February 2022 is approaching fast, and with it comes the end of the federal student loan repayment freeze. Borrowers should start preparing now so they’re not caught off-guard, Jenna Kramer told Free the Facts at its virtual policy event on November 22nd.
Kramer, an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, studies the effects of governmental policies on postsecondary training. She joined Free the Facts’ Senior Policy Advisor Tom Church for a Q&A-style discussion on what to expect when the long-standing student loan freeze ends in two months.
Kramer kicked off the event with a retrospective. The freeze began in March 2020 with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, she explained. As part of this wide-ranging relief bill, Congress suspended all federal student loan repayments and set interest rates to 0% until September 2020.
That end date was extended several times over the following year, with the last extension being granted in August 2021. Loan repayments are now scheduled to restart on February 1st, 2022, and the Department of Education has confirmed this to be the end of the grace period.
While the freeze has received a lot of publicity, other student loan-related actions have flown under the radar, relatively speaking. In August 2021, for example, the Biden administration automatically discharged loans for over 300,000 borrowers with total and permanent disabilities. Using executive powers, the president also expanded the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program until October 2022.
According to Kramer, students should be particularly interested in this PSLF expansion—especially if they plan on working in the non-profit or government sector after they graduate. She urged attendees to look into this program if they feel they qualify: “There are really detailed ‘frequently asked questions’ pages on the federal student aid website about this temporarily-expanded public service loan forgiveness.”
The discussion then shifted to the future. To set themselves up for success, Kramer advised borrowers to start thinking about their repayment plans well before February.
“As you borrow, it’s important to arm yourselves with information,” she said.
First and foremost, undergraduate students should meet with their financial aid or academic advisors to assess their unique situations. Borrowers should also consider their future earnings based on their career paths and use those estimates to draft different budget scenarios for 2022 and beyond.
If that sounds overwhelming, there are even simpler steps that borrowers can take today, Kramer assured attendees. Setting up calendar reminders or “auto-pay” processes can prevent missed deadlines and penalties.
Since it’s been over 20 months since the freeze began, borrowers may also be hazy on the details of their student loans. It may help to re-confirm basic information such as the loan servicer's contact info, account balances, and monthly payment dates.
According to Kramer, those with the financial means could consider getting ahead of the curve. “If you find yourself in the position where you have the financial stability and security to begin that repayment earlier, consider paying down any private loans or your loans that have the highest interest now. [This is] so that you can take advantage of that zero percent interest period or [use] funds that might otherwise go to your federal student loans for other debt that you’re carrying,” she explained.
Tom Church then moderated the Q&A portion of the event. Several attendees were interested in pursuing graduate school and wondered whether public or private loans were better-suited for grad students.
As with all economic decisions, it comes down to a set of pros and cons, Kramer answered. Private loans tend to offer more repayment options and there are a myriad of private servicers available, but there are also benefits to taking on federal loans. For example, someone who took out private loans in 2019 would not have enjoyed the extended repayment freeze during the pandemic. In the end, it comes down to a personal cost-benefit analysis, Kramer said.
Another attendee asked how the government, schools, and loan servicers could better educate potential borrowers about the risks and benefits of student loans. Kramer, a former college counselor herself, replied that several financial and institutional changes need to occur. Some examples? Bolstering financial education during high school, expanding advising and counseling services, and providing student aid offices with more resources to combat the information drought surrounding student loans.
As young Americans and their families continue to feel the burden of rising student loan debt—a figure that recently surpassed $1.7 trillion, according to Kramer—discussions like this one become more and more important. “It affects people right here and now, with very large dollars and in a very real way,” concluded Church.
Interested in more Q&A-style events with leading policy experts? Join Free the Facts’ Policy Advisor Julius Chen and the RAND Corporation’s Senior Policy Researcher Erin Taylor on December 6th for a virtual discussion about Medicare.