Democrat leaders urge Biden to extend student loan repayment freeze through March 2022

BY Sydney LakeJune 29, 2021, 3:00 AM
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Democratic lawmakers on June 23 sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to extend the freeze on student loan repayments through March 31, 2022—six months later than originally planned. During the pandemic, 44.7 million federal student loan borrowers have had a reprieve on making payments, an emergency plan that is set to end on Sept. 30, 2021.

Congressional leadership, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, have long been vocal about student debt cancellation. They wrote to Biden asking him to—before the Sept. 30 deadline— extend the pause to March 31, 2022, or “until the economy reaches pre-pandemic employment levels, whichever is longer.” As of 2020, total student loan debt totaled a record $1.57 trillion.

“At this point in time, an extension in suspending student loan payments seems to be about a 50-50 proposition,” says Robert Kelchen, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Education Leadership, Management, and Policy at Seton Hall University. “But with every day that passes without a clear statement that payments will resume, I see the odds of another extension going up.”

The freeze first began in March 2020 when the U.S. Department of Education, under CARES Act provisions, issued a temporary suspension of loan payments and a 0% interest rate. The suspension has since been extended four times.

“Even as the economic recovery picks up steam, it is not reaching all Americans equally,” the letter states. The planned payment resumption in the fall could cause a “significant drag on our economic recovery,” it adds.

Mark Kantrowitz, author of How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid, also sees an extension as a possibility.

“The payment pause and interest waiver might be extended if the unemployment rates for college graduates have not yet normalized as of Sept. 30, 2021,” Kantrowitz says. “The most likely scenario is an extension through the end of the year.”

In May 2020, the unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree holders hit 7.2%, and by this May dropped back to 2.9%, nearing a pre-pandemic level. The unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree holders in June 2019 was 2.2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The most recent call for an extension comes at the tail of criticism of President Biden for leaving student loan cancellation out of his latest budget proposal. On the campaign trail, Biden said he supported paying off $10,000 of debt per borrower. While widespread cancellation may not yet be a reality, some student loan experts believe it could still be in the cards.

“It doesn’t mean that all hope is lost, and that student loan forgiveness for those who are anticipating it won’t reappear as an item later in some way, shape, or form,” Bruce McClary, senior vice president of communications for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), previously told Fortune. “Certainly the issue will be revisited.”

Before the pandemic, monthly student loan payments averaged between $200 and $299, according to the Federal Reserve. Student loan experts have been torn over what borrowers should do with those funds that borrowers are currently saving each month.

How to navigate the payment reprieve

Some say it’s best to continue payments if you’re able to do so, while others encourage borrowers to redirect those funds to a savings account or to pay off other debt, like credit card bills or mortgages. Others advise borrowers to look into income-driven repayment (IDR) plans, an alternative to a standard plan calculates monthly payments based on your most recent tax filings. 

IDR plans could be beneficial to borrowers who saw a drop in their 2020 income due to the pandemic, student loan experts say. But congressional leadership cautions against the IDR plans, calling the enrollment process “complex and lengthy.”

Congressional leadership is also pushing for the extension to give borrowers more time to prepare for a resumption of payments, citing that an increased number of borrowers could become delinquent or default on their loans if they’re unprepared.

“A wave of student loan defaults would cause long-term damage to borrowers’ credit and financial stability and could put a sudden and unnecessary drag on the recovering economy,” congressional leaders wrote in the letter. 

Plus, it’s going to be difficult to get the word out about payment resumption to borrowers, Kelchen adds.

“If payments don’t resume for another six months, the pressure will be increased to keep suspending payments indefinitely as a backdoor way to student debt forgiveness,” he says.