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5 questions about student loans we wish they’d ask at the presidential debates

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Anticipation is building for the first presidential debate on Tuesday. While President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are scheduled to tackle topics like race and violence in U.S. cities, COVID-19, the Supreme Court and the economy, there’s at least one important subject that’s missing from the debate agenda: student loans.

As pandemic relief efforts continue, there are serious questions around the cost of college and what to do with student loan debt. However, there’s no scheduled time for the two candidates to talk through their proposals.

Below are five questions about student loans we wish both candidates would address in one of the upcoming debates.

1. Will federal student loan relief be extended beyond Dec. 31?

Congress passed The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March. It marked a sweeping effort to provide much-needed help for a country struggling to deal with the impact of a global pandemic.

One of the CARES Act’s standout efforts was the automatic interest-free deferment of most federal student loans until Sept. 30. In August, Trump directed the Secretary of Education to extend the temporary suspension of most federal student loan payments (along with collection efforts and interest charges) through the end of the year.

Some 35 million borrowers are currently eligible to pause their federal student loan payments. Yet many of these borrowers, along with private student loan borrowers and others who don’t qualify for relief, worry what will happen when current relief measures expire in January 2021.

The Trump campaign has yet to indicate whether it intends to provide student loan borrowers with a third wave of relief once the administration’s current coronavirus forbearance extension ends. A joint Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force, however, does indicate that Biden would support Democrats working to authorize up to $10,000 in student loan debt relief per borrower in response to the pandemic.

2. Will private student loan borrowers receive any coronavirus relief or protections?

Around 8 percent of student loan borrowers use private loans to help fund educational expenses, according to MeasureOne. Yet the student loan flexibilities like interest-free forbearance made available through the CARES Act (and by the president’s extension) only apply to eligible federal student loans — so if you’re juggling private student loans during the coronavirus crisis, your options may be limited.

It’s unclear whether either candidate has plans to propose additional student loan relief for borrowers with private loans. Regardless of whether specific relief programs are implemented, you can often sign up for forbearance or deferment with your lender to postpone private student loan payments.

Numerous private lenders are also offering additional hardship relief options to borrowers facing coronavirus-related financial difficulties. Your best bet is to give your lender a call — preferably before you fall behind on your payments — to ask about your options if you’re in over your head financially.

3. Should borrowers expect income-based repayment options to change?

There’s a reason student loan debt is referred to as a crisis. Since 2009, the amount of money owed by student loan borrowers has more than doubled, according to credit reporting agency Experian. Experian also reports that the average student loan borrower owed nearly $36,000 in 2019.

Whatever your feelings about student debt, one fact is clear: Student borrowers often take on more debt than they can afford based on the standard repayment plan, and many borrowers take advantage of income-based repayment plans to make their monthly student loan payments more manageable.

Trump proposes taking the four existing income-driven repayment plans and replacing them with one uniform option. Eligible participants would see their monthly payments based on 12.5 percent of their discretionary income. Current plans require borrowers to pay between 10 and 20 percent of their discretionary income, depending on the type of income-based repayment.

Biden suggests different changes where income-based repayment is concerned. The former vice president says he would exempt borrowers from all payments on undergraduate student loans if they earn $25,000 or less per year. All other borrowers would pay just 5 percent of their discretionary income.

4. Is student loan cancellation or forgiveness on the table?

The federal government currently offers student loan forgiveness or cancellation to several types of student loan borrowers. However, qualifying to have your federal student debt canceled or forgiven under current programs can be a lengthy and challenging process. In September 2019, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that 99 percent of applicants seeking Public Service Loan Forgiveness saw their requests denied, even after the program was temporarily expanded in 2018.

Trump signed an executive order in August implementing automatic federal student loan debt forgiveness for permanently disabled U.S. veterans. He also proposed a major change regarding student loan forgiveness in his 2021 budget.

Under his new, singular income-based repayment plan, he suggests forgiving remaining federal student loan balances after 15 years for undergraduate borrowers and after 30 years for graduate borrowers. Currently, undergraduates in income-driven repayment plans wait 20 to 25 years for potential forgiveness of their remaining loan balances.

Trump also proposed expanding the Pell Grant program to make the federal student aid available to more low-income students (including incarcerated students) seeking funds for career-oriented training programs in key industries.

Biden has stated that he wants to develop a program that would forgive $10,000 in student loan debt every year (for up to five years) that a borrower works for a community or national service organization. He also intends to pass legislation that would cancel federal student loan debt for eligible borrowers once they work for a government agency (federal, state, local or tribal) for at least 10 years.

5. Could tuition-free college be feasible in the future?

Tuition-free college was a recurring subject during the Democratic presidential primaries. The Trump campaign, meanwhile, has been largely silent on the matter. And it doesn’t look like we’ll hear about this topic from either candidate during the first presidential debate.

Since clinching the Democratic presidential nomination, Biden has proposed making college tuition-free at public universities and community colleges for families earning $125,000 per year or less. An estimated 80 percent of U.S. families would be able to take advantage of the benefit if it becomes a reality.

Of course, both candidates have received criticism for their student loan proposals and initiatives (or lack thereof). Opponents accuse Trump of doing too little to help student borrowers during his time in office. His new 2021 budget proposal reduced funding to the Department of Education by $5.6 billion. Supporters are quick to point out, however, that the income-based repayment plan changes, borrowing caps for parent PLUS and grad PLUS loans and other educational proposals would enable the Office of Federal Student Aid to better serve student borrowers without placing an undue burden on taxpayers.

Meanwhile, Biden’s student loan proposals are more progressive. The idea of a tuition-free college education and more student loan forgiveness options for existing borrowers certainly appeals to many. Yet Republicans point out that the price tag for such measures would almost certainly be paid for through higher taxes — likely to a significant degree. Additionally, getting Congress to pass such sweeping measures might prove to be a near-impossible undertaking.

Next steps for your student loans

Once the election outcome is clear, only time will tell which student loan measures the Trump or Biden administration will be able to implement.

In the meantime, it’s critical to pay close attention to your existing student loans so you can make the best plan possible to manage them now. Weigh your options based on the types of student loans you have and your financial situation as a whole.

As mentioned, most federal student loans are deferred until Dec. 31. Once the special coronavirus forbearance period ends, you might consider student loan deferment, discussing income-based repayment options with your servicer or even refinancing your federal student loans. (Note: Refinance with caution, as refinancing will cause you to lose federal benefits.) Finally, if you have a loan issued by a private lender, now may be a good time to lock in a lower interest rate or request some form of deferment.

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Written by
Michelle Black
Contributing writer
Michelle Lambright Black is a credit expert with over 19 years of experience, a freelance writer and a certified credit expert witness. In addition to writing for Bankrate, Michelle's work is featured with numerous publications including FICO, Experian, Forbes, U.S. News & World Report and Reader’s Digest, among others.
Edited by
Student loans editor