In March 2020, millions of graduates were granted relief when The Department of Education temporarily halted student loan payments. But this week, the Biden administration announced that the halt on student loan payments will soon come to an end, and borrowers must resume making their payments beginning Feb. 1.
The pandemic has created an unstable workforce and housing market, and new variants further push the question of when and how the economy can recover. The pause on student loan payments, along with a stop on interest rates and the halt of default payment collections, has enabled many graduates to gain some financial freedom—especially people of color who are more likely to end up with more debt despite 54% of student loan debt being held by white borrowers.
“Over the last two years, I’ve been able to make some financial decisions that have put me in a better position, from paying off consumer debt to saving start-up costs for a small business,” said Ebony Meeks, a 39-year-old who has been paying student loans since 2008 after attending University of Memphis for Law School. She is just one of the many graduates, and people of color, who are going to have to resume their payments in February.
Student debt being one less bill to pay has allowed many young graduates and people of color to pay other bills such as rent or car payments, or save up for other endeavors. And with the pause being lifted, some borrowers feel their finances will be negatively impacted and could impede emergency or retirement savings. There are currently more than 43 million student borrowers who average $39,351 each. The news of the continuation of payments has brought many people to call out President Joe Biden for not staying true to his campaign promises, which included erasing $10,000 of student debt for every borrower, making public college free for families earning less than $125,000 a year, and changing the terms for student loan repayment. He is also being called out for disregarding the effects the payments will have on first-generation, low-income, and BIPOC graduates.
“The president’s choice to end the student loan repayment pause comes at kind of a really difficult time—a moment where borrowers and the federal government are both unprepared,” said Ernest Ezeugo, the higher education and workforce policy and advocacy director for Young Invincibles, an organization that promotes younger generations to advance their economic opportunity while increasing their voice in politics.
Ezeugo emphasizes how the administration and borrowers will be unprepared for payment, considering student loan servers have changed and borrowers who have defaulted will have to figure out payments before tax season. The announcement of resuming payments also comes when the Omicron variant has been detected across the country.
“I think that the failure to pause payments beyond February is indicative of the president’s fundamental misunderstanding of who is bearing the burden of student loans, and what this means about the ability for people like me, people who were first-generation students who sought post-graduate education, to actually be able to use their education to create wealth for ourselves and future generations,” Meeks said.
A survey by the Student Debt Crisis Center (SDCC) of 33,703 student loan borrowers found that for those with full-time employment, 89% are still not financially secure enough to resume payments. Statistically, Black and Latinx communities end up having more debt, with Black college graduates owing an average of $25,000 more than white graduates. Those within the Latinx and Black communities also tend to hold off on many big life decisions such as buying a house, getting married, or having children due to student loan debt—making it more difficult to generate wealth. Not to mention that despite seeing an increase in wages, the wages and job market are having a hard time keeping up with the increasing cost of living.
“I think this situation will definitely have a disparate negative impact for Black people and other people of color, saddling us with debt that makes it much more precarious to make significant positive life decisions—buy a home, start a family, build a business,” Meeks said. “The reality is that students of color are more likely to have student loans because of the history of students like ourselves being kept out of higher education. It is a vicious historical progression that it seems the Biden administration is willing to continue.”
Although the administration didn’t promise to rid borrowers of all student debt, many are disappointed in both the president and other Democratic leaders for breaking the campaign promises they did make.
“The implications were there through the course of the campaign and through the course of the beginning of the Biden administration. And that implicit kind of promise, especially to young people, has absolutely been broken,” said Ezeugo, referring to the promises made by Sen. Elizabeth Warren as well as the administration that promised some relief throughout the pandemic.
“The Biden administration is simply choosing not to do this, even though doing so could provide immediate relief to millions of borrowers.”
There is still some time before payments start, and while the future sounds daunting, there are experts and organizations out there willing to help relieve the burden of loans. People concerned about their ability to make their student loan payments can talk to a financial expert or an organization that works around student loan forgiveness.
“There are still some pieces to help ease the burden now, as we are still continuing this fight,” Ezeugo said. “We know that there are people fighting the good fight inside of the Department of Education. We’ll explore all avenues .. like public service debt forgiveness and other programs.”