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Millions of student loan borrowers just received four more months of relief, as the U.S. Department of Education announced Friday that it was extending the current forbearance until early next year.

The Education Department will now pause payments, waive student loan interest and suspend collections for borrowers through Jan. 31, 2022. The department said this new "definitive end date" would allow borrowers to plan for the resumption of payments and reduce the risk of delinquency and defaults after payments resume.

“As our nation’s economy continues to recover from a deep hole, this final extension will give students and borrowers the time they need to plan for restart and ensure a smooth pathway back to repayment," Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

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Relief for more than 40 million student loan borrowers was scheduled to expire on Sept. 30. But a large majority of borrowers in two recent surveys said they weren't ready to resume payments.

Consumer advocates had been pushing for an extension in recent weeks, warning of widespread confusion and a spike in missed payments. They said payments shouldn't resume until the Education Department had released a detailed plan for turning payments back on and helping borrowers who may not be able to afford their payments.

This is the fourth time the forbearance period has been extended since it began in March 2020. The brief press release from the Education Department announcing this most recent extension calls Jan. 31 the "final deadline" three times.

The department says it will begin notifying borrowers about the new Jan. 31, 2022 deadline in the coming days, and that it will release information about how to plan for the restart. The news comes just days after another pandemic protection was extended when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention renewed its eviction moratorium.

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