The relief, however, is coming to an end soon: Borrowers must restart making payments after September 30.
Insider spoke with three people about how the end of COVID-19 student-loan forbearance will affect their lives and finances.
Camryn Hicks, 25, has $14,250 in student-loan debt and lives in rural Maine
I graduated from Boston College in 2018 with a degree in business and marketing. I’m part of the first generation of women in my family to go to college, and had some financial assistance in the form of loans and grants.
But I didn’t know what my student-loan payments would look like later when I was signing up for them.
When I graduated, I got a job working on a re-election campaign for Elizabeth Warren. I was able to start paying my loans off right away, and have never missed a payment. Warren dissolved her presidential campaign right around the time COVID-19 started to spread, so I ended up moving back in with my parents and starting a new job remotely.
During the forbearance, I’ve been able to make large lump-sum, principal-only payments on my student loans using my stimulus checks. Because of the forbearance, I’ve been able to start playing catch-up with my finances. When my car was stolen, I was able to replace it, and I also opened a retirement account.
For me, the forbearance period was a taste of what cancellation would feel like. The conversation around student loans, I think, focuses too much on the individual, and if that one person is going to be able to pay the debt they signed up for. But it’s an economic problem, not a personal one.
My parents took out hundreds of thousands of dollars in Parent PLUS loans to send both my sister and myself to school. Student-loan debt isn’t a personal burden, it’s a family burden.
In many ways, student loans perpetuate wealth inequality – where the people who don’t have to take them out get a head start. I think we need to stop splitting hairs over who’s worthy of relief.
Glenda Johnson, 32, has $36,693 in student-loan debt and lives in Charlotte, North Carolina
When I graduated from college in 2011, my student-loan balance was over $50,000, and I’m still paying back most of it.
I’m fortunate because throughout the pandemic, I’ve had a job. I make about $49,000 a year working in the sales department of a big tech company and also freelance on the side.
Most of my loans were in an income-based repayment plan before the forbearance. The forbearance has been able to keep me afloat, because for over a year I haven’t had to worry about being able to make my payments or not.
A few of my loans didn’t qualify for forbearance, so I’ve still been making payments on those.
With the forbearance ending, student-loan forgiveness is my best bet. The job market I graduated into isn’t what they told us it would be when I was in school, and it’s a lot of money to repay when I’m not seeing a rise in income.
Having to make payments again will weigh heavy on me, but I’m staying positive that there will be a solution somewhere – whether it’s me getting a promotion, or getting more money from my side gig.
I remain hopeful because the conversation around student loans is changing, but for whatever reason, we can’t push the needle, and people like me with student loans will have to keep waiting for change.
Dylan Cawley, 32, has $185,682 in student-loan debt and lives in northeastern Pennsylvania
I graduated with a master’s in public health from the University of Pittsburgh in 2013. For my undergraduate degree, I went to a state school, but for my master’s program I had to take out extra loans to pay for my rent and living expenses, which totaled in over $50,000 a year.
With the exception of the six-month grace period after graduation, I’ve been making monthly payments on my loans for over eight years. My federal loans are on income-driven payment, and I’ve been making regular payments on my private loans.
The forbearance has given me room to breathe. I’ve always wanted an emergency fund, and thanks to the CARES Act I’ve been able to start one. Once it ends, I’ll have to readjust my budget to include an additional $260 payment.
I think a lot of people who don’t have student loans don’t realize just how stressful it is. We aren’t complaining for no reason.
I’m not holding my breath for student-debt forgiveness. You can’t just forgive all existing student loans. If we forgive all student loans now, we’re going to be in the same situation 15 years from now. We have to start looking at student loans as a whole problem within itself.
President Joe Biden promised to lessen the $1.7 trillion student-debt crisis during his campaign, promising debt cancellation and reforms of key student-loan programs.
While it’s admittedly early, Biden hasn’t fulfilled any of those promises yet. The most that can be said is that his is starting to consider working on them, and it’s going to take a while to see progress.
One of the president’s first actions in office was an extension of the student-loan payment pause during the pandemic, providing relief to the 43 million borrowers. But the pause is lifting come October, and borrowers, experts, and lawmakers worry the Biden administration is not doing enough to protect borrowers when that happens.
On Thursday, the Student Borrower Protection Center (SBPC), which advocates for borrowers’ rights, led 128 organizations in calling for the pause to be extended until Biden follows through on reforming loan forgiveness programs and cancelling student debt.
