People Ignoring The Student Loan Forgiveness Form
By the time most people graduate from college this spring, they will have an average of $36,000.00 in student loan debt. Then comes the required monthly payments, $360.00 due every month or risk of defaulting; wage garnishment, tax garnishment, affecting their credit and the list goes on!
Most will turn to Google, typing “student loan repayments” or “student loan help” into the search bar. Coming to discover a government student loan forgiveness program most have yet to hear of—one that lets borrowers lower their monthly loan payments depending on how much income they’re earning!
The White House has enacted broad initiatives to give students more options for repaying their loans. Yet only 14 percent of Americans with federal student debt are enrolled in government student loan forgiveness plans that allow them to lower their payments or even receive forgiveness, according to data from the Department of Education.
The plans are designed to help prevent borrowers from defaulting on their loans, a problem faced by about 20 percent of people repaying college debt. The trouble is that many of these borrowers are unaware of their repayment options using the student loan forgiveness forms. And even those in the know are often confused by the myriad of choices, terms, and paperwork required.
“There is no question that we need better information, better loan counseling, outreach after people enter repayment to make sure that borrowers know their options,” said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), an education nonprofit. “And those options need to be improved.”
With national student debt approaching $1.3 trillion and many young graduates struggling to find jobs that pay enough to cover their monthly payments, these flexible repayment plans are critical. Those who miss out are more likely to default on their student debt, which comes with serious consequences. Defaulting on student debt can severely damage a person’s credit rating, making it much harder to buy a car or a house or get a credit card.
The Obama administration has made efforts to get the word out about these repayment plans, however, as most already know that the efforts have not been enough to reach those who need the most help.
“The White House needs to be convening all of the different agencies that work on student loans, and saying how do we all collectively get the word out?” said Chris Hicks, an organizer for Jobs With Justice’s Debt-Free Future campaign. “There’s got to be an expectation of better service [while borrowers are still in school], where before you graduate they say, ‘If you’re not sure what your job is going to be, there is something called income-based repayment.’”
Understanding the options
The government has allowed borrowers to repay amounts based on their income for the last 20 years, but the Obama administration expanded the number of options and eligibility.
Plans vary based on the type of federal loan, and only loans provided by the government are eligible.
One of the most widely available plans is what’s known as the income-based repayment (IBR) program, which covers new and older loans. It caps payments to about 15 percent of your income and forgives any balance that exists after 25 years. The calculation is based on your discretionary income, or whatever you earn above 150 percent of the federal poverty line ($17,505 for a single person).
If you make $35,000, for instance, your discretionary income would be $17,495. That means your monthly loan payments would initially be capped at $206.18. You have to update your financial information every year, so the more you make the more you will pay.
One reason that borrowers end up missing opportunities to adjust their payment plans is that they can be incredibly complicated. Advocates encourage people to use the Department of Education’s repayment estimator to get a sense of what their payments would be under various plans based on their income and loans.
While borrowers can directly apply online for the plan offering the lowest payment, they can also enroll through their student loan servicers, the middlemen who collect payments.
The government has tried adding incentives to get servicers to assist borrowers looking for student loan forgiveness form. The Department of Education recently even renegotiated its contracts with the companies, like Navient and Great Lakes, that manages the government’s portfolio of student debt, offering bonuses to those that reduce delinquencies or defaults. Advocates still worry that the incentives are not enough to hold the firms accountable for letting borrowers slip through the cracks.
“The people who have the biggest role in this are the servicers that get paid hundreds of millions of dollars every year,” said Hicks of Debt Free. “Even while you’re a student you’re assigned to a servicer that has your contact information, that’s supposed to be giving you updates.”
As we all know though, our servicers sometimes don’t have our best interest at heart! That’s when you must enlist the help of an advocate to get the student loan guidance you are entitled to!
Still, in the past year, there has been a significant increase in the number of borrowers able to peg their monthly payments to their incomes. The percentage of people enrolled in such programs has increased 64 percent from the same time a year earlier, according to the Department of Education. And the White House has directed the agency to advertise the plans through tax preparations providers like TurboTax as well as direct outreach to struggling borrowers.
A pathway out of debt
The road out of debt isn’t simple. Every year you will have to submit paperwork proving, among other things, income to continue benefiting from the program.
Advocates say the government could make the program much simpler so that more graduates can benefit. A new report from the New America Foundation argues that the government should automatically enroll borrowers in an income-driven plan and withhold payments from their paychecks, much like Social Security taxes. Both steps would dramatically reduce defaults and delinquency while keeping payments affordable, said the report.
“We don’t ask people to write and send in monthly checks for their income taxes or Social Security-why should student loans be any different?” said Alexander Holt, a policy analyst at New America, which co-authored the report with Young Invincibles and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrator. “Those who can pay back have a small amount deducted from their paycheck, and for those who can’t afford to repay, there’s no payment due, no paperwork and no debt collectors.”
Putting that sort of system in place, however, could present some substantial challenges. The government would have to find a way to overcome the lag time that exists in reporting individual income or run the risk of putting borrowers who lose their jobs in a pinch. And withholding could become complicated if the borrower has multiple jobs or is a contractor, said Asher of TICAS, which published its own paper on automatic enrollment.
“It takes away choice about how you want to make your payment and what that payment is going to be,” she said. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach to repayment.”
Speak to someone now to go over your available options to help you decide the best options for you and your financial situation.