsible. This affects student loan borrowers of all ages. It’s important to remember that student loan borrowers in this country cover all ages. While the majority of student borrowers are younger, an estimated 15.7 billion borrowers are over the age of 40. Regardless of their economic situation or degree program, all Mainers ought to be protected from predatory lending.

Unfortunately, it’s clear that we cannot rely on the federal government to protect Maine people. This past year, federal agencies have continued to put the priorities of large, national corporations and special interests ahead of people at every turn.

In May, the administration began dismantling the Office of Students, a vital department within the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that serves as an educational resource to students and holds companies accountable for corrupt lending practices. Since its inception, the Office has been pretty successful.

The agency already won a lawsuit against ITT Educational Services for misleading students who took out loans from them and secured $500 million for students taken advantage of by for-profit colleges. Currently, the agency is engaged in a lawsuit with Navient, one of the largest predatory lending companies in the country. I’m concerned that undermining this office moves the country in the wrong direction and recent events only make matters worse.

In July, the administration proposed weakening rules around for-profit colleges that have taken advantage of students and made false promises. Finally, just last month, Seth Frotman, the CFPB student loan ombudsman announced his resignation saying that “the Bureau has abandoned the very consumer it is tasked by Congress with protecting … to serve the wishes of the most powerful financial companies in America.” This is the reality at the federal level. Student interests are being abandoned. Mainers must now look to the state to act.

With a student loan bill of rights, Maine could better support, advocate and protect borrowers from predatory lending. Our proposal would create a student loan advocate within the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection in the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation to receive, review and resolve complaints. This gives Maine consumers a point of contact when a situation arises.

Second, it creates a system for licensing student loan servicers. This allows the state to hold these companies accountable for questionable practices. Lastly, the bill explicitly identifies prohibited acts and enables a superintendent to investigate companies for suspicious activity.

When I presented this bill to the Legislature, Frotman came to Maine last year to testify in favor of my bill to develop a student loan bill of rights. He recognized that action at the state level is necessary to protect student debt borrowers. Since his testimony, the situation has only worsened. We need to act now.

At the end of the day, if the federal government isn’t going to look out for Maine consumers, then the state must.

Sen. Eloise Vitelli represents District 23 in the state Legislature. She lives in Arrowsic.

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