3 ways the Biden administration can help families and student loan borrowers affected by the pandemic

3 methods the Biden administration will help households and student loan debtors affected by the pandemic


As of September 2020, roughly 43 million Americans held federal student debt. Even earlier than the pandemic, struggling debtors reported that monetary insecurity was a serious barrier to reimbursement. And during the last 12 months, COVID-19 has exacerbated these challenges for a lot of, together with these in low-income communities and communities of coloration.

To handle the pandemic and associated financial downturn, Congress and the Trump administration suspended funds, curiosity, and assortment efforts for debtors with student loans held by the Department of Education. The Biden administration prolonged these protections via no less than September 30, 2021 and expanded them to incorporate debtors with commercially held Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program loans which are in default.1 However, for a lot of, this insecurity—reflecting long-standing structural inequities and racism in well being care, schooling, and wealth-building alternatives—will probably be long run. And these enrolled in or contemplating postsecondary schooling, significantly low-income students and students of coloration, might postpone commencement, delay enrollment, or expertise different types of hardship, rising their odds of leaving faculty with no diploma and ultimately defaulting on their loans.

Compounding these challenges, the present student loan reimbursement system is advanced, complicated to debtors, and unprepared for tens of tens of millions to reenter reimbursement concurrently after the interval of paused funds ends. To handle these challenges and deficiencies, a number of advocates, researchers, and policymakers from throughout the political spectrum have referred to as for large-scale student loan-related reforms. Proposals embody making current forgiveness applications—resembling borrower protection to reimbursement, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, closed-school discharge, and complete and everlasting incapacity discharges—work higher for debtors;2cancelling some or all student debt; fixing the income-driven reimbursement system; and additional extending the present cost pause, amongst others.

This essay explores three extra alternatives for the Biden administration to deal with the challenges going through households, students, and present and future debtors:

  • Helping tens of millions of debtors exit and now not expertise the extreme monetary penalties of default;
  • Ensuring debtors can extra simply entry reasonably priced funds and forgiveness on their loans; and
  • Raising the federal poverty thresholds to make sure security web applications attain extra financially insecure households.

This evaluation identifies current authorities and examines advantages of and key issues for every reform. It will not be meant to be exhaustive or a information for implementation; these federal applications are advanced, are intertwined with others, and have an effect on households’ monetary safety in myriad methods. Moreover, neither a single coverage nor authority alone can repair the issues endemic to a trillion-dollar loan program. These concepts are a part of what should be a collection of insurance policies designed to make sure those that have been most definitely to wrestle traditionally and people in danger for delinquency, default, and rising balances transferring ahead are protected, now and sooner or later.

Wipe the slate clear for debtors in default

As of September 2020, shut to 1 in 5 debtors with federally managed student debt was in default. In the 12 months earlier than the pandemic, a couple of million Direct Loan debtors defaulted. Recent analysis signifies that debtors of coloration, these with low incomes, those that don’t full a level, student mother and father, and first-generation students, amongst others, have significantly excessive charges of default. At the identical time, these teams usually tend to have struggled through the pandemic.

Providing defaulted debtors with a fast, manageable pathway to convey their loans again into good standing through the pandemic would be sure that tens of millions of households now not expertise the extreme penalties of default—together with assortment charges, wage garnishment, withholding of federal advantages and tax refunds, and credit rating injury—which are sometimes felt extra acutely by susceptible communities. It would additionally lay the inspiration for large-scale reforms to the student loan reimbursement system.

