Will Student Loans Be Canceled? Where We Stand

Student debt cancellation appears to be a likelier possibility than ever for certain borrowers.
Joe Biden’s Student Loan Plan: What It Could Mean for You

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Student debt cancellation is the big question mark on the minds of federal student loan borrowers since President Joe Biden promised to forgive $10,000 per borrower while on the campaign trail.

Although Biden has voiced support for broad student loan forgiveness, since becoming president he has yet to offer a specific proposal or amount. Biden could ask that Congress pass a bill to cancel debt or, pending legal interpretation, use executive authority to do so.

The White House has dropped a number of hints about its plans but offered no timetable for an announcement other than "the next few weeks."

What Biden has done for borrowers so far

The White House has extended the broad, zero-interest pause on loan payments begun under President Donald Trump. Federal student loan forbearance now is expected to end Aug. 31.

By then, most borrowers will not have made a payment in over two years. But when payments restart, most federal student loan borrowers will resume making monthly payments on the same outstanding balance they had when the pandemic began unless the White House cancels some of that debt.

The Department of Education also has revised existing loan forgiveness programs and estimates that $18.5 billion in loans has been canceled for more than 725,000 borrowers since the beginning of Biden's term.

The White House also has announced plans to wipe the slate clean for more than 7 million borrowers who have defaulted on their student loans, which brings severe consequences including possible seizure of tax refunds and Social Security checks and long-lasting impacts on credit.

As the debate on student loan forgiveness continues, borrowers should not assume that student loans will not be canceled in full.

Where Biden stands on debt cancellation

Members of Congress have urged Biden to cancel $50,000 in debt per borrower. But the president has reiterated that if he used his authority for broad loan forgiveness, it would not be for more than $10,000 per borrower.

At a news conference on April 28, he said: "I am considering dealing with some debt reduction; I am not considering $50,000 in debt reduction. But I'm in the process of taking a hard look of whether or not there will be additional debt forgiveness, and I'll have an answer on that in the next couple of weeks."

During a news conference on May 3, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said Biden was considering relief for borrowers making less than $125,000 a year, confirming speculation that any debt cancellation would likely be targeted.

No provision in Biden’s 2022 budget proposal included broad student loan forgiveness. He had proposed forgiveness in the following instances during his presidential campaign:

  • If you attended a public college or university. Attendees of private historically Black colleges and universities and additional minority-serving institutions would also be eligible.

  • If you used the loans for undergraduate tuition.

  • If you earn less than $125,000. Biden’s plan referenced a phaseout of this benefit but did not offer further details.

Since there is no formal forgiveness proposal, there are no details about which loans might be canceled.

Popular arguments for student debt cancellation

  • Student debt has caused borrowers to delay their lives. From starting businesses and buying homes to getting married and having children, student debt is preventing borrowers from making significant financial decisions, proponents of debt cancellation say.

  • Not all borrowers have degrees that boost earnings. Those with debt and no degree are four times as likely to default compared to those with a degree, according to  Brookings. About 41.8% of those who entered college in 2011-12 took on student loans, National Center for Education Statistics data shows. But six years later, only 59% had completed their bachelor’s degree. Borrowers without degrees don’t benefit from the increase in lifetime earnings that tend to correlate with college completion.

  • Student debt cancellation could reduce the racial wealth gap. Proponents point to data that shows a lack of generational wealth drives many Black and Hispanic families to lean more heavily on student loans to afford college. The inequities continue after graduation: Black and Hispanic graduates typically earn less than other graduates and are thus more likely to default on their loans.

Popular arguments against student debt cancellation

  • Student debt cancellation is inherently unfair. Critics argue those who didn’t go to college or those who already paid off their student loans would not benefit from student debt cancellation. Critics say cancellation would benefit only the 13% of the population who attend college, and argue cancellation is unnecessary because those with college educations tend to earn more.

  • Broad student debt cancellation is regressive. Research from a January 2022 Brookings Institution study argues cancellation would disproportionately benefit wealthy student loan borrowers — those with the highest amounts of debt typically have attended graduate school. Holding an advanced degree tends to correlate with higher earnings.

