Updated Aug 26, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Student loan forgiveness in hands of "understaffed and overcommitted" agency

Illustration of a ball and chain replacing the tassel of a graduation cap, with the chains breaking.
Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The implementation of President Biden's widespread, income-targeted student loan forgiveness is shaping up to be a bureaucratic challenge for the Department of Education.

Why it matters: Millions of Americans are in limbo waiting for information on how to take action on student debt relief — the success of which relies largely on an agency juggling unprecedented changes, on top of other reforms.

  • The agency doesn't have income data for most of the 43 million Americans eligible for forgiveness, meaning around 35 million people including Pell Grant recipients will have to attest that they makes less than $125,000 per year and apply for relief.

What we're watching: StudentAid.gov, the government’s financial aid website, experienced significant delays Wednesday and Thursday after it was inundated with people seeking information on loan forgiveness.

  • The White House doesn't know exactly how many eligible borrowers will actually end up applying for loan forgiveness — or how much it will cost.
  • The Education Department hasn't yet released the website where people can apply for loan forgiveness by attesting that they meet the income requirement — and it's still unclear when that will be released, a person familiar with the matter tells Axios.

More importantly: When will borrowers actually see the relief?

  • "That's the million-dollar question," Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told NPR Wednesday.
  • "It's really important that folks know that we're also improving a system that was broken and that was antiquated," he added.

How it'll work: The approximately 8 million qualifying borrowers for whom the agency already has income information will get automatic debt relief.

  • For everyone else: The White House is asking them to sign up for updates from the Education Department to receive further info on how to apply.

But, but, but: Experts caution that the agency may not be equipped to accomplish such a massive undertaking.

  • "It's an understaffed and overcommitted organization," Charlie Eaton, a UC Merced associate professor of sociology and student loan expert, tells Axios.

The rub: The Biden administration says the loan payment moratorium will end in January — and for that to happen "it's going to be really important borrowers have actually had a chance to declare their eligibility for loan forgiveness," Eaton says.

  • "Even if borrowers complete online attestations of their income and the online system works, the loan servicers will then need adequate time to adjust every borrower's balance and new payment levels," he adds.
  • Education Department officials didn't respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile: Some Americans simply won't engage with the government website — and they may slip through the cracks and never get the relief they're entitled to, says Bryce McKibben, former senior policy adviser to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

  • "It should be a relatively simple application, but that doesn't mean people won't struggle with it," said McKibben, who is now senior director of policy & advocacy with the Hope Center at Temple University.
  • "It is probably going to take years to fully process all of the cancellations for every single person who's eligible ... and even then, we will still miss some people," he added.

The looming onslaught of relief applicants comes as the agency is also tasked with implementing the $32 billion in targeted loan discharges it previously announced.

  • Those include programs for borrowers who were defrauded by their colleges, borrowers with disabilities and public servants, in addition to the income-driven repayment programs.

The bottom line: "It's just a massive amount of change and stress on the student loan system all happening at once," says McKibben.

Go deeper... Biden cancels up to $20K in student loans for Pell Grant recipients, $10K for millions of others

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