Borrowers can usually exit default or return their loans to good standing via:

  • Voluntary funds or involuntary assortment efforts, together with wage garnishment and the withholding of federal advantages, to repay their excellent loans.
  • Making 9 funds inside a 10-month window as a part of a rehabilitation settlement. Payments will be as little as $5 per 30 days. Borrowers can usually rehabilitate a loan solely as soon as, and when loans are rehabilitated, the default is resolved on a borrower’s credit report (though delinquencies—intervals of missed cost main as much as a default—stay).
  • Consolidating their current loans into a brand new loan—which is taken into account non-defaulted—by coming into an income-driven reimbursement plan or making three on-time funds on the loan. Like rehabilitation, debtors can usually consolidate as soon as.3 However, post-consolidation, the default will not be faraway from a borrower’s credit historical past. Because debtors technically have a brand new loan as soon as they consolidate, they lose any earlier months of qualifying funds towards forgiveness in an income-driven plan together with people who might apply towards PSLF and will lose entry to different necessary rights and advantages. Still, consolidation can present entry to extra beneficiant income-driven plans, PSLF, and different loan discharge choices for these with FFEL Program loans.4
  • In some circumstances, together with faculty closure or fraud, the Department can discharge a borrower’s loans.

Using the HEROES Act of 2003 to assist debtors exit default

The Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act (HEROES Act) of 2003,5 provides the Secretary of the Department of Education authority to waive or modify any “statutory or regulatory provision applicable to the student financial assistance programs under title IV of the [Higher Education] Act as the Secretary deems necessary in connection with a war or other military operation or national emergency,” such because the one the president declared final 12 months initially of the pandemic, nonetheless in impact as of the publication of this evaluation. These student monetary help applications embody student loans.

The Department used HEROES Act authority to increase the present interval of paused funds, curiosity, and collections, as outlined within the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), past the CARES Act’s cost pause expiration of September 30, 2020. (While the announcement of the extensions was made in August 2020, the authority used to take action was not specified till a December 2020 discover within the Federal Register.6) As talked about above, these pauses have been prolonged via no less than September 2021, and along with loans held by the Department of Education, they now apply to commercially held, defaulted FFEL Program loans.

HEROES Act waivers and modifications could also be used to help “affected individuals,” which embody those that are serving within the navy or National Guard throughout an emergency, reside or work in a catastrophe space, or are experiencing direct financial hardship on account of the emergency. In the Federal Register, the Department famous that it thought-about an “affected borrower” to be “one whose Federal student loans provided under title IV are in repayment,” broadly decoding its HEROES Act authority to be relevant to greater than 36 million individuals.7

Importantly, along with pausing student loan funds, curiosity, and collections, the CARES Act and HEROES Act waivers directed the Department of Education to rely every month of suspended funds as a qualifying cost for loan forgiveness—resembling for these enrolled in an income-driven reimbursement plan or eligible for PSLF—and for rehabilitation agreements. As a outcome, those that had been within the strategy of rehabilitating their loans instantly earlier than the pandemic started, and people who entered the method early within the pandemic, have accomplished their 9-10-month rehabilitation interval and exited default with out having to make extra (or any) funds.

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HEROES Act authority could possibly be used to permit extra debtors to exit default through the pandemic emergency via rehabilitation by waiving or modifying a number of regulatory and statutory provisions. These ought to embody clarifying that the requirement that debtors make 9 on-time, voluntary funds inside a 10-month window be utilized retroactively to the start of the nationwide emergency in March 2020, waiving the prohibition on utilizing rehabilitation to exit default greater than as soon as (each to permit those that have already used it to take action once more and guarantee those that haven’t used it however may have to take action sooner or later preserve entry), and making certain that exiting default doesn’t rely as an curiosity capitalizing occasion.8

The skill to exit default through the pandemic utilizing the HEROES Act could possibly be fee-free. For some debtors going via rehabilitation (these assigned to a non-public assortment company, or PCA), a proportion of every of their 9 rehabilitation funds is usually charged as a set price. Given that debtors whose funds are paused have been in a position to rehabilitate their loans with out making funds, these charges are seemingly successfully being waived by the Department. And the Department has beforehand reported that no additional assortment charges are charged for a lot of who rehabilitate their loans.