  • One-time cancellation doesn’t solve tomorrow’s student debt problem. If all student debt were eliminated, overall debt would return to the current level by 2035, according to July 2021 estimates by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a right-center public policy organization. If $10,000 in debt per borrower were eliminated, overall debt would rise to current levels by 2025.

How student debt cancellation could impact borrowers

Broad student loan forgiveness could affect 45.7 million borrowers with federal student loan debt who owe a total of $1.61 trillion to the government. Wiping out $10,000 each — as Biden called for while campaigning — would result in up to $457 billion canceled.

Here’s how that could affect borrowers based on their total debt owed:

For 15.2 million borrowers, a slate wiped clean. Nearly a third of federal borrowers could see their balances fall to zero with $10,000 in debt cancellation. Among those, 7.8 million owe less than $5,000 in student loans and 7.4 million owe between $5,000 and $10,000, according to federal data.

Of borrowers who default, over half (52%) have less than $10,000 of federal undergraduate debt, according to a June 2019 analysis of federal data by The Institute for College Access and Success.That’s because those with lower debt amounts often have not completed their schooling, so they don’t reap the benefits of a degree that leads to a better paying job. TICAS found that 49% of those who default did not complete their program of study..

For 18.9 million borrowers, some breathing room. Nearly 19 million borrowers owe between $10,000 and $40,000 in federal student loans, according to federal data. Without a detailed execution plan, these borrowers face a number of possible outcomes from broad student loan forgiveness. For example, cancellation might not reduce the amount they pay each month, but it could draw their end date closer and lower the total amount they’d pay overall, due to interest. Or it might wipe out one loan completely but leave payments on others intact.

For 11.6 million borrowers, a drop in the bucket. Households with high student debt are likely to hold advanced degrees and often have higher earnings. More than 8 million people owe the government between $40,000 and $100,000 in student loans. An additional 3.3 million borrowers owe more than $100,000 on their federal loans, data show. A borrower repaying $100,000 on the standard federal 10-year plan at 5% interest would pay off the loans 15 months early if $10,000 were forgiven.

Other plans we’re watching: financial aid, student debt

Policy proposals in the works

Pell Grant increases

The 2022 federal budget raises the Pell Grant maximum by $400, bringing the annual limit to $6,895 for the 2022-23 academic year.

Free or lowered tuition at some colleges

Under this campaign proposal from Biden, college would become more affordable for students at private and public historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, and additional minority-serving institutions, or MSIs. Biden also called for free tuition and fees toward a degree or certificate for two years at a community college, but that proposal is no longer included in the spending plan approved by the House in November and that now awaits a Senate vote.

Revised income-driven repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness

While campaigning, Biden proposed limiting IDR plans to just undergraduate loans, capping payments at 5% of income, not taxing the forgiven loan amount and automatically enrolling every federal student loan borrower in an IDR plan.

A new PSLF

Biden campaigned on a plan for a new student loan forgiveness program for borrowers who provide a public service. Under this proposal, up to $50,000 could be forgiven; $10,000 of your debt would be automatically canceled for each year you perform eligible service, for up to five years total. It would not replace PSLF.

Waived student loan interest

A group of Democratic senators called on Biden to waive interest on federal student loans through the duration of the pandemic. Interest has been paused during the current forbearance, which is saving borrowers an additional $5 billion per month, according to a letter sent by the group of senators to Biden on Dec. 6.

More cost and performance transparency from colleges

The College Transparency Act builds on the current data available from the College Scorecard. It would establish a data system that provides information about college student enrollment, progression, completion and postgraduate outcomes, along with higher education costs and financial aid.

Bankruptcy reform

Recent court rulings suggest some of the strict standards for getting student loans discharged in bankruptcy could be easing. Student loan discharge through bankruptcy is challenging because borrowers must prove their debt proves an “undue hardship” (known as the “Brunner test”). Sometimes private student loan borrowers are successful, but it almost never happens for federal student loan borrowers.

