OKLAHOMA CITY — Kelli Driscoll Crews graduated from college and seminary school with nearly $40,000 in student loan debt.

Struggling financially as a new grad, Driscoll Crews, of Tulsa, consolidated her debt. She said her loan company then suggested she apply for loan forbearance.

Nearly 20 years after graduating, the 40-year-old stay-at-home mother and pastor said that loan balance has ballooned to close to $60,000.

Driscoll Crews said it wasn’t until later when she researched student loans that she learned there are other options she could have pursued instead of the forbearance, which ultimately added a “sizable amount” of interest to her loan principle.

Driscoll Crews said her federally-backed loans actually qualified her for an income-based repayment plan, but her lender wasn’t legally obligated to tell her about that option.

She was among those advocating recently for The Oklahoma Student Borrower’s Bill of Rights Act, or Senate Bill 261, which was recently signed into law by Gov. Kevin Stitt.

“It’s clear to me that this legislation is not going to fix what happened to me, but I can try to make sure that other people know their rights, and that the companies that are managing these loans don’t hide options from borrowers,” Driscoll Crews said.

The measure prohibits student loan services from defrauding or misleading borrowers, engaging in deceptive practices, misrepresenting the amount of the loan or the fees, incorrectly applying a student’s loan payment, providing inaccurate information to a credit bureau and failing to inform borrowers about repayment options. Lenders must also tell borrowers if their loan qualifies for a forgiveness program.

The new law applies to loan servicing companies that are managing federally backed loans.

“Not everybody comes from a financially literate background,” Driscoll Crews said. “And in the long run, what we’d like to see is a better effort around educating high schoolers and college borrowers about what it means for their life to be borrowing thousands of dollars.

State Sen. John Michael Montgomery, R-Lawton, who authored the measure, said the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau used to advocate for borrowers, but within the past few years stopped.

“Basically the idea is to just fill in a gap that’s been left by the CFPB there,” he said.

Montgomery said he’d like to believe there are a lot of lenders doing things the right way, but at the same time there have been issues where payments were misapplied.

“We’ve heard enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that there’s definitely enough of an issue to warrant something like this,” Montgomery said.

Oklahoma is among a handful of states that have added state-level protections for student borrowers, said state Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa.

Provenzano said at least half of Oklahomans leave college with debt. Their average student debt load is about $25,000, she said.

She said constituents complained that they had been paying their student loans for years, yet hadn’t seen the balances drop significantly.

“There’s a lot of things that can go wrong when it comes to borrowing,” Provenzano said.

She said the measure, which passed unanimously through both chambers, empowers individuals to be better advocates.

The law allows people who believe they’ve been defrauded by a lender to sue in civil court, but Provenzano said the hope is to eventually reach a point where the state’s Attorney General’s Office or an ombudsman can act on behalf of borrowers.

People from across Oklahoma supported the law, she said.

“They’re not asking necessarily for student loan forgiveness,” Provenzano said. “They’re just asking for a fair shake at being able to pay them off.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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