HEROES Act authority is also used to permit debtors to exit default by way of consolidation by waiving a number of program necessities much like these talked about above. Borrowers would additionally should signal new Master Promissory Notes for his or her new loans and extra consolidation-related necessities would have to be waived or modified. Otherwise, debtors who consolidate would face penalties that these utilizing rehabilitation wouldn’t. For instance, the default would stay on a borrower’s credit historical past and any earlier funds made towards forgiveness could be erased. In addition, these exiting default by way of consolidation with the help of a PCA might have charges added to the steadiness of their new loan. As famous above, consolidation would offer extra advantages for a lot of debtors.

Considerations for making certain post-default success

The Department might wish to robotically switch debtors out of default by waiving the requirement that debtors proactively enter right into a rehabilitation settlement (with the choice to decide out) or it might wish to require debtors to simply accept the phrases of the rehabilitation. Historically, charges of re-default have been excessive. In one research, extra that 40 % of debtors who exited default via rehabilitation or consolidation defaulted once more inside 5 years. This implies that if debtors miss funds as soon as they reenter reimbursement, they’ll additional injury their credit scores. And with out extra reforms, debtors could be re-entering a reimbursement system that didn’t serve them properly the primary time round.

However, those that are in a position to entry an income-driven plan after defaulting have a lot larger charges of long-term success. While some debtors consolidate out of default by selecting to enter an income-driven reimbursement plan, it could be troublesome for the Department to enroll those that don’t into an income-driven plan with out receiving extra details about their incomes and household sizes. But the HEROES Act might scale back boundaries and supply simpler entry to such plans for all debtors, and significantly for these exiting default, resembling via briefly permitting self-certification of revenue and household measurement.9 Entry into an income-driven plan on the finish of a rehabilitation or consolidation interval would additionally be sure that the present months of paused funds are counting towards forgiveness.

While this would offer help for a lot of with student loans, it isn’t an alternative choice to main reforms to the income-driven reimbursement program. Reforms are wanted so long as the present system requires some to take out debt to fund a postsecondary schooling. Outside the scope of this essay, a number of researchers, policymakers, and advocates are working towards adjustments in how income-driven plans are designed and the way they’re administered. These embody decreasing funds for struggling debtors, addressing curiosity accrual and rising balances, decreasing the size of time debtors carry debt, eradicating administrative hurdles to enrollment and reenrollment, enhancing oversight of applications and contractors, and making certain current forgiveness applications work higher for debtors.

In addition, permitting debtors to exit default would guarantee they’ve entry to instruments and protections provided by the reimbursement system as stakeholders advocate for bigger reforms. Policy analysts and advocates have recognized and promoted the creation of a less complicated pathway out of default, creating constant phrases for all debtors who exit, forgiving debt for individuals who have been in default for an prolonged time period, limiting collections, and eliminating the default system by permitting current loan servicers to handle defaulted loans.

Different guidelines by way of statutes, laws, and varied different procedures apply to Direct Loans vs. FFEL Program loans and federal loans held by the Department vs. these which are held by industrial entities. Thus, the specifics of every program—and the roles, duties, and funding of different lenders and Guaranty Agencies—would have to be thought-about to make sure that the HEROES-related waivers and modifications might apply in the identical methods to all debtors. In addition to the executive actions talked about on this evaluation, a number of items of laws have been launched to offer debtors with commercially-held FFEL Program loans with comparable protections to these presently offered to debtors with debt held by the Department of Education.

These actions would have important monetary implications for the Department and its contractors. Removing debtors from default would imply that greater than 8.5 million individuals10 would wish to have their loans assigned to a student loan servicer. In addition to paying servicers to handle these loans, the Department should be sure that they’ve acceptable oversight, requirements, and sources—staffing, monetary, or in any other case—to forestall these previously-struggling debtors from re-defaulting as soon as the present cost pauses finish (and on the similar time that tens of tens of millions of others may also be reentering reimbursement and needing help).

