A week after higher education saw its near-term financial outlook shot into a state of disarray, some relief could be coming soon from Washington.
As members of Congress negotiate a plan to boost the economy during the new recession spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic, some lawmakers have proposed including relief for student loan borrowers as part of the stimulus package. That relief would very likely exceed an option for borrowers, announced by the Education Department on Friday, to enter forbearance on their student loans for 60 days without accruing interest. The Department also suspended payments for borrowers who are over 31 days delinquent, and the White House had previously waived interest on federal student-loan payments in response to the crisis.
Nearly a dozen higher-education associations have also asked lawmakers for about $50 billion in federal assistance to help colleges and students stay afloat. On Thursday, the American Council on Education and 10 other higher-ed associations called on Congress to provide up to $1,500 apiece to students who were suddenly forced off campus, as well as assistance for institutions that have been forced to effectively close their doors and take instruction online.
“Students are having to relocate, and students are finding themselves needing to replace services that their institutions might have been providing for them,” said Ted Mitchell, president of ACE, in an interview. “So you want to be able to provide direct support for students in this time of transition.”
“We think it’s important to provide institutions with relief against the losses of revenue and the high expenses that they’re incurring to meet the needs of their students,” he added.
The proposal would also allow institutions to access zero-interest loans so they can remain solvent during the crisis and resume operations once it’s over; provide $7.8 billion in grant funding to help universities transition to online learning; and temporarily suspend some eligibility requirements for the disbursement of Title IV aid.
A number of other higher-education advocacy groups also urged Congress to provide emergency aid to students struggling to pay for food, housing, transportation, and child care costs, and Title IV-requirement flexibility for students who dip below academic-progress requirements during the crisis. The letter to top lawmakers, signed by more than 50 higher-education groups, said the relief should also clarify that the use of Pell Grants during semesters affected by the coronavirus would not count toward students’ lifetime limits.
Money Sought for Research Labs
Several associations also asked Congress for an additional $13 billion in federal funds to support research labs. A letter to congressional leaders on Thursday requested federal research agencies increase their budgets by 15 percent so institutions could sustain payroll for researchers and their assistants, and wind down and eventually restart federally funded research labs, while supporting labs that are confronting the pandemic.
Meanwhile, a number of advocates and think tanks say Congress needs to think beyond simply suspending student-loan repayments. Stopping there, they say, would do little for vulnerable borrowers already struggling to pay off their loans, especially if they are among the millions of Americans who lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic.
“Obviously, this crisis will have a huge impact on the economic prospects for young people,” said Kyle Southern, higher-education policy and advocacy director for Young Invincibles, a left-leaning advocacy group. “So we know there has to be a response from the government that is commensurate to the challenge of making sure that folks can take care of their basic needs as we all weather this public-health crisis.”
Young Invincibles was among a number of advocacy groups that have supported a bill by Senate Democrats that would cancel student-loan monthly payments for every borrower throughout the duration of the nationally declared emergency. And, under the terms of the bill, every borrower would see at least $10,000 of their debt paid off by the U.S. Department of Education at the end of the crisis.
The bill — introduced by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sens. Patty Murray, Sherrod Brown, and Elizabeth Warren — would also suspend debt collections and wage garnishments for borrowers who default on their loans during the emergency.
“The way it’s structured ensures that every borrower is getting benefit,” said Antoinette Flores, director of postsecondary education for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “It would particularly help those who have struggled with debt and repaying debt.”
And relieving student debt could help inject some much needed money into the economy, according to James Kvaal, president of the Institute for College Access & Success. “Student loan relief should help students now, during the economic emergency, and give the most help to students who are struggling the most,” he said.
The stimulus plan released by Senate Republicans on Thursday would pause student-loan payments for up to three months and give Education Secretary Betsy DeVos the ability to extend the suspension an additional three months if necessary.
Some experts say the suspension could be an effective approach. Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, called the approach “reasonable,” and said such a pause could allow borrowers to avail themselves of the existing income-driven repayment option.
Some conservative experts have also come out in support of such a pause. Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, said such a policy would accurately reflect the new reality: The world is currently on hold.
But simply cancelling $10,000 of student-loan debt would cost the government far more, and would wipe away loan debt that many borrowers would be perfectly capable of repaying after the crisis ends, Delisle said. “Letting people pause payments essentially says, eventually this will pass and we can go back to normal,” he said. “And when we do, you will go back to your normal student-loan situation, you know, versus just arbitrarily sort of canceling $10,000 of debt for people.”
Editor’s Note: Danielle McLean previously worked for ThinkProgress, which, before its closure in September, was an editorially independent news outlet owned by the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
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