“There is a very long way to go to deliver on the promises for student loan borrowers, between what was promised and where we are,” Seth Frotman, executive director of the SBPC, told Insider. “A lot of that is obviously because of how broken the system is and how many of the problems we’re facing are decades in the making.”
Here’s what Biden promised on student debt during his campaign, and where those promises currently stand:
Cancelling $10,000 in student debt per borrower
Biden promised to cancel $10,000 in student debt per person. In a speech on November 16, he said student loans are holding borrowers up, and forgiving $10,000 “should be done immediately.”
His campaign website said he’d work with Democrats to “authorize up to $10,000 in student debt relief per borrower” as part of COVID-19 relief, but the $1.9 trillion stimulus package he signed in March didn’t include that.
Once he took office, he said at a CNN town hall in February that he was “prepared to write off the $10,000 debt but not $50 [thousand], because I don’t think I have the authority to do it.”
The Justice and Education Departments are reviewing Biden’s executive authority to cancel $50,000 in debt, but he has yet to cancel even $10,000.
Cancelling debt for students at public colleges and HBCUs
Biden also campaigned on forgiving all undergraduate tuition-related federal student loan debt for borrowers from public colleges and universities earning up to $125,000 per year, and from private Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions.
Biden dedicated funding to HBCUs in both his stimulus and infrastructure proposals, but not the wider forgiveness.
Some HBCUs have used Biden’s stimulus money to cancel debt for their own students. But given student debt’s disproportionate burden on Black borrowers, organizations continue to call for the president to cancel their debt.
Reforming student-loan programs
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program is supposed to forgive student debt for public service workers after 120 qualifying monthly payments, but it is notoriously flawed, continuing to reject 98% of applications. Biden promised to fix the program, and those fixes are currently in the works.
Biden’s regulatory agenda, released earlier this month, included plans to reform PSLF, along with amending the “borrower defense to repayment,” which forgives loans for students who were defrauded by for-profit schools.
The process for implementing these improvements could be lengthy, though, with the department planning to finalize the new rules by April 2022. It held public hearings this week to gather feedback on the loan system, and it will soon determine a path forward for rulemaking.
President Joe Biden campaigned on reforming the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, which has been under fire for years for rejecting the vast majority of applicants.
New Education Department data found that 98% of borrowers are still being rejected from the program.
PSLF allows government and nonprofit employees with federally backed student loans to apply for loan forgiveness after proof of 120 monthly payments under a qualifying repayment plan, but it has an extremely high denial rate. Biden campaigned on fixing it. His campaign website said “Biden will see to it that the existing Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is fixed, simplified, and actually helps teachers.”
But newly released Education Department data found that 97.9% of borrowers had been rejected from the program as of April of this year for failing to meet the program’s requirements. In 2018, 99% of applicants were rejected. The reasoning the department gave for the high denial rate comes down to borrowers not meeting the 120 qualifying payments, but experts say the program itself is to blame – not borrowers.
“Washington has had almost 14 years to get PSLF right,” Seth Frotman, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, which advocates an end to the student-debt crisis, wrote on Twitter on Monday. “Enough excuses. Enough deflecting. Enough of industry cashing in while borrowers struggle and @usedgov sits at the sidelines. It’s time to restore the promise of PSLF,” he added.
Last month, 56 Democrats sent a letter urging Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to fix the loan forgiveness program to get rid of the “extraordinary confusion” the program has caused borrowers, prompting the high rejection rate.
“After the first round of forgiveness initially became available to PSLF borrowers more than three years ago, approval rates for the program have remained below 2.5%,” the letter said. “The program has been beset by numerous ‘donut holes’ that disqualify certain types of loans, repayment plans and the payments themselves, leading to extraordinary confusion and distrust of the PSLF program and, by extension, the federal government.”
A Government Accountability Office report also found that 287 Dept. of Defense personnel had received loan forgiveness as of January 2020, while 5,180, or 94% of DOD borrowers, were denied. Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a statement calling the findings, and PSLF, “nothing short of a disaster.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was even sued multiple times over the program’s high denial rate.
Biden’s Education Department has announced plans to begin working on improving the program. Insider reported last week that Biden’s regulatory agenda includes reviewing PSLF and “plans to look at these regulations for improvements.”
That followed the Education Department’s announcement that it was beginning the process of issuing new higher-education regulations, but no further detail was provided on what the mentioned improvements would look like.
Frotman called on the Education Department to cancel student debt for eligible borrowers who have been rejected form PSLF, writing on Twitter that “it’s time for @usedgov to cancel the debt of public service workers who have paid for 10+ years.”
