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A group of protestors hold signs demanding student loan relief
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In the late 1980s, Patricia Gary borrowed $6,600 worth of federal student loans to pay her way through beauty school, a move she thought necessary as computers began to replace typewriters and her job skills didn't translate.

Over 30 years later, Gary has paid over $22,000 toward the loans, which she defaulted on in the 1990s. She still owes about $4,000.

"It's a debt that seems never to go away," says Gary, now 73.

Gary, who was born in Guyana in South America but has lived much of her life in the Bronx, New York, says being in default has affected all aspects of her life. She's had to decide whether to to buy medication, and how much food she can afford, since the government has taken some of her Social Security payments through collections.

Unfortunately, she isn't alone: Millions of borrowers are in default on their student loans, meaning they didn't make payments on their loans for at least 9 months. Defaulting can have long-lasting consequences, including hurting borrowers' credit scores and depleting other sources of income through government collections. Yet during the pandemic, borrowers in default had a unique opportunity to escape their predicament. The problem? They didn't know about.

A little-known provision in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act passed in March 2020 could have helped many borrowers exit default completely. But the latest data from the Department of Education shows that of 7.7 million borrowers with federally held loans who were in default when the pandemic started, more than 92% are still in default. In addition to borrowers being unaware of the opportunity, advocates says the process is onerous for people already in extremely precarious financial situations.

"This one-by-one approach of putting it all on borrowers who are in difficult financial circumstances to figure it out themselves has demonstrably not worked," says Abby Shafroth, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center.

Default has 'grave consequences'