Members of the military are having trouble grappling with the confusing patchwork of student loan benefits they can receive and often end up taking on much more debt than needed, says a new government report.
The report released Thursday finds financial institutions often give service members bad or incomplete information or improperly deny them the reduced interest and other benefits that they are entitled to receive.
The findings are based on complaints and requests for help from service members across the country, including many who saw their loans balloon when they left active duty. And many complained that financial institutions did not properly explain how their loan deferrals worked, or tell them how much interest would automatically accrue once the deferral ended.
Officials acknowledged they don't know how many troops are affected, how much unnecessary debt they've accumulated, and whether financial institutions are deliberately gouging troops or if they are simply uninformed and making mistakes.
The report was compiled by the Office of Servicemember Affairs within the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which coordinates with other federal and state agencies on consumer protection issues and acts as an ombudsman for student loans.
One service member found his $61,000 in student loans shot up to $85,000 when he deferred payment for five months, the report said. And while each situation may be different, it said that if the variety of benefits are used and applied properly, someone who enters the military with $80,000 in loans could save almost $50,000 over the life of the debt.
"The number one reason people in the service lose their security clearance is because of financial problems," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at a Pentagon news conference Thursday. "Student loans are one important part of the total debt burden -- from mortgages to credit cards to other debt -- on those who are serving in the military today."