With each passing day, 43 million federal student loan borrowers move closer to resuming payments that have been suspended since March 2020 – and further away from the possibility that a life-changing loan forgiveness is coming anytime soon.
The borrowers had reason to be hopeful.
Student debt, now at $ 1.7 trillion, was a crisis long before COVID-19. But the pandemic has become an inflection point: Relief came quickly, with interest-free payments interrupted as debtors sought to cope with job losses and reduced working hours. Forgiveness has become the rallying cry of progressives, helped by pledges of support from the candidate and President Joe Biden.
But the quick fix of a White House executive order has not emerged, and there is no legislative remedy in the works. Biden’s first budget plan, released on May 28, also didn’t set aside money for forgiveness.
This means struggling borrowers hoping for at least one cancellation before payments restart may need to reset their expectations and instead focus on how they will make their payments in October.
Current Chances of Forgiveness
During his campaign, Biden asked for a $ 10,000 student loan forgiveness as relief from the coronavirus. He also called for canceling the debt related to tuition fees for those who attended public colleges and earn less than $ 125,000 a year.
A $ 10,000 debt forgiveness would completely write off the debt for about 15 million borrowers, according to a NerdWallet analysis of federal data.
Since then, the president has hesitated to commit to taking action. He has publicly questioned his power to grant the annulment and is awaiting a note from Education Secretary Miguel Cardona exploring his ability to do so.
Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, says he thinks Biden is unlikely to cancel loans en masse.
“I think if President Biden had wanted to do a blanket forgiveness of loans through executive action, he would have done it already,” he said in an email.
Debt relief advocates like Braxton Brewington, press secretary for Debt Collective, a membership-based debtors union, are not discouraged.
âBorrowers are just as frustrated and stressed as they were on the first day of [Bidenâs] administration because it’s something Joe Biden should have done on day one, âBrewington said. He adds that Debt Collective remains optimistic that blanket cancellation is still possible as part of COVID-related relief – “because it’s COVID relief,” Brewington said.
Keep up the pressure
Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, introduced a pair of resolutions in February to both houses of Congress calling on the president to write off $ 50,000 in student debt. Democratic lawmakers, progressive activists, and even cities like Washington, DC and Philadelphia routinely voice their support for debt cancellation, but there is no active legislation to that effect.
Some student loan experts are skeptical of the possibility of passing legislation in a politically polarized Congress. Cody Hounanian, program director at Student Debt Crisis, an organization that advocates for student borrowers, said pushing forgiveness through Congress will be “an uphill battle” that will take time that borrowers no longer have. âBut executive action is something we know can be done immediately; he will bypass Congress, and [Biden] has the power to do it, âadds Hounanian.
The conversation about canceling the loan is unlikely to end anytime soon, says Megan Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Coval says forgiveness could still happen, and borrowers may see more targeted forgiveness due to factors such as debt amount or income – although there has been no suggestion of this. nature so far.
Changes to current forgiveness plans
While a blanket remission is not ruled out, there are still targeted debt cancellation programs available to borrowers. However, these programs are underperforming and need reform, experts and lawmakers say.
For example, the public service loan forgiveness is granted to borrowers who have made payments while working full time for an eligible public service employer. It only has a 2.2% approval rating, according to federal data. Other programs, like borrower advocacy (for students whose colleges have defrauded them) and income-tested repayment remission, are also helping far fewer borrowers than expected.
Biden’s budget proposal included a feeling his administration planned to work with Congress to improve income-driven repayment programs and the PSLF, which could help ease millions of borrowers. During his campaign, Biden called for fixing the PSLF with a new plan to forgive $ 10,000 in student debt relief for up to five years of public service.
Legal experts and student loan experts such as the National Consumer Law Center and the Student Borrower Protection Center blame bureaucracy, misinformation and mismanagement of the dysfunction that hinders existing forgiveness programs. But that could change soon: The Department of Education recently announced that it will be holding feedback hearings in June to seek comment on potential future rule-making topics, including these programs.
âStreamlining the process for income-driven repayment plans and civil service loan forgiveness won’t be as flashy as debt forgiveness, but these two plans will help forgive at least one part of the debt to many Americans, âKelchen said.
Payment recovery strategies
With loan cancellation proposals not expected to pay off anytime soon and payments expected to resume for borrowers on October 1, here’s how you can build a repayment strategy, depending on your situation:
- If you’re financially stable, consider making additional payments before October 1 to pay off your debt faster. You can reduce your principal faster while your loan does not earn interest.
- If you expect to have trouble making payments, contact your provider now to discuss enrolling in an income-based repayment plan to keep payments manageable. It will cap your payments at a portion of your discretionary income and extend the repayment. If you are unemployed or underemployed, your payment may be $ 0.
- If you can’t make payments but don’t want to sign up for an income-based repayment plan, contact your service agent to discuss deferral or withholding from unemployment. These options are best if you plan to be out of work or are dealing with short-term financial difficulties.
- If you are looking for a utility loan remission, keep in mind that each month of non-payment counts towards the 120 needed for the remission as long as you remain employed full time. Keep making payments on a revenue driven plan when they restart.
- If your loan was in default before the pandemic, it will restart in good standing. Make sure you have a plan to stay on track, like signing up for an income-oriented plan.