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Federal student loan forbearance ends Jan. 31. By then, most borrowers will not have made a payment in nearly two years.
But their debt is still waiting for them, and so are several outstanding questions:
Is forgiveness still on the table?
What about everything else President Biden promised?
What if I can’t make my payments once they resume?
By February, most federal student loan borrowers will not have had their loans forgiven; rather, they will resume making monthly payments on their outstanding balance. But some borrowers could see targeted relief come their way, and other elements promised in Biden’s campaign platform are included in ongoing budget negotiations. Here’s where things currently stand.
Whose debt has been forgiven?
Since Biden took office in January, the administration has extended targeted relief to specific student loan borrowers rather than broad forgiveness for all. The total amount of loan discharges approved since January reached $9.5 billion as of August, affecting more than 563,000 borrowers, the Department of Education says.
Forgiveness so far has come through changes to rules, including:
$1.5 billion in relief with borrower defense debt cancellation, including through full relief for approved claims and expanded eligibility.
Loan discharges totaling $7.1 billion for 364,000 individuals who qualify as disabled. Data-matching against Social Security and Veterans Affairs data will automatically qualify future recipients.
Interest waived retroactively for 47,000 current and former active-duty service members who faced “imminent danger or hostile fire pay” for the period while they served. Data-matching will automatically qualify future service members for this benefit.
And while no loans were discharged for borrowers who are working toward forgiveness through existing payment programs, the 22 payments they miss during forbearance count toward the total needed to qualify. Public Service Loan Forgiveness, or PSLF, for example, requires 120 on-time payments while borrowers work in a qualifying job before the remaining balance is discharged.
Broad forgiveness is in limbo
Although Biden has voiced support for broad student loan forgiveness, he has not yet offered a specific proposal or amount. Depending upon pending legal interpretation, Biden could use executive authority to cancel debt or ask that Congress pass a bill doing so.
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.
"I expect that any forgiveness issued by Biden, if any, will not be unilateral amongst all student loan borrowers," Jan Miller, president of Miller Student Loan Consulting, said in an email. "The only way broad forgiveness for all is happening is if Biden makes it happen via executive order, [but] ... Biden hasn't been very keen on forgiveness from the start, so I suspect the chances are low."
No provision in Biden’s 2022 budget proposal included broad student loan forgiveness, lessening the odds it will become reality. 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 references a phaseout of this benefit but does not offer further details.
Other campaign promises are more likely
Biden’s 2022 budget proposal does integrate some plans introduced during his campaign, providing relief for current and future students and borrowers, but would have to pass both houses of Congress to become law. They include:
Pell grant increases: The budget proposes raising the Pell Grant maximum by $400 along with a $1,475 increase in the American Families Plan. The request, if approved, also would enable Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, recipients to receive Pell Grants.
Free, or lowered, tuition at some colleges: Tuition and fees toward a degree or certificate would be free for two years at a community college. And 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.
Revised income-driven repayment and public service loan forgiveness: Biden didn’t specify in the budget proposal how IDR and PSLF should be revised, but did lay out more specifics during the campaign. He 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.
Additionally, 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.
A group of senators, in a letter sent to Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, outlined a tapered modification of IDR and a more limited expansion of PSLF, suggesting Biden’s plans for these programs may face roadblocks.
What borrowers should do now
The ongoing forbearance period ends Jan 31. Borrowers with federal student loans should begin making plans soon to ensure they’re prepared for when payments restart in February.
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 Feb. 1, start setting aside your monthly student loan payment now to see if you can work it into your budget.
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 Feb. 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 Feb. 1, once your payments do resume, you’ll be ready with a payment plan that works for your income.
Borrowers with questions about their loans or those in special circumstances should contact their servicer prior to Feb. 1 to ensure a smooth restart to payments.