Coronavirus Is Raging. Student Loan Bills Haven't Gone Away.

William Bredderman
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The deluge of COVID-19-fueled layoffs and furloughs across the United States has threatened to deepen the financial hole millions of Americans with student loan debt find themselves in.

But the federal government hasn’t been totally idle on the issue. The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARE) Act provided forbearance with zero interest from March 13 through Sept. 30—and stayed collections lawsuits. These measures mean eligible borrowers won’t have to worry about making payments, and payments should soon (by April 10) halt automatically. Borrowers can also turn off auto-pay in the meantime, and request a refund of any installment paid March 13 or later.

Problem is, only one class of borrowers is eligible: those who owe money directly to the federal Department of Education. Experts said the most fundamental move student loan debtors should make during this cascading national pandemic is to figure out if the relief program applies to them. 

"The first thing you need to do is make sure you understand the kind of loan you have and what the status of that loan is,” said attorney Jay Fleischman, who hosts a podcast on educational debt at StudentLoanShow.com. "The whole situation is as clear as molasses, and that's the problem. That's always been the problem.”

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Fleischman advised concerned borrowers who know they have received some kind of federally backed loan to log in to StudentAid.gov, where they can see what type of program they participated in and what entity they need to repay. If the student took the loan out directly from the federal government, or the account has reverted to the Department of Education because of default by the student, then they are automatically enrolled in the CARES Act relief program.

But the legislation did not create any reprieve for the millions who received a government-backed Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) from a private lender, or a Perkins Loan through their learning institution. Participants in these programs have a collective outstanding balance of $263.1 billion, a relatively small slice of the $1.6 trillion-plus national student-debt pie. Still, they represent millions of individual borrowers.

Those folks have options, too, albeit less appealing ones. FFEL lendees—who may have subsidized or unsubsidized Stafford Loans, PLUS Loans or a consolidation loan—can request to have their monthly payments rejiggered based on their earnings. This has always been an option, but some borrowers may find this is the time to pounce.

"Now's a great chance to apply for income-based repayment,” said Josh R.I. Cohen, a Vermont and Connecticut-based student loan lawyer. “If you're unemployed, your income is zero, and so your payment is zero.”

Cohen said debtors could get the paper application for income-based repayment at StudentAid.gov, or from their loan servicer. 

Another potential choice for those with federally backed private loans: consolidating through a direct loan from the Department of Education. Fleischman said this new federal loan would be subject to the CARES Act respite, though he warned it would reset whatever timetable for repayment the borrower had under their previous plan. 

This class of borrowers is also legally entitled to three years of forbearance over the lifetime of their loan, meaning they can put off payments even though their balance will continue to accrue interest. They are also eligible for three years of unemployment deferment, which will forestall payments while keeping interest from growing on their subsidized and Perkins loans. Another option is seeking an economic hardship deferment so long as their compensation is sufficiently low. The latter, according to Fleischman, is only available to those earning less than the federal minimum wage or under 150 percent of the poverty level for a household of their size—or to people enrolled in some kind of public benefit program, including unemployment. 

Other deferments are available if borrowers join the military, the Peace Corps, or an Americorps initiative, enter a medical internship or residency program, become a teacher in an area with a shortage of instructors, go back to school, or take parental leave. But Fleischman said he did not recommend doing any of these purely for the purposes of forestalling student loan payments—and some of those avenues aren’t even open in the midst of a national shutdown.

Finally, those carrying the country’s approximate $124 billion in purely private student debt enjoy none of these options. 

“In that case, it’s whatever the hell the lender wants to give you, if the lender wants to give you anything,” said Cohen. 

Some large collectors are holding off on pursuing delinquent borrowers. Transworld Systems, which recovers money on behalf of the National Collegiate Student Loan Trusts, as well as lender/servicer Navient told the Washington Post they had ceased filing lawsuits against debtors during the pandemic. Iowa Student Loan has pledged to do the same. (Wirecutter collated instructions from and potential avenues to help offered by a variety of servicers here.)

Further, frozen judicial systems in some states have stopped or slowed new collection suits just as they have temporarily paused evictions and foreclosures. This relief, however, will be fleeting, and Cohen predicted a “deluge” of legal action against tardy borrowers as soon as the courts reopen their doors. 

Cohen and Fleischman both suggested private-debt borrowers contact their lender or servicer by phone or via their website. From default to a collections suit, wage/tax refund garnishment, and the attendant credit score impacts, the consequences of not paying private student loan debt remain real. 

Still, Fleischman argued, making payments on a loan should be nobody’s primary concern during the crisis—even if the debt will still be there when the sun rises on a post-pandemic world.

“At this moment, worry about the roof over your head and the food on your plate, and realize you aren't the only person in this situation,” Fleischman said. "As far as I'm concerned, if your servicer is not willing or able to help you, it's far less important than taking care of yourself and your family.”

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