Millions of Americans have enjoyed a reprieve from the squeeze of student debt during the pandemic. But, come fall, the student-debt crisis could pick up where it left off – or snowball into an even bigger problem.
The pause on student-loan payments and zero interest accrual that have been in place since March 2020 will lift at the end of September. When it does, borrowers will be paying 1% more in interest than they did in 2019. Although rates are still relatively low compared to previous years, Forbes reported that the new interest rates will cost borrowers as much as an additional $590 per $10,000 borrowed on a 10-year repayment term.
The impending lift on the payment pause, coupled with rising interest rates, doesn’t bode well for millions of borrowers, who have been able to stay financially afloat during the pandemic without the burden of paying off their student-loan debt. That’s especially true for millennials, for which student-loan debt has been one of many balls in a long-time juggling act of financial challenges.
Many have been hoping they wouldn’t have any student-loan debt at all come fall – or at least, a much lighter load.
Joe Biden campaigned on supporting $10,000 in student debt cancelation per person, but since becoming president, he’s given no clear timeline for doing so. He hasn’t included his campaign promise in his stimulus plan, infrastructure plan, or his budget, and has resisted calls from Democratic lawmakers to cancel up to $50,000 per person using his executive powers. While he released a regulatory agenda on Friday that plans to improve student-loan forgiveness programs by 2022, it’s not the immediate relief Democrats are looking for, and its details are vague.
And the generation has dealt with all of this while shouldering the lion’s share of student-loan debt. If Biden continues not to act on debt relief, the student-loan crisis has the potential to intensify, adding to the pile of millennial economic challenges.
Student debt has left a stain on millennials’ adulthood
Forty-three million borrowers currently share the $1.7 trillion of national student-loan debt. As of 2019, the 15.1 million borrowers ages 25 to 34 – a large chunk of the millennial population – owed an average of $33,000.
“I still haven’t been able to save enough to put a down payment on a house and commit to another 30-year loan,” Daniela Capparelli, who graduated with $150,000 debt, told Insider in the beginning of 2020, when she was 35. “I often feel like I already have a mortgage without the house.”
For the millennials who have found themselves at the bottom of the intragenerational millennial wealth gap that the pandemic has exacerbated, student debt is especially painful. This group was more likely to already have lower earnings pre-pandemic, and to burn through savings when hit by unemployment or pay cuts.
The pause in payments has been a temporary solution to the nation’s debt burden. Borrowers have saved $2,000 on average in interest during this time, per a report by travel research group Upgraded Points which also noted, “while those couple thousand dollars could have been imperative in keeping borrowers in the black during pandemic-related hardships, these borrowers are still far from climbing out of the holes they dug in college.”
When the pause lifts, it has the potential to leave struggling millennials feeling more slammed with student debt than before, after a year spent falling further financially behind on other areas.
Biden has canceled billions of student loans that are only 0.2% of the total
Now, Biden has taken some steps toward student-loan debt assistance. He extended the payment pause, which was set to end in January, through September 30. And, through the Department of Education, he cleared up billions of dollars in debt in just a few months for borrowers defrauded by for-profit schools and borrowers with disabilities.
But, as Insider’s Ayelet Sheffey reported, this still left trillions of outstanding debt. Alan Collinge, the founder of Student Loan Justice, told her that compared with the scale of the student-debt crisis, canceling debt for defrauded borrowers and borrowers with disabilities is “massively unimpressive.”
“We’re in a pandemic, and we’ve lost tens of millions of jobs,” he said. “The people who are hurt the worst tend to be the people who have student-loan debt.”
So far, $2.3 billion in student debt has been cancelled – only 0.2% of student loans swimming through the system.
In February, he effectively rejected a plan put forward by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer to wipe out $50,000 in student-loan debt per borrower.
“I will not make that happen,” he had said to a CNN town-hall audience, adding that he believed loan forgiveness depends on whether borrowers attended a private or public college. “I’m prepared to write off $10,000 in debt, but not 50. I don’t think I have the authority to do it.”
Both Democrats and cities have urged Biden to cancel $50,000 in student debt per borrower, arguing that it would provide immediate relief to borrowers if Biden used his executive authority to do so. But there’s a discrepancy among Biden and lawmakers on whether he can actually use his executive powers to cancel debt.
He told The Washington Post that it is “arguable” the president can use executive powers to cancel student debt, and he would be unlikely to do so. That means the status of the cancelation of a minimum of $10,000 of debt remains in Congress’ hands.
Student-loan forgiveness would be a ‘lifeline’ for millennials
Student-loan relief would benefit millions.
