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Freezing student loan payments helped boost borrowers’ credit scores

March 4, 2022, 7:51 PM UTC

For the past two years, Americans have been able to skip paying their federal student loans because of a COVID-related moratorium. That’s not only helped free up money in borrowers’ monthly budgets, but it’s also helped boost credit scores. 

A new report published this week by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that while the average credit score improved during the pandemic, student loan borrowers saw an even bigger jump. 

In 2016, for example, low-income borrowers with student loans had an average score of 575, while those without student loans averaged scores of 597. But by the third quarter of 2021, scores for low-income student loan borrowers jumped 48 points to an average score of 623. That was slightly higher than the average jump to 622 among non-borrowers in the same income class. 

The jump in scores is due to the fact that while federal student loan payments and interest have been paused, servicers have not been reporting late payments and delinquencies to the credit bureaus. Instead, all borrowers have been marked as current on their student loans. That’s been helpful in boosting credit scores overall for borrowers, but especially for those with lower incomes and worse pre-pandemic credit. 

Typically, if a borrower has a lower score, they probably already have missed payments or are in delinquency with their loans. So they benefited the most from the payment pause because now that’s no longer being reported, New York Fed researchers said Tuesday. Those with good credit scores above 700 generally don’t have much to improve upon, so there’s less of a jump in their scores. 

With loan repayments set to restart on May 1, however, these higher credit scores may be short-lived. New York Fed researchers said that there will likely be a lag between when the pause is lifted and the effect on credit scores. Typically the Department of Education does not report student loan debt as delinquent until it’s at least 20 days past due, according to the researchers. 

The team estimates that the effects of student loans restarting will start to show up in September, but there’s little doubt that there will be delinquencies and lower credit scores as a result, the researchers said. 

Many experts are recommending that borrowers not wait for their loan servicer to contact them—especially since millions of Americans now have a new servicer after several major companies dropped their federal student loan contracts last year. Instead, they should make sure their contact information is up-to-date and start looking into repayment plans now if they’re concerned they will not be able to afford the monthly expense. 

Some Democrats are pushing for sweeping student loan forgiveness, but President Joe Biden didn’t mention plans to forgive student loans during his State of the Union address Tuesday night. In fact, he didn’t mention student loans at all. So any type of wide-scale forgiveness is far from a done deal, and borrowers shouldn’t necessarily count on it taking place before the Department of Education requires payments to resume.

“Overall, the picture is fairly rosy. But we don’t want to diminish the fact that there are households that are probably still suffering and still struggling—and will struggle even more once their student loan payments kick in,” says Joelle Scally, a financial and economic analyst with the New York Fed.

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