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Federal Reserve Says Student Loan Payment Pause Only Delays Day of Reckoning

In March 2020, the Department of Education suspended required payments on federal student loans due to the COVID crisis. Unfortunately, the feds extended the pause six times, meaning that most borrowers have not made student-loan payments for more than two years.

Nearly four out of five borrowers benefited from the pause on their student-loan obligations during the pandemic. The question is whether student debtors can resume making payments when the loan-payment moratorium expires next month.

No one can answer that question definitively, but a recent survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia suggests that many college-loan borrowers will have trouble getting back on track with their student-loan payments when the payment pause comes to an end.

According to the Fed report, borrowers’ “chronic repayment struggles are not primarily the result of pandemic-related transitory financial shocks but are more systematic in nature.” For most student borrowers, the Fed concluded, “[the payment pause] is simply postponing the day of reckoning with loan payments that [survey respondents] consider unaffordable.”

About half the respondents to the Fed’s survey whose loans were in abeyance said they could resume making loan payments when the moratorium expires. The other half said they could only make partial or no payments on their student loans.

Moreover, the Fed report pointed out, “A common narrative during the pandemic was that the forbearance period enabled many education loan borrowers to save or deleverage [pay down other debts].” The Fed found, however, that among student borrowers who didn’t expect to be able to resume making loan payments, very few were using the moratorium to save or pay down other debts.

Like many reports written by government agencies and policy wonks, the Fed’s announcement on expected student-loan repayment contains turgid language and an excessive number of bar charts.

Nevertheless, the Philly Fed said plainly that the long pause on making student-loan payments only postponed the day of reckoning for most distressed student-loan debtors.

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Meanwhile, American colleges continue to raise their tuition prices, which means that millions of overburdened college borrowers will see their debt burden become even more onerous than it is now.

Richard Fossey is a professor at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, Louisiana. He received his law degree from the University of Texas and his doctorate from Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is editor of Catholic Southwest, A Journal of History and Culture.

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