A Department of Education (DOE) analysis obtained by Yahoo Finance found that $50,000 in student-loan forgiveness per person would erase the entire debt for 84% of borrowers in the US with federal loans, while $10,000 in forgiveness would erase the entire debt for 35% of these borrowers.
That includes everyone from Gen Z to those over the age of 50. But millennials, facing one economic conundrum after another, have adopted new social norms to suit the times, hitting milestones like marriage and homeownership later than their parents, if they happen at all. The pandemic has created a whole new slew of crises for them that have exacerbated existing ones, student debt chief among them.
Student-loan forgiveness was a top priority for voters in the election. If Biden doesn’t fulfill his campaign promise to relieve $10,000 in student debt, he’d be leaving the generation, many of whom were banking on him to absolve at least a portion of their biggest burdens, screwed yet again.
“We need some help, and that forgiveness, for a lot of us, would just be a lifeline,” Alexander Cockerham, 38, who took out $42,000 in federal in private loans to attend school, previously told Insider.
But the resumption of student loan payments is drawing near, with little to no action in sight. In early April, Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, told Politico that the White House was “looking into” its legal authority to cancel $50,000 per person. Shortly afterward, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said that option wasn’t being ruled out.
An Education Dept. spokesperson told Insider that the agency remains “committed to delivering” targeted relief to borrowers and helping all of them manage repayment, and continues to closely review data related to return to repayment. It is also working with the Department of Justice and White House “as quickly as possible” to review all student debt cancellation options. (The White House did not respond to a request for comment).
While cancellation doesn’t exactly need to happen before the pause lifts, it would be even more beneficial to borrowers if it did, helping them lower the amount they would pay interest on or even preventing them from ever having to pay again altogether. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in May he has not ruled out further extending the pause, but, again, no action has been taken yet to do so.
If Biden fails to cancel student debt, he’s sacrificing opportunities to help narrow the racial wealth gap, assist low-income borrowers, and boost the economy. For millennials, specifically, it would just be the latest way they can’t catch a break.
As Education Secretary under President Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos was tasked with overseeing the loan forgiveness program for students defrauded by for-profit schools. But thousands of those students claim they didn’t get the relief they deserved and have sued DeVos for her mishandling of the program.
A judge just ruled that DeVos has to testify in court about it.
The Biden administration didn’t want this to happen. In February, it joined DeVos in fighting a subpoena to testify in the lawsuit filed by about 160,000 defrauded students, arguing it was an “extraordinary request.” But on Wednesday, Judge William Alsup wrote in a 12-page ruling that her testimony was warranted given the “sparse” documentation of DeVos’ reasoning for rejecting borrowers’ claims.
“Even assuming Secretary DeVos retains some measure of executive prerogative, she must answer an appropriately issued subpoena,” Alsup wrote in the ruling. “Judicial process runs even to unwilling executives.”
Over the past decade, several for-profit schools have shut down over investigations claiming the schools engaged in fraudulent behavior related to federal loans. Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institutes were two of the biggest schools accused of violating federal law by persuading their students to take out loans they could not pay back. They both shut down, as did other for-profit companies, such as Education Corporation of America.
DeVos, an heir to the AmWay fortune and member of one of America’s richest families, per Forbes, oversaw the “borrower defense to repayment” program to forgive debt for eligible defrauded borrowers, but the program massively failed. Compared to a 99.2% approval rate for claims filed under President Barack Obama, DeVos had a 99.4% denial rate for borrowers, and ran up a huge backlog of claims from eligible defrauded borrowers seeking student debt forgiveness.
Under DeVos, the program began to compare the median earnings of graduates with debt-relief claims to the median earnings of graduates in comparable programs, and the bigger the difference, the more relief the applicant would receive.
The high denial rate alarmed lawmakers, advocates, and borrowers who wanted student debt relief but weren’t getting any, and as Alsup said in his ruling, DeVos did not provide a sufficient explanation as to why so few claims were processed.
In March, Biden’s Education Secretary Miguel Cardona canceled $1 billion in student debt for about 72,000 defrauded borrowers and said in a statement that DeVos’ methodology for giving defrauded students debt relief had been ineffective and needed to be reversed.
“Borrowers deserve a simplified and fair path to relief when they have been harmed by their institution’s misconduct,” Cardona said in a statement. “A close review of these claims and the associated evidence showed these borrowers have been harmed and we will grant them a fresh start from their debt.”
