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Student Loan Relief Update

posted by Alan White

Student loan relief provisions required by the CARES Act expire on September 30. Those protections included 1) for all federal direct loans: zero interest and automatic payment forbearance, 2) credit towards IDR and PSLF forgiveness for the 6 months covered by the Act, and importantly, 3) suspension of wage garnishments and other collections on defaulted loans. The Act called for student loan borrowers to receive notice in August that payments will restart October 1 and that borrowers not already in income-driven repayment plans can switch, so that borrowers with no or little income can remain on zero payments (but not if they were in default.)

The President’s Executive Memorandum calls on the Secretary of Education to take action to extend economic hardship deferments under 20 U.S.C. 1087e(f)(2)(D) to provide “cessation of payments and the waiver of all interest” through December 31 2020.  These deferments are to be provided to “borrowers.” The Memorandum does not specify which loan categories (Direct, FFEL, Perkins, private) should be included, nor whether relief to borrowers in default should continue. Advocates also note that the Memorandum is vague as to whether borrower relief will continue automatically, or instead whether students will have to request extended relief, as under the Education Department’s administrative action just prior to passage of the CARES ACT. As of this writing the Education Department has posted no guidance for borrowers or servicers on its web site. Servicers will need guidance soon, and borrowers meanwhile will be receiving a confusing series of CARES Act termination letters and conflicting information about the latest executive action. UPDATE - USED has apparently issued guidance to collection agencies saying that borrowers in default are included in the Executive action so that garnishments and other collection should remain suspended through December 31, 2020.

The HEROES Act passed by the House would extend all borrower relief until at least September 30 2021, would bring in all federal direct, guaranteed and Perkins loans, and would grant a $10,000 principal balance reduction to “distressed” borrowers. The House also included an interesting fix to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program so that borrowers will not have to restart their ten-year clock towards loan forgiveness when they consolidate federal loans. In lieu of any extended student loan relief, Senate Republicans have proposed that borrowers just be shifted to existing income-dependent repayment plans. Existing IDR plans already allow zero payments for borrowers with zero or very low income, but do not stop the accrual of interest. They are not available to borrowers in default, so wage garnishments and collections for borrowers who were in default before March would resume October 1 under the Republican proposals.

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Beyond the HEROES Act, there are also proposals, including from Rep. Mary Gar Scanlon and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, to restore the discharge for student loans for people with COVID related loss of income or medical expenses.

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