The Department of Education in February announced it would withdraw its appeal of a bankruptcy decision that would discharge $100,000 in student loans for a man whose medical condition made it difficult for him to hold down a job to repay his debt. The department has also indicated it is reviewing bankruptcy standards.

What else is on the way

A second chance at PSLF

There’s also a Public Service Loan Forgiveness limited waiver available through Oct. 31 that would cut through some of the red tape — at least for the next year — that led to high denial rates for loan forgiveness under the program.

Under the limited waiver, a broader set of loan types and repayment plans will be eligible for PSLF including past payments on FFEL or Perkins loans, late payments and payments made on previously non-qualifying repayment plans. Additionally, members of the military with federal student loans will also have any time spent in active duty count toward PSLF, regardless of whether payments were made during that time.

Borrowers must consolidate their loans into a direct loan and submit a PSLF form before Oct. 31 to benefit from the limited waiver.

As a result of the limited waiver, the Education Department estimates that 22,000 borrowers will automatically become eligible to have their loans discharged, and another 27,000 could as well if they certify their employment history. Overall, this could result in over $4.5 billion of loan forgiveness.

On Feb. 18, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said it would be stepping up its oversight of how servicers are implementing the waiver. The bureau said it had found "servicers made deceptive statements to borrowers about their ability to become eligible for PSLF." If you are having difficulty receiving the help you need from your servicer, you can make a complaint to the CFPB.

Reconsideration for PSLF applications

Beginning April 2022, borrowers whose applications were rejected for PSLF and Temporary Expanded PSLF can request a reconsideration online at studentaid.gov. Anyone who thinks their application should be reconsidered can submit a request.

You'll be able to submit one or more reconsideration requests of your application to certify employment or payment determinations. You won't need to provide more documentation with your request, but you might have to provide more information following its review. There was no deadline provided.

You still must meet payment and employment requirements under the law, which includes the current waiver that would count previously ineligible payments.

To figure out if you need a reconsideration of your employer, you can use the PSLF Help Tool. If your employer isn’t eligible, consider supplying documentation as to why the not-for-profit organization you work for should qualify.

Federal Student Aid did not indicate how long it would take to review each submission. Make sure your studentaid.gov account has the most up-to-date contact information so you can receive correspondence. More information about reconsideration of payment counts and employer qualifications are available on the student aid site.

Streamlined student loan services

Biden issued an executive order on Dec. 13 instructing multiple government agencies, including the Department of Education, to make updates to improve the delivery of government services. Details are still emerging, but borrowers can expect these changes:

  • A single repayment portal. Student loan borrowers with direct loans will be able to use one site to apply for, manage and repay their loans: studentaid.gov. Anyone who applies for federal student aid, including loans, has an FSA ID to log in to their account. Servicers are still managing loans, but borrowers can now make payments on the studentaid.gov site.

  • A streamlined Public Service Loan Forgiveness application. Federal student loan borrowers who are eligible for loan forgiveness can apply for the program with less paperwork or without having to fill out forms with information they already completed in the past. Details on what this streamlined application process might look like are as yet unclear.

  • Recommendations for other benefits and services. Students and student loan borrowers can receive relevant information about benefits and support services they may qualify for, such as subsidies for health care, broadband internet service support and food assistance. It's unclear how these recommendations will be delivered.

Student loan servicer changes

Shifts are happening among student loan servicers, the private companies that manage federal student loans. Federal student loan servicers like Navient, GSMR and Cornerstone have left the space, while FedLoan is ending its contract in December 2022. That means your loans could change hands. Multiple loan servicers will be taking on the FedLoan portfolio including MOHELA, Aidvantage (formerly Navient), Edfinancial and Nelnet. But only MOHELA will be managing the PSLF program.

If you’re not sure who your loan servicer is, log in to studentaid.gov and find out. You can also get in touch with all of the loan servicer contact centers by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID.

Payments restart Sept. 1

The ongoing forbearance period ends after Aug. 31. Borrowers with federal student loans should begin making plans soon to ensure they’re prepared for when payments restart in September.

