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By Casey Bond
July 8, 2021
Collage of students studying with stacks of hundred dollar bills in the background
Money; Shutterstock

Nearly 43 million student loan borrowers have enjoyed a break from their payments for more than a year. But that’s scheduled to change starting Oct. 1, when federal student loan payments are set to resume.

Most borrowers say they aren’t ready for that to happen. A recent survey of more than 23,000 student loan borrowers found that 90% aren’t prepared for payments to start up again.

The country may be on its way to economic recovery, but millions of borrowers are no better off than they were during the pandemic. That has many wondering whether President Joe Biden will extend federal student loan forbearance again. The answer: a big, fat “maybe.”

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Advocates Push for Another Student Loan Forbearance Extension

As one of his first moves as president, Biden extended the federal student loan forbearance through Sept. 30 to give struggling student loan borrowers some extra breathing room. It was the third time the payment pause was extended since the initial six-month relief period was set by the CARES Act in March 2020. Now borrowers and some members of Congress are pushing for another extension.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona hinted at the possibility in June. "We are continuing conversations about if that's the best time," he told the Senate Appropriations Committee. “No announcements today, but we continue to have those conversations.”

Still, Cardona’s previous comments about a possible deadline extension haven’t exactly been encouraging. "It's not out of the question, but at this point it's September 30," he stated during a May event.

Several Democrats have called on Biden to extend federal forbearance, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. In a letter to President Biden last month, they urged him to extend the moratorium on payments through March 31, 2022, or until employment rates reach pre-pandemic levels, whichever period is longer.

A coalition of more than 100 advocacy organizations also put out a letter suggesting the same. But so far, there hasn’t been a definitive word from the administration whether it will happen.

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How Likely Are Loan Payments to Resume Oct. 1?

Even though there is plenty of support in favor of extending the moratorium, some experts say it’s unlikely.

“I don't think they will unless there is another surge with the virus that causes shutdowns,” said Betsy Mayotte, president and founder of The Institute of Student Loan Advisors (TISLA). “If there isn’t a surge, I don’t see a good reason to extend it.”

That’s largely due to the fact that millions of borrowers who were in the habit of paying their loans have been out of that habit for a year and a half, she said. Delaying payments even longer will make it that much tougher to readjust when this expense is back on their plates.

One solution, according to Mayotte, is staggering repayment and extending the moratorium for borrowers who aren’t financially ready.

"The idea would be to help alleviate some of the issues that could crop up when 42 million people go back into repayment at the same time,” she said. That might mean giving more time to borrowers who were already in default as of March 2020, when the moratorium was first established.

Whether or not student loan payments restart on a tiered basis, borrower advocates are worried about the nearing deadline.

“We're seriously concerned about the possibility that repayments would start on Oct. 1,” said Persis Yu, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center and director of NCLC's Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project. She said that looking back at previous disaster forbearance periods, many borrowers end up defaulting once payments resume. And those periods of time have been shorter than the one that we're in right now.

While there has been some recovery in the economy, it has not been even, she said.

“So the folks who have not recovered with the economy are the folks who are going to be the hardest to reach, and are going to be in the worst position to both know that payments are resumed and to make those payments.”

Yu added that the current system is not designed to support all student loan borrowers entering repayment at once.

“We haven't yet seen a lot of the big fixes that we want and need to see,” she said. That includes improvements to income-driven repayment plans and loan servicing. It also includes targeted help for the 9 million student loan borrowers who were already in default before the pandemic even started, such as ensuring they aren’t further stunted by having their wages, tax refunds and Social Security benefits garnished.

“Frankly, I'm very concerned that if we turn payments back on right now, we're going to lose a generation of student loan borrowers,” she said.

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Prepare Now for the Return of Student Loan Payments

It could be a while before the Education Department weighs in with a firm answer. Former President Donald Trump signed a memorandum ordering the extension of the program just weeks before its original Sept. 30, 2020 deadline, and the measure was implemented with 11 days to spare. And Biden’s most recent announcement of another extension came on Jan. 10, exactly three weeks before the expiration date.

Since there is no clear sign that the pause on federal student loan payments will be extended again, borrowers should assume that payments will resume in October — and get ready for that possibility ASAP.

“They should start preparing in early August for what that's going to look like for them, and whether they're going to need to apply for some relief such as a deferment or a lower payment option,” Mayotte said.

She added that when payments do resume, borrowers should expect things to move much slower. Higher call volumes will likely lead to long wait times, and paperwork for alternative repayment plans and relief programs will take longer to process.

“Borrowers who think they're going to need that kind of help...should really start planning early.”

More from Money:

Should You Keep Paying Your Student Loans Even If They Might Get Forgiven?

Should Biden Cancel Student Debt? The Loan Forgiveness Debate, Explained

Left out of Pandemic Relief, Private Student Loan Borrowers Are Still Struggling a Year Later