Mass student loan forgiveness? Don’t count on it says Biden appointee

BY Sydney LakeSeptember 21, 2021, 5:00 AM
Advocates display a hand-painted sign on the Ellipse in front of The White House to call on President Joe Biden to sign an executive order to cancel student debt, as seen in June 2021. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for We The 45 Million)

During the pandemic, student loan borrowers have been holding on to the idea that their debt might be forgiven eventually. After all, many top Democrats in Congress are pushing for up to $50,000 forgiveness per borrower, and President Joe Biden has said he’s “prepared to” cancel $10,000 per borrower.

But borrowers’ dreams may not come true, if recent statements by a high-ranking official with the Federal Student Aid office are any indication. On Sept. 16, Richard Cordray, FSA’s chief operating officer, spoke to the 2021 Education Finance Conference of the Education Finance Council (EFC), and addressed many of the changes to student aid that happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Cordray’s message was one that most borrowers won’t want to hear, but gives a sense of clarity to people who have been holding out hope. 

“Borrowers have been hearing a steady drumbeat about the possibility of loan forgiveness, either wholesale or piecemeal,” he said, according to prepared remarks from the event. “We can expect that many, many borrowers will not be eager to return to repayment when they have been led to believe, or even to hope, that was never going to happen.”

Cordray was just appointed to his post in May, and previously served as the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Forgiveness, forbearance during COVID-19

Discussions about student loan debt during the past 19 months are enough to give borrowers whiplash. Repayments on student loans were first frozen in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic, and have since been extended four times. The back-and-forth and last-minute decisions to continue the extension has put stress both on borrowers and loan services, Cordray argues.

“FSA has had multiple periods where it had to plan and prepare for return to repayment, only to reverse course, often at the last minute,” Cordray said in his remarks. “The dilemma of how to communicate these mixed messages to borrowers has also been severe, with so many false starts no doubt sowing tremendous confusion about what even the immediate future may hold.”

Biden and other White House officials have explicitly referred to the latest forbearance announcement as the “final such extension” for the freeze on student loan repayments. Borrowers will have to get back to their regularly scheduled payments starting in February 2022, and there’s not much hope that forbearance will get extended again. Especially for borrowers who haven’t been making payments during the reprieve, the next few months are critical for preparation. 

Making matters more complicated is that two major federal student loan servicers opted not to renew their contracts, which will lead to many borrowers being transferred to a new servicer.

“Borrowers can expect a flurry of communication from their federal loan servicer about how and when they’ll be expected to resume repayment, plus details of options they could consider if they’re not yet capable of resuming their monthly payment obligations,” Andrew Pentis, a certified student loan counselor with Student Loan Hero, tells Fortune. “Borrowers should also look out for communications from their current loan servicer about if and when their loans will be transferred to another servicer.”

What other experts say about student loan forgiveness

It “doesn’t look promising” that mass student debt cancellation will happen before the freeze lets up, says Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, author of Indentured Students: How Government-Guaranteed Loans Left Generations Drowning in College Debt.

“But a lot can happen between now and Jan. 31, 2022,” she adds. “It will really come down to real pressure on the administration and Congress to cancel debt.” Shermer also anticipates that we’ll see more targeted student debt cancellation. Since taking office, Biden has cancelled $9.5 billion in student loan debt for two main groups: Americans with disabilities and borrowers who attended now-defunct institutions.

While it may not be a given, “broad loan forgiveness is still more likely now than at any point in the past,” argues Mark Kantrowitz, author of How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid

“But nothing is yet certain, other than the end of the payment pause and interest waiver,” Kantrowitz adds. “So [borrowers] need to plan based on what is definitely going to occur, as opposed to what might occur.”

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