Removing debtors from default might lower your expenses—for instance, earlier than the pandemic, PCAs had been paid a set price of $1,741 for every accomplished rehabilitation whereas servicers had been paid, at most, $25 to service a loan for the same 9-month interval.11 However, the funding for PCA contracts is necessary whereas the cash used to pay for servicing is discretionary, appropriated yearly by Congress. This implies that cash saved on one facet of the system wouldn’t essentially be used to pay for elevated bills on the opposite facet.12

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There are additionally probably longer-term implications for the Department’s new Business Process Operations contractors. While these entities aren’t presently actively managing loans,13 their contracts embody restoration and assortment actions, which can have to be supplemented or adjusted primarily based on future system reforms.14

Ensure debtors can extra simply entry reasonably priced funds and forgiveness on their loans

Ensuring that the student loan reimbursement system is simple to make use of and borrower-friendly is a crucial piece of any package deal of reforms. If applied successfully, the 2019 Fostering Undergraduate Talent by Unlocking Resources for Education Act (FUTURE Act) has the potential to streamline reimbursement for tens of millions of present and future debtors.

Implementing the FUTURE Act to facilitate entry to income-driven plans

The FUTURE Act facilitates the safe sharing of related knowledge between the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Education.15 This data-sharing is meant to streamline three processes: the method for filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the three-year course of for monitoring earnings post-discharge for completely and completely disabled debtors, and the appliance and annual recertification processes for income-driven reimbursement plans.16

Currently, with a view to apply or recertify for an income-driven reimbursement plan, a borrower must submit revenue and household measurement info to the Department of Education. This creates a duplicative course of for these whose tax knowledge are already on file with the IRS. Research signifies that the information-sharing course of can create a barrier to enrollment for debtors. While some debtors might use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to switch tax info immediately into their functions, the FUTURE Act would make this switch automated (for individuals who consent to have their knowledge shared), decreasing obstacles to accessing reasonably priced funds. In addition, it could additionally confirm that no taxes had been filed.

The Act has no required implementation date. The Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid has signaled that full implementation won’t happen till FY23-24. As a part of the required coordination, the IRS should share related borrower knowledge with the Department of Education “only for the purpose of (and to the extent necessary in) determining eligibility for, or repayment obligations under, income-contingent or income-based repayment plans.” While the legislation requires these knowledge for use to find out eligibility and calculate funds, it doesn’t require that the sharing of those knowledge mandate enrollment into such plans. Instead, the legislation requires that the Department of Education “establish and implement…procedures” to make use of this tax info to “determine repayment obligation of the borrower without further action by the borrower.” These provisions apply to a borrower who “selects, or is required to repay such loan pursuant to, an income-contingent repayment plan; or recertifies income or family size under such plan.”

Thus, the Department might select to separate consent for data-sharing and enrollment into an income-driven plan. It ought to permit debtors to decide into data-sharing early (and sometimes) in a borrower’s interactions with the Department. For instance, for brand new debtors, choices for consent could possibly be embedded within the FAFSA, the Master Promissory Note, or the brand new Annual Student Loan Acknowledgement course of.17 For current debtors, the Department might acquire consent in a number of methods, together with permitting debtors to decide in by making a range by way of their on-line accounts and after they enroll in or recertify for income-driven plans.

Early consent for knowledge sharing would permit the Department and servicers to tell debtors not enrolled in an income-driven plan what their funds could be in the event that they had been to enroll. This could be significantly significant for these eligible to make $0 funds. Separating consent from enrollment shouldn’t restrict dialogue about the way to deal with enrollment. For instance, upon granting consent, debtors might decide into being robotically enrolled in an income-driven plan after they enter reimbursement or in the event that they miss a number of funds or turn out to be severely delinquent.