Critics of DeVos’ appointment had argued that her financial ties were a conflict of interest, as she never sold her multimillion-dollar stake in Neurocore, a “brain training” program for children. She is also a longtime advocate of “school choice,” or vouchers that enable parents to send their children to private schools instead of public ones.
DeVos has separately asked the Georgia-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to block the subpoena. Alsup has scheduled a hearing for June 3.
President Joe Biden campaigned on reforming the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, which he – along with many lawmakers in past years – said is failing borrowers due to its low approval rate.
His campaign website said: “Biden will see to it that the existing Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is fixed, simplified, and actually helps teachers.”
On Wednesday, 56 Democratic lawmakers urged Biden to follow through on his promise.
Senate and House Democrats, led by Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, wrote a letter to Biden’s Education Secretary Miguel Cardona stressing the need to improve the PSLF program to give public servants the loan forgiveness they deserve.
The PSLF program allows government and nonprofit employees with federally backed student loans to apply for loan forgiveness after proof of 120 monthly payments under a qualifying repayment plan, but 98% of all borrowers from the general public have been rejected from the program.
“After the first round of forgiveness initially became available to PSLF borrowers more than three years ago, approval rates for the program have remained below 2.5%,” the letter said. “The program has been beset by numerous ‘donut holes’ that disqualify certain types of loans, repayment plans and the payments themselves, leading to extraordinary confusion and distrust of the PSLF program and, by extension, the federal government.”
The lawmakers urged Cardona to waive barriers in PSLF, including to:
Expand the definition of an “eligible loan” to include all federal student loans;
Make all repayment plans eligible for PSLF;
Waive the restriction that requires a borrower to be in public service at the time of loan forgiveness;
And establish data-sharing agreements with the Dept. of Defense and Office of Personnel management to automatically identify public service workers with outstanding student debt.
The letter also called for extensive communication from the Education Department to borrowers to ensure they are aware of any changes that might impact loan forgiveness.
This followed a a Government Accountability Office report that found that 287 Dept. of Defense personnel had received loan forgiveness as of January 2020, while 5,180, or 94% of DOD borrowers, were denied. Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a statement calling the findings, and PSLF, “nothing short of a disaster.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was sued multiple times over the program’s high denial rate.
Sarbanes said on Twitter: “We must ensure that America’s teachers, social workers, public defenders, service members and community health care workers – along with many other public servants – receive the student loan forgiveness they have earned.”
Since she was elected to the Senate almost a decade ago, Elizabeth Warren has been fighting to cancel student debt and hold loan servicers accountable. Now one of her closest allies is in charge of the federal student debt pile, and that could be a big deal.
Richard Cordray, the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), was selected to head the Education Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) on Monday. Few people in Washington DC are better placed to carry out Warren’s vision of mass student-debt relief. That’s because Cordray took the job Democrats wanted Warren to have.
When Warren was a Harvard professor (and occasional blogger), she frequently cited problems within the student-loan system and the need to create something like the CFPB, which would protect consumers financially and ensures they are being treated fairly. That turned into a new federal agency created under President Barack Obama, who wanted Warren to lead it, but in 2011, Senate Republicans blocked her appointment. She ran for Senate instead, becoming a national figure, while Cordray became a close ally as the first head of the CFPB.
During her time in the Senate, Warren worked with Cordray’s bureau to conduct investigations into predatory lending practices. Now as head of the FSA, Cordray will be tasked with overseeing the government’s $1.5 trillion student loan portfolio through disbursing loans and grants, along with monitoring student-loan servicers and implementing relief and repayment programs.
“@RichCordray was a fearless @CFPB leader who forced big financial institutions to return $12 billion to people they cheated,” Warren wrote on Twitter on Monday. “I’m very glad he’ll be protecting student borrowers and bringing much-needed accountability to the federal student loan program.”
What Cordray could do on student debt
In a statement after his appointment was announced, Cordray said he was looking forward to creating “more pathways for students to graduate and get ahead, not be burdened by insurmountable debt.”
He will be tasked with sorting through claims from thousands of defrauded borrowers who filed for debt relief, along with ensuring the smooth implementation of loan collections once the pause on student loan payments through September is lifted – although Cardona said on Monday that extending the payment pause is “not out of the question.“
While Cordray has not yet commented on wiping out $50,000 in student debt for each borrower, which Democrats continue to call for, he told MarketWatch last year that under the Biden administration, he expected the CFPB and the Education Department to work more closely on student-loan issues.
At the CFPB during the Obama years, Cordray made oversight of student loan servicers his priority. The agency has returned more than $75o million to student loan borrowers since 2011 over debt collection complaints, and in early 2017, the bureau sued Navient, the largest student loan servicer in the US, in a lawsuit that is still ongoing, arguing that Navient misled students into taking on loans they cannot pay off.
