Many Student Loans Were Going Unpaid Even Pre-Pandemic

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That’s how many federal student loans weren’t being paid before COVID-19, suggesting student debt was unmanageable for many people well before the government suspended payment obligations because of the pandemic crush on the economy.

At the end of 2019, 14.1 million of the 34.1 million federally held student loans that should have been getting paid were either in default, deferment, or forbearance, according to data from the National Student Loan Data System. And that doesn’t count any of the loans in an income-driven repayment plan requiring $0 payment (because the borrower doesn’t make enough money). That’s millions more, according to estimates. 

Advocates for wiping out a portion of everyone’s student loan balance point to these numbers as evidence the student loan system is broken. And it’s become even more clear since the government suspended all payment obligations at the start of the pandemic two years ago, they say. The lengthy forbearance period—which has also stopped any interest from accruing—has changed lives, giving some borrowers breathing room to catch up on snowballing debt, and others to buy houses, invest, or start families. 

President Joe Biden hasn’t ruled out extending the forbearance beyond the latest Aug. 31 expiration date and is reportedly on the verge of canceling $10,000 of debt per borrower, according to the Washington Post. 

All of this shows the student loan system is at a crossroads: Borrowers and their advocates say they’ve been unfairly forced to take on crushing debt necessary for increasingly expensive higher education. Critics say letting student loan borrowers off the hook unfairly penalizes those who didn’t borrow and has even contributed to today’s soaring inflation.

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  1. Student Loan Justice. “Department of Education: Over half of federal student loan borrowers were not paying before Pandemic.”

  2. Center for American Progress. “The Continued Student Loan Crisis for Black Borrowers.”

  3. American Federation of Teachers. “The Student Debt Crisis.”

  4. Americans for Tax Reform. “Biden's Student Loan Pause Exacerbates Inflation and Spending to Serve Progressive Elite.”

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