Is $20K Student Debt Forgiveness Still Going to Happen?

The Biden administration extended forbearance into 2023 as cancellation remains tied up in the courts.
Trea Branch
Eliza Haverstock
Cecilia Clark
By Cecilia Clark,  Eliza Haverstock and  Trea Branch 
Edited by Des Toups

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No one knows for sure when — or if — student loan forgiveness is coming.

As of now, you should plan for federal student loans payments to resume sometime in 2023, especially if you were counting on President Biden's one-time relief plan to erase your balance entirely.

Why? Several lawsuits have frozen the up-to-$20,000 student debt cancellation plan. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for the lawsuits on Feb. 28, with a final decision on the program expected in the following months.

Borrowers already approved for the debt forgiveness received emails from the Department on Nov. 19, 2022 — but were informed no relief would come yet.

"We believe strongly that the lawsuits are meritless, and the Department of Justice has appealed on our behalf. Your application is complete and approved, and we will discharge your approved debt if and when we prevail in court," wrote Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

Will student loan forbearance be extended?

Yes. In November 2022, the Biden administration extended the pause on federal student loans payments into 2023. It marked the eighth extension.

Unless the president orders forbearance to be extended once more, the repayment clock starts again 60 days after the Education Department is allowed to implement the program or the Supreme Court makes a final decision, or 60 days after June 30, 2023 — whichever comes first. Loans will resume accruing interest, and missed payments eventually will leave a big dent on your credit history.

Are the lawsuits likely to succeed?

We don’t know. It’s unclear if any of the lawsuits to stop student loan cancellation will be successful in the end.

However, the two lawsuits that are most challenging have led to a complete halt of the program. In one case, a judge deemed the plan unlawful; in another, a court of appeals left an injunction in place, preventing any debt relief while the case moves through the system. The Supreme Court will hear both cases in February.

Borrowers should make plans based on the current situation, says Scott Buchanan, executive director of the Student Loan Servicing Alliance, which represents the companies that handle federal student loan accounts. That is: Student loan cancellation is blocked, and payments restart in 2023, sometime.

“You have these big programs and big decisions using authority that is untested in courts,” Buchanan says. “That can cause a lot of delays or this could mean it doesn’t happen.”

That stings for those watching from the sidelines.

“It makes me incredibly frustrated,” says Dave Christensen, a Wisconsin borrower who repaid his loans during the pandemic and is awaiting a refund he worries he might have to repay with interest. “We tend to drag things out for so long trying to become victorious for our agenda and our policies, we lose track of how this actually affects people.”

Can I still apply for debt cancellation anyway?

No. For now, the Department of Education has shut down new applications for relief until lawsuits play out. The White House says 26 million borrowers have applied, with 16 million already processed and ready to roll. It informed approved applicants via email, though the relief is still on hold.

Under current guidelines, you must apply by Dec. 31, 2023.

Was I mistakenly approved?

Not everyone who got an approval email from the Department of Education has actually been cleared for the debt relief.

Nine million borrowers received the email in error, the department said on Dec. 7, 2022. Those affected received a correction email in the following days. Accenture Federal Services, a government consultancy, accidentally sent the extra emails on behalf of the Education Department. These nine million people are not included in the pool of 16 million people who were accurately approved.

“Communicating clearly and accurately with borrowers is a top priority of the [Education] Department," a spokesperson said.

Will I have to return my refunded payments?

Yes, but not all at once. If you sought a refund for payments made during the pandemic, your new payment amount when they resume will reflect a larger balance, which will include the refund.

If you have not sought a refund, it might be best to wait until the debt cancellation lawsuits play out. If cancellation still happens and you paid your loan balance down below the amount of cancellation you qualify for, your refund will be automatic.

If you still want to put in a manual refund request, you have until the end of 2023 to do so.

What if I cannot afford to make payments?

Take action now, urges Dwayne Kwaysee Wright, a professor of higher education administration at George Washington University.

“It's going to take a while,” Wright says. “Take a day, take a lunch break, maybe take an extra hour, call your loan provider right now.” He says borrowers should be clear on the size of upcoming payments once forbearance ends and ask their servicers about options that could lower those monthly bills.

An income-driven repayment plan caps your payments at a certain portion of your total income, potentially lowering your monthly bills while extending the loan period. Payments can be as low as $0. The Education Department aims to roll out a revised IDR plan with more generous terms by the end of 2023.

If you’re already enrolled in an IDR plan, you won't have to recertify your income before July 2023.

If you’ve lost your job, an unemployment deferment can let you skip payments altogether until you start earning again.

What happens to the other parts of debt relief?

“The administration is fighting on a whole bunch of other fronts,” says Mike Pierce, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center. “None of that policy is directly affected by any of these losses.” Those policies include:

  • Changes to loan forgiveness programs that greatly streamline the process for borrowers in public service, teachers whose schools were closed, and those whose schools defrauded or misled them.

  • An income-driven repayment waiver that broadens which past payments — including partial or late payments, or time spent in certain types of forbearance or deferral — count toward the 240 to 300 needed for forgiveness.

  • A “Fresh Start” program to allow borrowers with defaulted loans the opportunity to resume repayment in good standing, without penalties and catch-up payments.

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