At a late April hearing, Warren called for the government to fire Navient, and for Navient to fire its chief executive officer, after accusing Navient for over a decade of abusing the student loan system.
In 2019, Cordray wrote a guest essay in The Plain Dealer, an Ohio newspaper, speaking out against for-profit colleges. “I hate how these hollowed-out businesses and subpar colleges are cheating consumers, employees and whole communities,” Cordray wrote.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has already canceled some debt for borrowers defrauded by for-profit schools, and Warren has conducted numerous investigations into the failures of the for-profits Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institutes.
The FSA head’s seat has been vacant since March, when Mark Brown, former head of the office appointed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in 2019, resigned amid pressure from labor groups and lawmakers. Warren wrote in a tweet that his resignation was “good for student borrowers.”
Cordray told Marketwatch in November that, as CFPB head, his approach with the Education Department had been one of “close cooperation” but “that was all nixed when Betsy DeVos came into office.” Speaking of the outlook for a Biden administration, he said he thought the CFPB and Education Department would likely go back to working closely together.
President Joe Biden extended the pause on student loan payments through September 30, and while the inclusion of the 0% interest rate on those payments provided financial relief, it didn’t add up to much for the average individual.
A report released on April 5 by Upgraded Points – a travel research group – found that since student-loan payments were originally paused under the CARES Act in March, the average interest saved per borrower was $2,001, and the national average for principal paused per borrower was $34,971. The state that saved the most interest overall was California at over $8 billion (10% of the national total), with New York slightly behind at $5.2 billion in interest saved.
The report noted that while national averages and total state savings were high, “on an individual borrower level, average borrowers only saved a couple thousand dollars in interest over the 12 months. While those couple thousand dollars could have been imperative in keeping borrowers in the black during pandemic-related hardships, these borrowers are still far from climbing out of the holes they dug in college. “
When the report analyzed the states that saved the most interest per 100,000 people, DC, Georgia, and Maryland were the top three locales, which results from a combination of small populations and high savings. On the other hand, the top three states with the lowest savings per 100,000 people were Wyoming, Utah, and Alaska because although those states have smaller populations, they also generally have lower principal debts and therefore fewer interest savings.
Here are the other main findings of the report:
The national total interest savings is about $82.7 billion;
Similar to most interest saved per 100,000 people, DC, Georgia, and Maryland saved the most interest per borrower, as well;
And North Dakota, Iowa, and Wyoming were the states that saved the least amount of interest per borrower.
While the payment pause and interest freeze have been instrumental in helping borrowers financially during the pandemic, the student debt crisis still looms far beyond the pandemic, with 45 million Americans holding $1.7 trillion in student debt.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is one of the leading lawmakers calling for student debt cancelation, and she said on Twitter on April 17 that borrowers need relief now.
“The whole student loan debt system is broken, and it’s placing a massive burden on tens of millions of people,” Warren said. “They need immediate relief. And we need big, structural change to make higher education within reach for every family.”
The American student-debt problem encompasses 45 million people with a combined $1.7 trillion of debt, and much of the burden falls on communities of color. Civil-rights organizations want President Joe Biden to change that by canceling $50,000 in student debt per person.
On Monday, 36 civil rights organizations, led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, released civil rights principles for student debt cancelation in an effort to encourage the Biden administration to act on racial, gender, disability, and wealth disparities in the country. They said these disparities have left borrowers “on the brink of financial devastation” simply because they sought a higher education, and the only solution is to cancel $50,000 in student debt per person.
“As we navigate the concurrent crises of systemic racism, a global health pandemic, and the resulting economic recession, it is more important than ever that we take bold action that benefits everyone, especially communities of color,” the organizations said. “Student debt cancellation will help Black and brown borrowers build wealth and enable our economy to move forward as millions of Americans are able to start families, buy homes, and set up small businesses.”
The letter, which was signed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), outlined five principles that student debt cancelation should abide by:
Debt cancelation must extend to all borrowers, including those with private loans.
Debt cancelation should extend to all sectors of institutions, including public, private, and for-profit schools.
The debt cancelation process must be easy to navigate – if it’s too difficult, many borrowers will not be able to access relief.
Debt cancelation should not negatively impact borrowers’ credit scores.
Debt cancelation should come with policies to increase access and affordability in the US higher education system.
