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Student loan borrowers will get help after an NPR report and years of complaints

LA Johnson

The U.S. Department of Education says it will retroactively help millions of federal student loan borrowers who have been hurt and held back by its troubled income-driven repayment (IDR) plans, calling the plans' longstanding flaws and mismanagement "inexcusable."

Tuesday's announcement comes after years of complaints and lawsuits and, most recently, an NPR investigation that revealed that these IDR plans, which promise affordable monthly payments as low as $0 and loan forgiveness after 20-25 years, have been badly mismanaged by the department and the loan servicing companies it employs.

"Today, the Department of Education will begin to remedy years of administrative failures that effectively denied the promise of loan forgiveness to certain borrowers enrolled in IDR plans," U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

The department estimates that the changes will result in immediate debt cancellation for at least 40,000 borrowers who will now qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. In addition, several thousand borrowers will now qualify for debt cancellation under IDR.

This follows a 2021 revelation that, at the time, 4.4 million borrowers had been repaying their loans for at least 20 years but only 32 had had debts canceled under IDR.

As a result of Tuesday's news, millions more borrowers will also receive months and, in some cases, years of new credit toward eventual cancellation.

Here's what the department is committing to do:

Borrowers with long-term forbearances will get credit toward debt cancellation

The department and its office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) pledge to conduct a "one-time account adjustment" to give borrowers credit for time spent in what it considers unjustifiably long forbearances: more than 12 consecutive months or more than 36 cumulative months.

Forbearance allows borrowers in financial trouble to pause their payments, but interest continues to accrue and capitalize, meaning the interest itself ends up accruing interest. Income-driven repayment plans can offer the same, or nearly the same, reprieve from high monthly payments, and, unlike forbearance, they give borrowers a path toward loan cancellation.

After July 2009 when IDR plans became widely available, forbearance should have been loan servicers' tool of last resort for distressed borrowers. Instead, the department says, a new review found that servicers' use of long-term forbearance was "remarkably widespread."

According to the department, between July 2009 and March 2020, more than 13% of all Direct Loan borrowers were in forbearance for at least 36 months, suggesting "loan servicers placed borrowers into forbearance in violation of Department rules, even when their monthly payment under an IDR plan could have been as low as zero dollars." The department generally limits forbearance to 12 consecutive months or three years total, after which payments should resume.

The department's remedy means that borrowers will be given credit toward loan cancellation for some of these long-term forbearances. For example, a borrower who spent 16 consecutive months in forbearance would be given credit for 16 qualifying payments toward cancellation.

The department estimates that 3.6 million borrowers will receive at least three years of new credit toward cancellation. Many more borrowers will benefit but receive less than that.

The plan excludes one prominent group of borrowers: those who spent less than 12 consecutive months and less than 36 cumulative months in forbearance, though it does promise an "account review" for those who choose to file a complaint with FSA's ombudsman.

Inaccuracies in how qualifying payments were counted will be corrected

NPR reporting earlier this month revealed pervasive inaccuracies in loan servicers' counts of borrowers' qualifying IDR payments, which the department now acknowledges and pledges to address with a one-time revision of past payments.

"Any months in which borrowers made payments will count toward IDR, regardless of repayment plan," the department's release says. "Payments made prior to consolidation on consolidated loans will also count. This fix is necessary to correct for data problems and past implementation inaccuracies."

After acquiring internal department documents, NPR found a litany of irregularities in how loan servicers were counting — or failing to count — qualifying IDR payments, thereby delaying borrowers' progress toward forgiveness. For example, $0 monthly payments were not being adequately tracked, potentially hurting the lowest-income borrowers. Also, borrowers appeared to erroneously lose credit for previous progress made toward IDR after emerging from default.

Improving the way borrowers' progress toward loan cancellation gets tracked

The department is offering two remedies for another serious problem highlighted in NPR's recent investigation — that loan servicers weren't uniformly tracking borrowers' progress toward loan cancellation, and some weren't tracking their progress at all.

FSA now says it will issue new guidance to servicers to make sure the companies' records are accurate and uniform. Perhaps more importantly, the department says in 2023 it will begin tracking IDR payments on its own system and displaying borrowers' progress at StudentAid.gov.

These changes will happen automatically — but it may take awhile

The department says it will make these adjustments to borrower records automatically, but first it will need to upgrade its antiquated National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS). As such, loan cancellations won't officially begin until fall of this year.

The overhaul comes amid mounting political pressure

The department unveiled its overhaul plans amid mounting pressure from lawmakers.

On Monday, citing NPR's reporting, the chairs of both House and Senate education committees, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., urged Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in a letter to "provide immediate relief and undo past harms."

"Borrowers have for too long, lived with ballooning debts and the false promise of loan forgiveness after 20 or 25 years in income-driven repayment," the letter said. "Payments must be corrected retroactively in order to provide relief to borrowers who have already been harmed by this broken safety net."

While the department's proposal addresses some of Scott's and Murray's demands, it falls short in at least one area. The top Democrats implored the department to retroactively give borrowers credit toward loan cancellation for all past periods of forbearance, not just long-term pauses.

In a statement, Scott said "today's announcement means that borrowers in Income-Driven Repayment will finally have reliable access to the loan forgiveness that they were promised and have been working toward... However, while the Department has taken a significant step to support borrowers, we know we must do more to fix our broken student loan system, including the Income-Driven Repayment program."

Last week, leading Senate Democrats, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, also sent a letter to Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Rohit Chopra, calling for his agency to investigate and "use all of its authorities to ensure borrowers are accessing IDR program benefits and receive the student loan forgiveness they have earned."

The department's announcement also comes not long before the U.S. Government Accountability Office is expected to release the results of its own investigation into IDR's failures.

NPR is committed to reporting on pressing issues that matter to you, like student loans. Sign up for our Education newsletter to stay up to date. You can support NPR's trusted, vital coverage by donating to your local NPR station today.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.