Why 2020 Is Different for Student Loan Payments

Spring college graduates typically begin repaying their student loans in November. But this year, things are different.

Most federal student loans come with a six-month grace period before new graduates have to start making payments on their college debt. Because of the pandemic, however, repayment of most types of federal loans has been automatically suspended until the end of the year.

That means recent graduates won’t have to start making payments until January, unless the government extends the payment “pause.”

Advocates for student loan borrowers say a delay beyond January is needed. But it’s uncertain if that will occur, given the contentious negotiations between Democrats in Congress and the Trump administration over further pandemic relief ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

“We really do need an extension of this payment suspension,” said Persis Yu, director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance project at the National Consumer Law Center. “It’s a really terrible situation for borrowers.”

The class of 2020 graduated into a job market with historically high unemployment. While the jobs picture had been improving over the summer and early fall, jobless claims have been volatile and more companies are announcing layoffs. Nearly a third of college students agree that the pandemic has placed extra financial stress on their family, according to a new survey by AIG Retirement Services, a provider of retirement plans for universities and public sector employers, and EverFi, a provider of online education programs.

Since more help may not arrive, however, now is a good time to consider whether you’ll need a repayment plan that’s more affordable based on your income, or if you should consider requesting a traditional forbearance, or postponement of payments, when the automatic suspension lifts.

“The more prepared borrowers are, the better,” Ms. Yu said.

You should receive a notice from your servicer — the company that handles billing for your loan — sometime before the end of the year indicating when repayment will begin and outlining options.

“Open all of your mail — email, and snail mail,” said Betsy Mayotte, president and founder of the Institute of Student Loan Advisors, a nonprofit group.

If you don’t get a notice or if you get one indicating a first-payment due date after January, contact your loan servicer to make sure it has up-to-date contact information for you and to confirm the date, Ms. Yu said.

Scott Buchanan, executive director of the Student Loan Servicing Alliance, a trade group, said borrowers could choose a payment option now and revise it later if their financial circumstances changed.

“Now is a great time to do it,” he said, before an anticipated rush in January, when some 30 million borrowers are expected to re-enter payment status.

But Moira Vahey, a spokeswoman for the Student Borrower Protection Center, an advocacy group, said servicers were not currently processing enrollments in “income driven” payment plans. Borrowers can protect themselves, she said, by submitting an application now so it is on file when servicers do begin processing them again.

More information about payment plans is available on Studentaid.gov.

About two-thirds of students who graduated from college in 2019 had education debt, owing just under $29,000 on average, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit group. That was a bit lower than the share of 2018 graduates with debt, and a slight drop in the average debt owed. While that’s “encouraging,” the institute recently said, the economic fallout from the pandemic could make college less affordable, pushing students to borrow more.

Here are some questions and answers about repaying student loans:

Should I repay my student loans if I can afford to, even during the suspension?

If you have the means to pay, it generally makes sense to do so unless you have higher-interest debt that you want to pay down, Ms. Mayotte said. If you don’t make payments, you aren’t reducing the amount you owe — the debt is being delayed, not forgiven.

Also, since interest on student loan balances was reduced to zero during the suspension, payments made now can help pay down the principal or at least reduce the amount you’ll pay in interest, she said. (Interest that accrued before the payment pause began on March 13 — such as interest on “unsubsidized” federal student loans, which typically accrues while the student attends college — generally will be added to the loan’s balance when repayment begins.)

There’s another reason to write those checks even if it’s just a couple of months early: Borrowers who haven’t made loan payments in several months may have trouble getting back on track, Ms. Mayotte said. “One big indicator of repayment success is getting in the habit of doing it,” she said.

Some borrowers who won’t benefit by making payments during the pause, she said, are those who participate in the government’s public service loan forgiveness program. The program, which forgives student debt for some borrowers who work full time in certain jobs and make a specific number of on-time payments, has been fraught with snafus.

The Education Department has said suspended payments will count as if borrowers continued to make regular monthly payments for those who are otherwise eligible for the loan forgiveness program.

But some borrowers have been so anxious about running afoul of the program’s rules that they have declined the waiver and have continued to make payments during the suspension, Ms. Mayotte said. That’s not necessary, she said: “Stop doing it.”

Making the suspended payments won’t make you eligible for public service loan forgiveness sooner, the department advises.

Borrowers who have made payments during the suspension and want the money back can contact their servicer and ask for a refund, according to the Education Department. But Ms. Vahey said borrowers were reporting delays in receiving requested refunds.

What about repayment of private student loans?

Private student loan lenders aren’t required to offer temporary postponements, or forbearances, during the pandemic. Some have offered limited relief, however. Each servicer has different rules, so it’s best to contact yours directly.

How can I find out who my loan servicer is?

The Education Department recommends calling the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 800-433-3243. You can also check the National Student Loan Data System; you’ll need to create a federal student aid logon, if you don’t already have one.

For private loans, you can try contacting your college’s financial aid office or reviewing your credit report.

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