The letter noted that upon graduation, Black borrowers typically owe 50% more than white borrowers, and four years later, Black borrowers owe 100% more. Canceling $50,000 per borrower would eliminate student debt for 75% of all federal borrowers, including full cancelation for 85% of Black borrowers and 96% of Latino borrowers in the lowest income quintile.
Biden’s Education Department has already taken some steps to cancel student debt for certain groups of borrowers. On March 18, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona canceled $1 billion in student debt for about 72,000 borrowers defrauded by for-profit schools, and on March 29, Cardona canceled student debt for 41,000 borrowers with disabilities.
And to build on Biden’s payment pause on all federal student-loan payments through September, on March 30, Cardona expanded the pause to borrowers with loans under the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program, helping 1.14 million borrowers with private loans.
Nearly 45 million people in the US have outstanding student-loan debt. That adds up to a $1.7 trillion problem.
President Joe Biden, who promised during his campaign to immediately tackle the crisis, has moved to do so via the Department of Education, clearing billions of dollars in debt in just a few months.
Biden’s education secretary, Miguel Cardona, has canceled debt for about 72,000 borrowers defrauded by for-profit schools – about $1 billion worth – and moved to shake up how defrauded students go about loan forgiveness.
Cardona also waived a paperwork requirement to relieve loans for borrowers with disabilities. This affected 230,000 borrowers and canceled debt for 41,000 of them, providing $1.3 billion in student-loan relief.
But Biden hasn’t taken the actions he promised as a presidential candidate, which include canceling $10,000 in student debt per person. And while Cardona’s $2.3 billion in cumulative relief over three months might seem impressive, it comes to less than 0.2% of the outstanding student loans swimming through the system.
Finally, even if you qualify for debt relief, there’s no guarantee you’ll get it. Insider talked to borrowers directly affected by Cardona’s actions, and they’re not out of the woods yet. Experts say the student-debt crisis isn’t close to being seriously tackled.
The Education Department did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.
Defrauded borrowers still can’t get relief
After about five years of waiting, Alexander Cockerham was approved for student-loan forgiveness.
From 2007 to 2009, Cockerham, now 38, attended the for-profit ITT Technical Institute, where he got an associate’s degree. In 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission sued ITT, accusing it of deceiving investors about late-payment rates and student-loan defaults, and the federal government cut off its access to federal loans and grants. The institution shut down shortly afterward.
Cockerham told Insider that he took out about $42,000 in private and federal loans to attend the school. He’s paid off his private loans but still has about $26,000 in federal loans outstanding.
So he applied for student-loan forgiveness in late 2015 through the Department of Education’s “borrower defense to loan repayment” program. Cockerham got his verdict in 2020.
“I was told I was approved for student-loan forgiveness but at only at a certain rate, because they said they felt that I did receive some benefit from my education there and that I wasn’t completely defrauded,” he said.
His forgiveness rate was 0%. “So absolutely nothing was forgiven at all,” he said.
In September, 48 state attorneys general and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau secured more than $330 million in private student-loan forgiveness for 35,000 former ITT Tech students.
If the full amount of his federal loans were relieved, Cockerham said, he’d try to finally buy a house. He’s been married for nearly a decade and just had his first child. He said he’d tried looking at homes in the past, “but that student-loan debt just hung heavy over my head.” It turned away financial servicers, who told him he needed to pay down more debt.
How the government can decide on a 0% forgiveness rate
The Trump administration would compare a defrauded borrower’s income level to that of people in similar programs, alongside other factors, to determine how much of the loan to discharge. Betsy Mayotte, the president and founder of the Institute of Student Loan Advisors, said that led to some people being approved for the program but having 0% of their loans discharged, just like what happened to Cockerham.
Mayotte told Insider that the Trump administration “was very much opposed to the whole idea of borrower defense in the first place.” She said she’d worked with people who’ve been waiting three or four years for their applications to even be processed.
“To tell somebody, ‘Yup, we agree, you were defrauded by your school, and you still have to repay all of your debt’ is insane,” she said. “I mean, there’s no other industry where they do that.”
She said the recent action from the Biden administration made her “so happy,” as it would be going back and discharging the full amount of partial discharges. People who are still pending won’t be affected though, Mayotte said.
Cockerham, who might be affected by this latest discharge, said: “I’ve only seen what I’ve heard in the news. I haven’t heard anything from the newest secretary of [education] or the Biden administration.”
‘I wish that they would have someone that would go over this a little more in depth’
Joshua Kronemeyer, 27, still has student debt from spending a semester and a half at the Art Institute of Phoenix at 16 years old.
