Credit unions and community banks have traditionally stood as direct competitors, vying for the attention of similar types of consumers. But in the private student lending market, a fierce face-off between the two is not expected, several experts say.
“As far as competition goes, some existing lenders are scaling back their presence in the market, but new lenders are cropping up all the time,” said Greg Jaeger, the private student loan manager for the $4.6 billion, Peoria, Ill.-based Citizens Equity First Credit Union. “It is hard to say how much competition is coming from community banks. In any case, competition among lenders is good for borrowers.”
Citizens Equity began offering private student loans through CU Campus Resources, a wholly owned CUSO of the $1.4 billion UW Credit Union of Madison, Wis., in 2011. Jaeger said in the first year of its private student loan program, Citizens Equity exceeded its goals, grabbed the attention of members and nonmembers and is poised to continue growth. As of Dec. 31, 2011, Citizens Equity held 3,680 nonfederally guaranteed student loans totaling $28.3 million, with an interest rate of 0.08%, according to NCUA Call Report data.
NCUA, which only began requiring credit unions to list student lending data in their Call Reports last year, found a nonfederally guaranteed student loan volume increase of $1.34 billion (with 7,179 credit unions reporting) in September 2011 to $1.46 billion (with 7,094 credit unions reporting) in December 2011, a change of 10%.
But making student loans still can’t be considered a popular credit union activity. There are around 500 credit unions with student loans, and just 38 of those report more than $10 million in student loan volume, according to NCUA.
Meanwhile, community bankers are becoming more comfortable with the idea of student lending. The Independent Community Bankers Association has been publicizing iHelp, a private student lending program launched by the Student Loan Finance Corp. in 2010; it’s currently in place at community banks in 12 states.
The fact that two lending giants, U.S. Bank and JPMorgan Chase, announced last month that they would be pulling back from the private student lending business, opens up new opportunities for credit unions and community banks to increase their presence in the business, pointed out Mike Long, the executive vice president and chief operating officer for CU Campus Resources.
Long also noted that according to a 2011 report released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the number of student loans held by U.S. consumers has caught up with the number of auto loans held by U.S. consumers, indicating a growing need for student financial assistance. But he said he does not anticipate community banks posing a threat to credit unions’ involvement in the private student lending business.
"Competition from community banks is not something we’re seeing in Wisconsin," he said. “We see the usual suspects, like large banks and Sallie Mae, but we’re not even seeing regional banks get into it.”
Long said community banks might get into student lending for the same reasons credit unions would, such as to start developing relationships with young consumers. However, he doesn’t expect student loans to become a priority for community banks.
“I’m surprised that community banks would want to get into student lending,” he said. “You generally don’t see that much of an interest in consumer banking from community banks. Typically, they’re more interested in commercial banking. It’s the credit unions that are more interested in serving personal consumer financial needs.”
Community banks that do have student lending on their to-do lists can enjoy one advantage over credit unions, Long said, because they’re not constrained by fields of membership, they might have an easier time finding borrowers.
Jim Holt, who has more than 20 years of experience in the student lending industry and currently serves as vice president of sales operations for student lending CUSO CU Student Choice, also emphasized that opportunities exist for smaller financial institutions in the private student lending business.
In just a few years, the annual amount of private student loans originated decreased from $22 billion to $8 billion, according to the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center, he said. Add that to U.S. Bank’s and JPMorgan Chase’s retraction from the business, which the banks have said is due to a shrinking private student lending market and their desire to focus on their existing customers, and credit unions and community banks have plenty of room to do business, he said. Holt said that from 1982 to 2008, the cost of college tuition and housing increased by 439%, while average household incomes only went up by 147%.