A group of leading Senate and House Democrats are calling on President Joe Biden to extend the student-loan payment pause — and cancel some student debt.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Representative Ayanna Pressley, also a Massachusetts Democrat, said Tuesday that a failure to extend the pause on student-loan payments and collections — set to expire on Sept. 30 — could slow the economic recovery.
“COVID created severe hardship for some, and threw many others off their stride,” Schumer told reporters during a press conference. “To make borrowers repay their debts now, would be unfair, would be harsh, and in many instances would be cruel.”
The press conference comes about a month after the group of legislators wrote to Biden asking him to extend the pause at least until March 31, 2022.
Warren and Schumer have also been holding press events since at least last fall calling on the president to cancel up to $50,000 student debt — a call they repeated Tuesday.
Despite the pressure and a campaign promise to cancel up to $10,000 in student debt as a COVID relief measure, Biden has voiced skepticism of the idea.
The fast approaching deadline for payments to resume upped the urgency on both these requests, the lawmakers said. Pressure has been mounting from advocates over the past several months to extend the payment freeze. They worry that the student-loan system and student-loan servicers aren’t ready to handle the crush of calls from borrowers who may have questions or want to adjust their monthly bills as payments resume.
That has the potential to create both administrative and financial headaches for borrowers. The pandemic marks the first time the government has turned off the entire student-loan system, but in the past when borrowers have resumed student-loan payments after a more targeted freeze — for example, due to natural disaster, — new defaults spiked.
That’s a sign that borrowers weren’t aware that payments had resumed or had struggled to get into an affordable repayment program in time — a scenario advocates are worried could repeat itself on a much larger scale.
Major changes are afoot
Adding fuel to advocates’ concern: Major changes coming to the student loan system that are unrelated to the COVID payment pause. Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, one of the three major organizations servicing federal student loans, announced that it wouldn’t seek a new contract, after its current one expires on Dec. 14 of this year.
Another, smaller student-loan servicer tied to the New Hampshire Higher Education Association Foundation also announced this month that it wouldn’t seek to renew its contract, which expires at the end of the year.
‘Millions of Americans ask you now to pick up a pen and cancel student-loan debt.’
Transitioning the millions of new borrowers working with these servicers to new organizations is an operationally complex challenge that the Department of Education and student-loan servicers will be planning for around the same time payments are scheduled to resume.
Department of Education officials urged the White House to extend the payment freeze until January 2022, Politico reported earlier this month.
Scott Buchanan, the executive director of the Student Loan Servicing Alliance, a trade group representing servicers, said the Department has started to have discussions with servicers about options for resuming payments, though the agency still has decisions to make about outreach to borrowers and other factors.
“While there is no final guidance yet on any of the mechanics, it’s a positive sign to at least know that after many months the Department appears to be thinking about and discussing the issues at hand,” Buchanan wrote in an email.
The Department of Education and the White House didn’t immediately provide comment.
Even if the agency is able to mitigate the logistical challenges of resuming payments, advocates say the government shouldn’t be asking borrowers to pay their student-loan bills until the Biden administration has addressed some of the challenges plaguing the student-loan system.
The administration has taken steps in that direction. So far the Department of Education has cancelled more than $1.5 billion in debt held by scammed students. The agency is also in the process of soliciting feedback on revamping the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
Public servants have struggled to access relief under the program, which allows those working in nonprofits or government to have their federal student loans cancelled after 120 months of payments.
Advocates and lawmakers have called on the White House to go further, including by cancelling some student debt.
“We’re here today to say tick-tock, tick-tock, Mr. President,” Warren said. “Millions of Americans ask you now to pick up a pen and cancel student-loan debt, to pick up a pen and extend the payment pause, to pick up a pen and make their lives better.”