By Eliza Haverstock | NerdWallet
Politics and a pandemic have shoved stodgy student loans into the spotlight. Since 2020, borrowers have encountered an onslaught of changes to the federal student loan landscape, including more than three years of paused payments, an upcoming repayment plan overhaul and potential debt cancellation.
Backtracked announcements and timeline changes have made it difficult for borrowers to keep up with where things stand. Here’s what you need to know and how to prepare for what comes next.
Supreme Court deciding student debt cancellation fate
Announced in August 2022, President Joe Biden’s one-time proposal would erase up to $20,000 in federal student loans for more than 40 million eligible borrowers — but an ensuing legal showdown has put the plan in the hands of the Supreme Court.
In December 2022, the high court said it would evaluate two major lawsuits blocking the loan cancellation plan, and it held student debt cancellation oral arguments in February. The public hearing was the last visible step before a ruling comes out.
The justices are crafting their opinions behind closed doors, so for now, we wait. Legal experts expect a final decision by late June or early July. It will determine whether Biden’s plan can roll out as intended and end the payment pause.
What you can do about it: “Prepare for what you have in front of you today,” says Scott Buchanan, executive director of the Student Loan Servicing Alliance. “Don’t make financial decisions premised on what may or may not happen in the courts, because you’re guessing just as much as anyone else.”
One way to prepare is to “pretend” to pay your student loans now by moving your estimated student loan payment from a checking account into a savings account each month, advises Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, a Michigan-based certified financial therapist and partner of the financial wellness app Upwise. When payments turn back on, you’ll already have some money set aside to cover your first few bills. And if cancellation survives the Supreme Court, you could have a bit of extra money set aside for something else.
“We can’t really predict the weather, but we can dress appropriately for it,” Bryan-Podvin says. “We can’t decide … whether or not they’re going to actually let people have the $10,000 to $20,000 in forgiveness, but we do have control over what we do.”
Payments resume late summer 2023 — for now
Timing of the Supreme Court’s decision is set to affect when exactly student loan payments will resume after more than three years of an interest-free federal payment pause, known as forbearance.
Under current guidance, borrowers will need to start repaying their federal student loans 60 days after June 30 or 60 days after the Supreme Court releases its ruling — whichever comes first.
Forbearance started in March 2020, as the pandemic began sweeping the U.S. The government has insisted the current forbearance timeline won’t change again, but note that the expiration date has moved nine times so far.
What you can do about it: Borrowers may be frustrated by the uncertainty, but they should still prepare as if bills will resume later this summer. Reach out to your student loan servicer if you’re not sure what to expect.
“Even if the government decides to make some change or delay something for a month or two, that homework is not wasted,” Buchanan says. “Whenever that day comes, you know what plan you’re going to go into, you know how much that monthly payment is going to be, you know where to send the check.”
Don’t wait for official word of forbearance ending to start that homework, especially when it comes to contacting your servicer. If you do, you could encounter long hold times and delayed responses. “We know we’re going to have a bottleneck of people,” Buchanan adds.
Other loan forgiveness pathways expanded
The U.S. Department of Education has proposed a few recent changes to income-driven repayment, or IDR, plans, which cap monthly federal student loan bills at a set percentage of your income and erase remaining student debt after borrowers make payments for a set number of years.
IDR account adjustment, or waiver
In April 2022, the Education Department announced an IDR and Public Service Loan Forgiveness, or PSLF, one-time account adjustment — also called the IDR waiver — that will move millions of borrowers closer to the student loan forgiveness finish line.
About 40,000 borrowers with older loans were to see balances wiped clean starting this spring, the Department of Education estimated, and more than 3.6 million borrowers are expected to receive at least three years of additional credit toward forgiveness under an IDR plan or PSLF when their accounts are updated in 2024. If you’ve been in repayment for at least 20 or 25 years (including forbearance time), you’ll be free of student debt after the adjustment. If you qualify for PSLF, you’ll be debt-free if 10 years have passed.
What you can do about it: The recount is largely automatic — but if you have commercially held Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program, Perkins or Health Education Assistance Loan (HEAL) Program loans, you must apply to consolidate them at StudentAid.gov by the end of 2023 to get the full benefits. Get started soon because the consolidation process can take time.
Even if you weren’t enrolled in an IDR plan before the pandemic payment pause, you’ll still see the adjustment applied to your account. But if you have a balance remaining after the adjustment, you will need to sign up for an IDR plan once payments resume to keep building credit toward loan forgiveness. Borrowers can call their servicers and submit paperwork today so they’ll be all set to go into an IDR plan as soon as forbearance ends, Buchanan says.
A new IDR plan
A major revision to an IDR plan called REPAYE would halve monthly payments for many borrowers with undergraduate loans and help some reach loan forgiveness more quickly. Students who originally borrowed less than $12,000 would see their remaining balances wiped away after 10 years of payments, instead of the 20 or 25 years under existing IDR plans.
The Education Department unveiled new details about the plan in January, but it’s not yet available to borrowers. Nor is it set in stone. The department aims to finalize and start rolling out the plan by the end of 2023.
What you can do about it: Once the revised IDR is finalized, you can call your servicer to ask about signing up for it. Don’t count on it being available by the time federal student loan payments resume.
Student loan servicer switches
The company that manages your student loans could change in the next couple of years. In April, the Education Department signed contracts with five federal student loan servicers. The new contracts are slated to go live sometime in 2024, but legacy contracts will last through December 2024 to smooth the servicer transition. Effects may be limited: Only one new servicer is entering the arena, and one — OSLA — is leaving.
Eventually, the overhaul will also include the launch of a central servicer portal at StudentAid.gov. The portal is intended to lead to more customer service accountability and prevent borrowers from having to navigate servicer-specific websites.
What you can do about it: Make sure your contact information is up to date with your current servicer, and download a copy of your payment history. You don’t need to do anything else at this point. “From an everyday experience perspective, I don’t know that it’s going to be a whole lot different than it is today,” Buchanan says of the new contract landscape.
If the Department of Education transfers your loans to another servicer, your current servicer and your new one will notify you by mail, email or phone. From that point on, you’ll make monthly payments with the new servicer, and you may need to set up any auto-pay or biweekly payments again. Most servicers deliver the same options, but customer service may differ among them.
Other key student loan changes underway
- “Fresh Start” program for delinquent or defaulted loans. People with past-due federal student loans now have a second chance to get them back into good standing, thanks to the government’s temporary “Fresh Start” program. It includes a bevy of benefits, like restored access to IDR plans. Eligible borrowers will need to sign up for Fresh Start within one year of forbearance ending to enjoy its full relief. You can sign up on myeddebt.ed.gov or by calling the Education Department at 800-621-3115.
- Bankruptcy guidance. The departments of Education and Justice jointly released updated bankruptcy guidance in November 2022, meant to standardize the requirements for borrowers to discharge their federal student loans in bankruptcy. Local bankruptcy judges will still make final calls case by case. Contact a bankruptcy attorney to see whether this is a good option for you.
- Breaking up consolidated spousal loans. In October 2022, Congress passed the Joint Consolidation Loan Separation Act, which will allow borrowers who previously consolidated their student loans with a spouse — through a program that ran from 1993 until 2006 — to separate them and access debt relief programs, like Public Service Loan Forgiveness. However, lawmakers have not yet said when they’ll roll out the program for eligible borrowers to apply for the loan separation.
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Eliza Haverstock writes for NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @elizahaverstock.
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