Borrowers can pause their student-loan debt payments for two months, Trump says

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Student loan borrowers will be allowed to pause their debt payments for at least two months as the financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic threaten millions of Americans, the Department of Education announced Friday.

The option to suspend payments is intended to give borrowers “greater flexibility during the national emergency,” the Department of Education said Friday.

The suspension option is in addition to President Donald Trump’s decision last week to waive the collection of interest for all borrowers paying back federally-held student loans.

Americans have $1.5 trillion in student loan debt and the average monthly loan payment is between $200 and $299, according to Federal Reserve numbers.

The interest waiver is automatic and applies to all borrowers.

But borrowers who want the two-month suspension on making payments need to initiate the request. They’ll have to contact their loan servicer via phone or website to submit their request, the Department of Education said.

People who are at least 31 days behind on their loans will get an automatic suspension on payments, the department said.

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Trump announced the halted payments at Friday’s daily briefing on the coronavirus outbreak. “That’s a big thing, that’s going to make a lot of students very happy,” he said. Last week, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said a potential pause on student loan collections was one measure the administration was considering to soften the pandemic’s financial blow.

“Right now, everyone should be focused on staying safe and healthy, not worrying about their student loan balance growing,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Friday.

Some Democratic lawmakers want to take it a step further and cancel student debt altogether during the outbreak. A Senate bill would cancel at least $10,000 in debt obligations for all federal student loan borrowers.

Some borrower advocates are skeptical about the newly-announced suspension options because the administrative work falls on loan servicers.

“Pausing payments ultimately leaves borrowers worse off,” said Mike Pierce, policy director at the Student Borrower Protection Center. “Attempts to do so in the past only delayed turmoil and led to spikes in defaults. That’s because, even under the best circumstances, the student-loan industry is ill-equipped to navigate the transition back into repayment, particularly for the most economically vulnerable borrowers.”

Persis Yu, director of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project, said the government needs to cancel payments, not pause them. “Pausing payments simply kicks the can down the road. Struggling borrowers still burdened with historically high student loan debt will face a potentially devastated economy when payments resume,” Yu said.

One major loan servicer, Navient NAVI, -4.46%, said it is up for the job and has set up a website for borrowers in need of help.

“Navient is proactively encouraging customers impacted by coronavirus to get in touch if they need assistance,” the company said in a statement. “Customer service is available online and through the phone; approximately half of Navient’s loan servicing team is working remotely now, with hundreds more being deployed outside Navient offices in the coming days and weeks.”

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