Considerations for these with altering circumstances

Automatic sharing of tax info will take away boundaries to enrollment in an income-driven plan. It continues to be necessary to make sure that there may be a straightforward manner for debtors to replace their revenue info in between tax cycles if their circumstances change. Currently, those that present various documentation of their revenue with a view to apply for, recertify for, or modify funds whereas in an income-driven plan are required to exhibit the parts of their very own (and a partner’s, if acceptable) adjusted gross revenue. While there isn’t an outlined, complete checklist of acceptable documentation, the appliance for enrollment in such a plan signifies that debtors can embody proof of “taxable…income from employment, unemployment income, dividend income, interest income, tips, and alimony” that’s not more than 90 days outdated. However, debtors are suggested to not present proof of untaxed revenue, resembling what could be obtained as a part of a public help program.

While documentation of untaxed revenue is excluded, such documentation—together with proof of receipt of public help or advantages as a part of a means-tested program—could possibly be proof, in some circumstances, {that a} borrower has taxable revenue which is under a sure threshold and {that a} borrower qualifies for a decrease or $0 income-driven month-to-month cost. To make the submission of other documentation of revenue simpler for a lot of susceptible debtors, particularly those that may not have a daily or constant paycheck, the Department might direct servicers to simply accept proof of enrollment in some public help applications as proof of getting taxable revenue under a sure threshold and supply steering on the way to interpret such documentation.18

Raising the federal poverty thresholds to make sure security web applications attain extra financially insecure households

Advocates and policymakers have lengthy highlighted the truth that the federal poverty thresholds—primarily based on household meals budgets from greater than half a century in the past—are far too low and never consultant of immediately’s households’ wants. The Biden administration might change the best way these metrics are calculated via a federal regulatory course of that amends or replaces an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) coverage directive. This wouldn’t solely increase and strengthen the social security web but additionally be sure that extra low-income debtors are eligible to make low or $0 funds on their loans when enrolled in income-driven plans.

OMB statistical coverage directives and the federal poverty thresholds

The Census Bureau points annual federal poverty thresholds—following the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) Statistical Policy Directive 14—that are used to calculate official poverty inhabitants statistics. As required underneath legislation, every year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) points federal poverty pointers, that are simplified variations of those thresholds used administratively to find out eligibility and calculate advantages for a number of means-tested applications, together with Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, previously Food Stamps), and elements of Medicaid, amongst others. In addition, some charities, firms, and state and native governments use the HHS pointers to set eligibility for providers that they supply. In 2021, the rule of thumb is $12,880 for a single particular person and $26,500 for a household of 4.19

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There is precedent for taking administrative motion to change the poverty thresholds, which could possibly be slim or broad in scope. For instance, till the early Nineteen Eighties, there have been separate poverty thresholds for farm and non-farm households. Technical adjustments to eradicate this distinction (and several other others) had been proposed and authorised by authorities committees and the then-Cabinet Council on Economic Affairs in 1981. And in 2019, the Trump administration explored making regulatory adjustments to the best way the poverty thresholds are calculated, albeit in a manner that may have decreased the variety of households eligible for advantages over time. (While some argued that the restricted scope of the exploration made it illegal, a totally thought-about effort to replicate the true wants of American households ought to be inspired.)

The intersection of poverty coverage and student loans

In addition to the protection web applications listed above, formulation to calculate debtors’ funds as a part of income-driven reimbursement plans are additionally tied to the federal poverty pointers (and thus, to the federal poverty thresholds) by statute20 or regulation,21 relying on the plan. For instance, debtors’ month-to-month funds are calculated as a proportion of their “discretionary incomes,” adjusted gross revenue minus 150% of the poverty pointers for his or her household measurement and state. Borrowers should present revenue and household measurement knowledge to the Department yearly to recertify for such plans. In addition to making sure that extra households are eligible for a number of social security web applications and advantages,22 elevating the poverty thresholds might be sure that tens of millions extra debtors are eligible for low or $0 funds as a part of an income-driven reimbursement plan.