Just getting relief from those loans – racked up at a now defunct for-profit member of the Art Institutes – would cut his student-loan debt by a fifth, he told Insider.
“Honestly, I wish that they would have someone that would go over this a little more in depth, as far as the hole you’re digging yourself,” Kronemeyer said.
Kronemeyer may be eligible to get his loans discharged; some former Art Institute students are eligible to get their loans canceled as the result of a lawsuit against the for-profit school and the Education Department. That suit argued that the department had illegally provided loans to Art Institute schools that weren’t accredited at the time, so borrowers shouldn’t have to pay them back.
Kronemeyer said that he was planning to look into debt relief soon but that he anticipated his application would be denied the first time around, since he’d heard of that happening to others in the same position.
Borrowers with disabilities who are eligible for relief struggle to access it
Cardona’s action to relieve the burden for borrowers with disabilities shook up a three-year monitoring program in which borrowers had to submit income information every year to show that they didn’t exceed a certain threshold.
Laura Speake, 26, might qualify for the program. They told Insider that they had about $30,000 in debt in both federal and private loans. They left college after three years but hope to return and finish a degree. She hopes to someday go to grad school and work in the book industry, perhaps as a small-town librarian.
But she has a concern with getting the loans discharged under the program: It’s a disincentive for continuing education.
The Federal Student Aid website says that “if you are approved for TPD discharge based on SSA documentation or a physician’s certification, and you request a new Direct Loan, Perkins Loan, or TEACH Grant during your 3-year post-discharge monitoring period, you must resume repayment on the previously discharged loans.”
“I’m not lazy. I’m not looking for an easy way out,” Speake said. “You know, I want to work. I want to learn. I want to make a difference in the world. I want to do my part. I want to pull my weight.”
Experts told Insider that while Cardona’s action on the program was worthwhile, it shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place.
Bethany Lilly, the director of income policy at The Arc, an organization advocating for people with disabilities, told Insider that the Social Security Administration already has information verifying people’s incomes, so there’s no reason the Education Department should have required that information.
The department has “some very confusing and illogical standards that really hurt the beneficiaries,” Lilly said.
To improve the process for forgiving student debt for borrowers with disabilities, Lilly said, the department should make it “as automatic as possible” and work with the SSA to permanently remove the requirement to provide income documentation.
Persis Yu, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center and the director of its Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project, told Insider that Cardona was correcting something that shouldn’t have occurred in the first place.
“I think it’s disappointing that when the suspension period was put in place in the first place that these borrowers weren’t captured,” Yu said, referring to the 41,000 borrowers who had missed their paperwork. “I’m not sure how that happened, but it seems pretty obvious in retrospect, right?”
Yu also said that the design of the program was flawed from the start. “The monitoring period itself is a huge problem and a huge barrier for people with disabilities that qualify for the program actually accessing the program,” she said. “So that is certainly again exacerbated by the pandemic, as so many things have been. But it is in itself just a feature that doesn’t work.”
A ‘massively unimpressive’ amount of canceled debt
Alan Collinge, the founder of Student Loan Justice, told Insider that compared with the scale of the student-debt crisis, canceling debt for defrauded borrowers and borrowers with disabilities is “massively unimpressive.”
“We’re in a pandemic, and we’ve lost tens of millions of jobs,” Collinge said. “The people who are hurt the worst tend to be the people who have student-loan debt.”
Democratic lawmakers have been keeping the pressure on Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt per person. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who campaigned on the $50,000 figure, said in a press call last month that executive action was the quickest way to get it done.
Insider polling from February asked how much debt respondents would want canceled. The most popular option among the 1,154 respondents wasn’t Biden’s $10,000 proposal (19% supported that amount) or Warren’s $50,000 (13%), or no forgiveness at all (22%) – a quarter of the respondents said they supported forgiving all student loans.
As for Cockerham, he’s working in a job he landed while attending community college to study computer science, a program he turned to after his ITT degree didn’t bring him any job offers. His unpaid loans are still on his portal at Navient, the private entity the government has hired to manage some federally backed loans.
“We’re hard-working Americans, like everyone else. We were taken advantage of. And we feel that what was done to us was just completely unfair,” he said. “We need some help, and that forgiveness, for a lot of us, would just be a lifeline.”
On Tuesday, when Warren, as the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Economic Policy, held her first hearing on student-debt relief, she invited Navient CEO John Remondi.
Citing a decade of allegations of abusive and misleading practices, she said, “The federal government should absolutely fire Navient, and because this happened under your leadership, Navient should fire you.”