If you have been paying your loans through the forbearance period, there is no reason to stop now unless your financial situation changes. And if you haven’t been paying since forbearance began but can afford to restart, consider resuming payments now to save money on interest and help pay off your loans faster.

For those who owed interest at the beginning of the forbearance period, that interest will capitalize, or be added to what is owed on the loans, when the pause ends. But any payments made prior to then will first go toward accrued interest rather than your principal, so paying the accrued interest off now can save you money on interest later on.

If you’re unsure whether you’ll be able to afford your student loan payments come Sept. 1, start setting aside your monthly student loan payment now to see if you can work it into your budget.

All collections activities through the Treasury offset program on federal student loans in default are suspended until after the payment pause ends, which includes the withholding of 2021 tax refunds, the child tax credit or Social Security benefits.

If you’re having trouble setting your payment aside or know you’ll have trouble paying your loans when payments restart, contact your servicer ahead of Sept. 1 to discuss income-driven repayment plans.

An IDR plan will limit payments to a portion of your income and will extend your payment term. By contacting your servicer prior to Sept. 1, once your payments do resume, you’ll be ready with a payment plan that works for your income.

Through Feb. 28, 2023, you can temporarily self-report income when applying for or recertifying an income-driven repayment plan, according to the Education Department. That means you don't have to submit tax documentation when you submit an IDR application online. The Student Loan Servicing Alliance confirmed in December that borrowers may also self-certify by phone.

Borrowers with questions about their loans or those in special circumstances should contact their servicer prior to September to ensure a smooth restart to payments.

A fresh start for student loan borrowers in default

When student loan payments restart, all federal loan borrowers with loans in delinquency or default will get a “fresh start,” the education department announced April 6 as part of the pause extension. That means these borrowers will once again have access to income-driven repayment plans, Public Service Loan Forgiveness and will no longer face collections fees and other consequences of default.

Nearly 8 million borrowers with defaulted loans are set to re-enter repayment in good standing, but it’s unclear as to how the department plans to help keep borrowers from defaulting again. Default happens after 270 days without payment on a federal student loan.

Some key details have yet to be released, including:

• Whether payment would automatically reset to the previous amount. • How erasure of defaults will be reflected on credit reports. • When the affected borrowers’ first payment is due.

Income-driven repayment fixes

Millions of borrowers are expected to benefit from one-time fixes that count past payments toward the 240 or 300 needed to qualify for income driven repayment forgiveness, the Department of Education announced on April 19. The fixes are also expected to cancel debt for at least 40,000 borrowers through Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

In 2023, federal student aid will also start displaying income-driven repayment payment counts on StudentAid.gov when borrowers log into their accounts. And the federal student aid office plans to allow more loan statuses, such as deferments and forbearances, to count toward income-driven repayment forgiveness moving forward. It’s unclear when those changes will go into effect or which loan statuses will be included.

Keep track of these dates

June 30: Deadline for the 2021-22 FAFSA.

July 1: New interest rates go into effect on federal student loans for the 2022-23 school year.

Aug. 31: Expiration date for the federal student loan payment pause. Most borrowers will need to confirm their auto-debit status in order to stay on auto-debit after Aug. 31, 2022.

Sept. 1: Delinquent and defaulted student loan borrowers will be brought back to good standing.

Oct. 1: Opening date for 2023-24 FAFSA.

Oct. 31: Expiration date for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness waiver.

December 2022: FedLoan Servicing will no longer service federal student loans. If FedLoan is your servicer, your loans will be transferred to a different servicer.

Feb. 28, 2023: Last day to self-certify income for income-driven repayment. To self-report, complete the IDR application, but in Step 2 (income information) select, “I’ll report my own income information.”

March 1, 2023: 

  • Unpaid interest will not capitalize during the payment pause and through March 1, 2023. If your grace period ends between March 13, 2020 and March 1, 2023, your interest will not be added to your balance.

  • Earliest month borrowers would need to recertify for income-driven repayment. If your account still shows your recertification date set before March 2023, it will be pushed out by one year.

June 30, 2023: Deadline for the 2022-23 FAFSA.

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