Considerations for designing new poverty metrics

Establishing a formulation for meaningfully elevating the poverty thresholds will probably be no small process. It would require the consideration of households’ present and altering wants, the administration of adjustments to particular person applications, and the anticipation of penalties which will happen on the intersection of applications. But it could assist households recuperate from a pandemic that has devastated many—particularly communities of coloration—by increasing entry to quite a few advantages, together with Head Start, SNAP, Medicaid, and others, as talked about above. This would strengthen the social security web, significantly for tens of millions of low-income and -resource households. Raising the poverty thresholds additionally sends an necessary sign that the present poverty degree doesn’t characterize a livable wage. And many advantages applications, particularly people who goal or present spillover results for youngsters, have a return on funding.

This will not be a brand new concept. Many considerate analysts and researchers have been working to revise the poverty measures for many years. Others have proposed altering he underlying methodology for the way particular person advantages are calculated, which the federal government is within the strategy of reviewing. Policymakers ought to preserve a number of issues in thoughts when designing a brand new measure.

First, perceived political dangers might dissuade motion. Any president who raises—via a change in formulation, methodology, or in any other case—the poverty thresholds might appear accountable, on paper, for elevating the share of individuals in poverty in America. For instance, in 2011, the Census Bureau debuted the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which, whereas not excellent, offers a substitute for the official poverty measure by taking into consideration the place households dwell and work and medical bills, amongst many extra elements. The SPM poverty charges are usually larger (in most inhabitants teams) than the official measures. But the act of accelerating the poverty charge on paper is a essential step to reducing poverty in actual life. It would additionally present a chance to exhibit extra, constructive coverage results for individuals who may have help however weren’t beforehand receiving it.

Second, that is an costly and technically advanced proposition. Expanding eligibility for entitlement applications would contain extra spending every year. For applications that aren’t open-ended, the federal government must spend extra to incorporate extra households on the similar degree of service or discover price financial savings within the current applications.23 This change additionally comes with the chance that policymakers might make responding eligibility cuts or in any other case prohibit entry to means-tested applications.

In addition, elevating the poverty thresholds might have penalties that ought to be thought-about and, the place attainable, eradicated. When this proves troublesome, policymakers might want to contemplate whether or not different measures of want could possibly be used to increase eligibility for advantages. For instance, present immigration guidelines state {that a} noncitizen could also be ineligible for admission to the United States or to regulate their standing if they’re or are prone to be a ‘‘public charge,’’ outlined as an individual who is dependent upon the federal government for his or her revenue. In addition, these sponsoring a noncitizen should exhibit that they can help the person at an annual revenue of no less than 125 % of poverty. Raising the poverty thresholds with out corresponding changes in immigration coverage might make it tougher for sponsors to exhibit help and for noncitizens to progress via the immigration system towards authorized everlasting resident or citizenship standing.

In addition, increasing Medicaid advantages via larger poverty thresholds might make some households worse off. For instance, altering the poverty thresholds might shift—with none adjustments in a household’s revenue—who falls into the Medicaid protection hole. In states that haven’t expanded Medicaid eligibility as a part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), these households have incomes under the poverty pointers however above their state’s Medicaid eligibility degree. (On the opposite hand, these adjustments might additionally present advantages for a lot higher-income households by shifting who’s eligible for the ACA premium tax credit and cost-sharing subsidies, which assist scale back the price of insurance and medical look after these between 100-400% and 100-250% of the poverty degree, respectively.24)


Researchers, policymakers, analysts, and advocates have documented issues within the student loan reimbursement system that require complete options. This essay highlights three proposals that ought to be thought-about by the Biden administration as half of a bigger package deal of reforms: offering debtors with a pathway out of default, making certain they’ll entry reasonably priced funds and forgiveness, and increasing entry to security web applications. The pandemic has introduced and exacerbated unprecedented challenges for tens of millions of debtors. But it additionally presents alternatives, together with each a second when most debtors with federal loans aren’t required to make funds and extra instruments that the brand new administration can use to sort out student debt from a number of angles.

The creator didn’t obtain monetary help from any agency or particular person for this text or from any agency or particular person with a monetary or political curiosity on this article. They are presently not an officer, director, or board member of any group with an curiosity on this article.

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