How student loan companies pretend to be your friend

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Private lenders are using free movies and happy hours to entice people to refinance their student debt

Are you one of the 44 million Americans drowning in student loans you fear you’ll never pay back? Worried that you’ll be in the red for the rest of your life? Well, why not forget about your spiraling debt by kicking back and watching a movie!

This month, banking company Laurel Road announced that if you refinance your student loan with them, they will give you a years membership to MoviePass, the movie theater subscription service.

The partnership shines a light on the growing market for private student loans. Private lenders currently hold less than 10% of the $1.4tn in outstanding student loan debt but have been aggressively lobbying for legislation that would loosen the government’s monopoly.

People mingle at a SoFi event in San Jose, California. Photograph: SoFi

Republican lawmakers have given them cause for optimism. Last year, congressional Republicans put forward the Prosper Act which would cap the federal loan amounts graduate students can receive. While private lenders often offer lower interest rates than the government, they don’t come with the same consumer protections as federal loans. Some experts worry that federal loan caps would steer students into private loans that aren’t necessarily in their best interests.

In an effort to make themselves seem more attractive than federal options, some private lenders are branding themselves more like lifestyle companies. They’re not just loaning you money, they’re your best friend!

The SoFi app lets you message people you have met at their events. Photograph: SoFi

Social Finance Inc (SoFi), one of the most high-profile private financial startups in the US, has led the charge in this regard. Since it launched in 2011 the company has attempted to differentiate itself by referring to its customers as members and inviting them to exclusive events like cocktail parties and cooking classes. In 2017, SoFi held 323 member events across the US (more than 60 cities), serving over 14,000 members. By the end of this year, the company says it will have organized more than 800 member events and hosted over 42,000 members in total. We don’t think of ourselves as a finance company, we think of ourselves as money, career, and relationships, the then CEO, Mike Cagney, said at a technology conference last May. Cagney stepped down from the company late last year after allegations of sexual harassment.

Before the Cagney controversy, SoFi floated the idea of launching a dating app, after seeing romances spring up between members at their events. While this idea was eventually scrapped the SoFi app does allow members who meet at events to message each other.

Laurel Roads partnership with MoviePass is more evidence of private lending companies trying to make student loan debt fun even as student debt per capita has doubled in the past decade and there has been a rise in the number of cases brought against federal lenders illegally harassing their customers. The student loan crisis is now so dire that a new game show, Paid Off with Michael Torpey, is giving students the chance to compete on TV to have their debt paid off. The series which premieres in July on TruTV is aimed at starting a conversation about the student debt crisis, not trivializing it, an executive from TruTV told the Guardian.

Still, there is something inherently dystopian in the fact that America has reached a place where the only hope some people have for getting out of debt is winning a game show.

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