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Ties between colleges, lenders raise questions

Some schools use loan companies to advise students

The telephone number looks like any other university extension. And when students call with questions about financial aid, the recorded voice at the other end says, "Thank you for calling Texas Tech University's student financial center."

But what is remarkable about the center is not so much that it is actually located hundreds of miles away from Texas Tech's Lubbock campus. It is that the people giving advice are not university employees at all -- instead they work for Nelnet, a company that made more than $68 million last year off of student loans.

Nelnet's role staffing the help line -- which is not disclosed to callers -- is a window into the often hidden relationships between loan companies and the colleges that students rely on for advice about how to finance their schooling. Nelnet is one of several lenders that the university recommends to its students, though it is not among its 10 largest lenders.

But critics say such relationships pose a conflict of interest.

Texas Tech, which defends the arrangement as beneficial to students, is hardly alone. Nelnet says its Texas call center in Bryan and another in Indianapolis provide advice on behalf of about 10 different colleges; one is Wayne State University in Detroit.

Pace University and Mercy College in New York City and its suburbs are among the roughly 20 institutions that use call centers operated by Sallie Mae, the nation's largest student loan company.

Documents obtained by the New York attorney general's office show, according to officials, that some contracts between the colleges and the lenders require the call center staffers to identify themselves as part of the university. Loan company officials interviewed all declined to say which colleges use their centers.

Students call college financial aid offices with a variety of questions, such as explanations of bills received or updates on loan applications. But they also call with questions about how to pay for college -- putting them in the position of unknowingly getting advice from a representative of a particular company.

Officials at loan companies say their operators follow a script worked out by the colleges and do not steer students to their own products. Colleges and universities also say they use "secret shoppers" to verify that callers are getting accurate information.

Becky Wilson, director of financial aid at Texas Tech, defended the practice of routing student financial aid questions to Nelnet and that the university was "trying to make the aid process as seamless as possible for students" so they do not have to deal with multiple people. She said that if call center workers identified themselves as Nelnet employees, it would cause confusion. She added that the university uses "secret shoppers."

Students who call with questions that are too specific or complicated get called back by financial aid administrators at the school, she said.

She said the university expects to pay Nelnet $200,000 or more this year for handling about 99,000 calls to its financial aid office and 99,000 more calls to its business office.

But Andrew M. Cuomo, New York's attorney general, said the call centers pose "an inherent conflict of interest" because "a self-interested lender is providing what is purported to be unbiased advice."

The relationships between loan companies and universities are increasingly coming under attack by federal and state officials as tuition continues to rise and students are accumulating heavy debt loads to pay for college. In 2006, students borrowed about $85 billion, according to the College Board.

Students generally rely on college preferred-lender lists when seeking loans rather than looking for the best deal.

Last week, Cuomo announced that he intends to sue one company, Education Finance Partners of San Francisco, for deceptive business practices because it pays "kickbacks" based on loan volume to colleges for steering students its way.

The company said this week that it would "add clear disclosures to its marketing materials" to clarify its relationship with universities. The federal education department is weighing whether to regulate preferred lender lists.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, who heads the education committee, has also asked lenders for information about their relationships with colleges.