Student Loan Pause Is Ending, With Consequences for Economy

A bedrock component of pandemic-era relief for households is coming to an end: The debt-limit deal struck by the White House and congressional Republicans requires that the pause on student loan payments be lifted no later than Aug. 30.

By then, after more than three years in force, the forbearance on student debt will amount to about $185 billion that otherwise would have been paid, according to calculations by Goldman Sachs. The effects on borrowers’ lives have been profound. More subtle is how the pause affected the broader economy.

Emerging research has found that in addition to freeing up cash, the repayment pause coincided with a marked improvement in borrowers’ credit scores, most likely because of cash infusions from other pandemic relief programs and the removal of student loan delinquencies from credit reports. That let people take on more debt to buy cars, homes and daily needs using credit cards — raising concerns that student debtors will now be hit by another monthly bill just when their budgets are already maxed out.

“It’s going to quickly reverse all the progress that was made during the repayment pause,” said Laura Beamer, who researches higher education finance at the Jain Family Institute, “especially for those who took out new debt in mortgages or auto loans where they had the financial room because they weren’t paying their student loans.”

The pause on payments, which under the CARES Act in March 2020 covered all borrowers with federally owned loans, is separate from the Biden administration’s proposal to forgive up to $20,000 in student debt. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on a challenge to that plan, which is subject to certain income limits, by the end of the month.

The moratorium began as a way to relieve financial pressure on families when unemployment was soaring. To varying degrees, forbearance extended to housing, auto and consumer debt, with some private lenders taking part voluntarily.

By May 2021, according to a paper from the Brookings Institution, 72 million borrowers had postponed $86.4 billion in loan payments, primarily on mortgages. The pause, whose users generally had greater financial distress than others, vastly diminished delinquencies and defaults of the sort that wreaked havoc during the recession a decade earlier.

But while borrowers mostly started paying again on other debt, for about 42.3 million people the student debt hiatus — which took effect automatically for everyone with a federally owned loan, and stopped all interest from accruing — continued. The Biden administration issued nine extensions as it weighed options for permanent forgiveness, even as aid programs like expanded unemployment insurance, the beefed-up child tax credit and extra nutrition assistance expired.

Tens of millions of borrowers, who, according to the Federal Reserve, paid $200 to $299 on average each month in 2019, will soon face the resumption of a bill that is often one of the largest line items in their household budgets.

Jessica Musselwhite took on about $65,000 in loans to finance a master’s degree in arts administration and nonprofit management, which she finished in 2006. When she found a job related to her field, it paid $26,500 annually. Her $650 monthly student loan installments consumed half her take-home pay.

She enrolled in an income-driven repayment program that made the payments more manageable. But with interest mounting, she struggled to make progress on the principal. By the time the pandemic started, even with a stable job at the University of Chicago, she owed more than she did when she graduated, along with credit card debt that she accumulated to buy groceries and other basics.

Not having those payments allowed a new set of choices. It helped Ms. Musselwhite and her partner buy a little house on the South Side, and they got to work making improvements like better air conditioning. But that led to its own expenses — and even more debt.

“The thing about having a lot of student loans, and working in a job that underpays, and then also being a person who is getting older, is that you want the things that your neighbors have and colleagues have,” said Ms. Musselwhite, 45. “I know financially that’s not always been the best decision.”

Now the end of the repayment hiatus is looming. Ms. Musselwhite doesn’t know how much her monthly payments will be, but she’s thinking about where she might need to cut back — and her partner’s student loan payments will start coming due, too.

As student debt loads have risen and incomes have stagnated in recent decades, Ms. Musselwhite’s experience of seeing her balance rise instead of sink has become common — 52.1 percent of borrowers were in that situation in 2020, according to an analysis by Ms. Beamer, the higher education researcher, and her co-authors at the Jain Family Institute, largely because interest has accumulated while debtors can afford only minimum payments, or even less.

The share of borrowers with balances larger than when they started had been steadily growing until the pandemic and was far higher in census tracts where Black people are a plurality. Then it began to shrink, as those who continued loan payments were able to make progress while interest rates were set at zero.

A few other outcomes of this extended breather have become clear.

It disproportionately helped families with children, according to economists at the Federal Reserve. A greater share of Black families with children were eligible than white and Hispanic families, although their prepandemic monthly payments were smaller. (That reflects Black families’ lower incomes, not loan balances, which were higher; 53 percent of Black families were also not making payments before the pandemic.)

What did borrowers do with the extra space in their budgets? Economists at the University of Chicago found that rather than paying down other debts, those eligible for the pause increased their leverage by 3 percent on average, or $1,200, compared with ineligible borrowers. Extra income can be magnified into greater spending by making minimum payments on lines of credit, which many found attractive, especially earlier in the pandemic when interest rates were low.

Put another way, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that half of all borrowers whose student loan payments are scheduled to restart have other debts worth at least 10 percent more than they were before the pandemic.

The effect may be most problematic for borrowers who were already delinquent on student loans before the pandemic. That population took on 12.3 percent more credit card debt and 4.6 percent more auto loan debt than distressed borrowers who were not eligible for the pause, according to a paper by finance professors at Yale University and Georgia Tech.

In recent months, the paper found, those borrowers have started to become delinquent on their loans at higher rates — raising the concern that the resumption of student loan payments could drive more of them into default.

“One of the things we’re prepping for is, once those student loan payments are going to come due, folks are going to have to make a choice between what do I pay and what do I not pay,” said David Flores, the director of client services with GreenPath Financial Wellness, a nonprofit counseling service. “And oftentimes, the credit cards are the ones that don’t get paid.”

For now, Mr. Flores urges clients to enroll in income-driven repayment plans if they can. The Biden administration has proposed rules that would make such plans more generous.

Further, the administration’s proposal for debt forgiveness, if upheld by the Supreme Court, would cut in half what would otherwise be a 0.2-percentage-point hit to growth in personal spending in 2023, according to researchers at Goldman Sachs.

Whether or not debt forgiveness wins in court, the transition back to loan repayment might be rocky. Several large student loan servicers have ended their contracts with the Department of Education and transferred their portfolios to others, and the department is running short on funding for student loan processing.

Some experts think the extended hiatus wasn’t necessarily a good thing, especially when it was costing the federal government about $5 billion a month by some estimates.

“I think it made sense to do it. The real question is, at what point should it have been turned back on?” said Adam Looney, a professor at the University of Utah who testified before Congress on student loan policy in March.

Ideally, the administration should have decided on reforms and ended the payment pause earlier in a coordinated way, Dr. Looney said.

Regardless, ending the pause is going to constrain spending for millions of families. For Dan and Beth McConnell of Houston, who have $143,000 left to pay in loans for their two daughters’ undergraduate educations, the implications are stark.

The pause in their monthly payments was especially helpful when Mr. McConnell, 61, was laid off as a marine geologist in late 2021. He’s doing some consulting work but doubts he’ll replace his prior income. That could mean dropping long-term care insurance, or digging into retirement accounts, when $1,700 monthly payments start up in the fall.

“This is the brick through the window that’s breaking the retirement plans,” Mr. McConnell said.

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