May 28, 2024

Why restarting student loan payments hasn’t gone smoothly

When it became clear that the pandemic-era pause on federal student loan payments was coming to an end, some people who watch the student loan space warned that it was going to be a messy process.

New data from the Department of Education suggests they were right. More than a third of borrowers who had payments due in October hadn’t made them by mid-November. Those who did miss payments won’t be considered delinquent until September, according to the agency.

You know how you’re supposed to pull a Band-Aid off quickly, just to get it over with? Kinda the opposite happened with the end of the payment pause, which was pushed back over and over again. 

“You almost conditioned people to keep expecting pauses,” said Dalié Jiménez, director of the Student Loan Law Initiative at the University of California, Irvine. 

She said people got out of the habit of paying their student loan bills and budgeted the money for other things. 

And now? “They have to juggle. … You need to find some kind of regular income increase in your life, that you may have reallocated,” Jiménez said.

Another challenge: About 40% of borrowers are working with new loan servicers.

That’s because a number of servicers have left the industry in the past few years. “Because of that, we’ve seen just a huge migration of accounts,” said Persis Yu with the Student Borrower Protection Center. 

She said borrowers should have been notified if there was a change. But that process wasn’t seamless.

And even when it was, they may not have realized who was reaching out. 

“We’re all inundated by emails and spam mail all the time,” said Yu. “And these companies have fairly arcane names, right? Borrowers may not recognize that as a piece of mail they need to open.”

Meanwhile, servicers have to do more with less. 

Congress gave the Office of Federal Student Aid at the Department of Education the same budget this year as last year. Which means there’s no extra funds to pay servicers.

“It’s sort of the rough equivalent of asking someone to, instead of working for 40 hours a week, work 60 hours a week and then not paying them a dime more to do it,” said Scott Buchanan, executive director of the Student Loan Servicing Alliance. 

That’s created issues with capacity, including long times on hold for callers. 

“It’s not uncommon to hear borrowers waiting for two or three hours or sometimes, in extreme cases, even longer,” said Betsy Mayotte, president of the Institute of Student Loan Advisors. “I do think that that timeframe is settling down a little bit.”

Buchanan of the servicing alliance pointed out that people weren’t great at paying back their loans on time prior to the pandemic. He said that makes the fact that 40% missed their first payment less surprising. 

“I think the real test will be what does that number look like in January or February?” he said. “Then we’ll have a real sense of, is this just the bumpiness we always expected?” 

Essentially, what things look like now that the Band-Aid is off.

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