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Some federal student loan borrowers, locked out of the bailout, consider a risky move for relief

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Right now, scores of Americans can log into their federal student loan accounts to find they owe nothing for the next six months, thanks to the automatic suspension of their interest and payments by the federal stimulus package.

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Ryan Engstrom is not one of them.

The 39-year-old chiropractor in Denver is among the 7.2 million people who are ineligible for the congressionally mandated reprieve because their federal loans, originated through the defunct Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program, are held by private companies. The exclusion of these loans is frustrating borrowers and leading some to consider a risky alternative to get their payments paused through September.

Engstrom was laid off from his job last month and had to shutter his practice after Colorado closed nonessential businesses. There was no way Engstrom could afford to keep making $1,000 monthly payments on his student debt, so he quickly contacted his loan servicer to lower the bill.

Engstrom's income-based repayment plan allowed him to lower his payments to under $150 a month, once he reported the earnings lost to the coronavirus crisis.

But with a family to care for, Engstrom felt every dollar of that payment could be put to better use. And for a fleeting moment, it seemed the federal government was offering that help.

"I just kind of assumed: Hey, I'm a federal student loan borrower. I'm in a federal plan. I should be good, right?" said Engstrom, who graduated in 2007 from Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa.

When Engstrom learned the loans he and his wife had were ineligible for relief, he began researching his options and discovered he could consolidate. Borrowers with commercially held FFEL loans can consolidate their debt into the Direct Loan program - where loans are made and held directly by the feds - to take advantage of the interest waiver and payment suspension provided by the Cares Act.

But the more he learned about it, the more he grew concerned.

The $26,000 in uncapitalized interest on his loans would be added to the $185,000 balance, increasing the total amount he owed. Engstrom's current repayment plan offered loan forgiveness after 25 years. Consolidating would also mean losing credit for nearly 12 years of payments he made toward that debt cancellation. And he'd end up with a slightly higher interest rate.

"This is certainly not the easy solution the Education Department has made it out to be," said Tariq Habash, head of investigations at the Student Borrower Protection Center, an advocacy group. "Consolidation is supposed to take 30 days, but for a lot of borrowers, it will often take months. There's a lot of reasons to be very cautious."

Still, Engstrom is intrigued by the prospect of being eligible for a more generous repayment plan.

If Engstrom had a consolidated Direct Loan, he could enroll in Revised Pay as You Earn, or REPAYE. That program caps payments to about 10 percent of discretionary income and cancels any remaining debt after 20 years. He could save money on his monthly bill, but Engstrom would be approaching 60 before even a dime of his debt would be canceled.

"The great hope is that as my practice gets going and I'm able to build it up, I can pay my loans off. The goal is not to have those forgiven," Engstrom said. "We'd have to pay taxes on the entire forgiven amount. The only thing is, [with a new plan] I'd be kicking the can down the road as interest accrues."

Until recently, Engstrom had no idea his loans were held by a private company. There is no indication when he pulls up his account through his loan servicer's website. And he never had a reason to ask.

The federal government actually owns some loans from the FFEL program, and that debt is eligible for payment relief. So why are those borrowers so lucky? It's a bit of a fluke that's rooted in the design of the old program.

For years, the federal government was essentially a silent partner in a $60 billion program. Private lenders used their own money to finance the loans, but behind the scenes, the government paid a portion of the interest to make the debt more affordable. And to entice lenders, the government guaranteed the debt, taking on the risk of default. But after lenders were caught stealing from the government and paying off financial aid officers, the FFEL program lost favor on Capitol Hill.

The 2008 recession threatened the liquidity of private lenders, though, so the Education Department swooped in to buy some of their FFEL loans to keep the program going. By the time the Obama administration moved solely to direct lending in 2010, the portfolio of bank-based loans had been divided up among the department and companies like Navient and Nelnet.

This week, a group of 25 consumer advocates and lending associations urged congressional leaders to extend the six-month payment pause to all FFEL loans and federal Perkins loans for low-income students that are held by colleges and universities.

"These loans have essentially the same terms and conditions as the loans that are owned by the federal government," the group wrote. "It is imperative that Congress take swift action to ensure equitable treatment for all borrowers and include legislative language in the next emergency bill to directly provide interest subsidies and other benefits to borrowers with FFELP and Perkins loans."

In the meantime, Engstrom continues to wrestle with what to do with his loans in the future. His unemployment benefits just kicked in, his wife is still working and they have squirreled away some money. If this stretch of unemployment lasts much longer, Engstrom could temporarily postpone his payments through forbearance, but interest would accrue and his balance would grow.

Taking advantage of the Cares Act payment pause has become less of a motivator for consolidation. Engstrom now worries that if Democrats are successful in bringing about student-debt cancellation, once again his loans would be excluded.

"I don't want to be left out again," Engstrom said.

 

Published : April 17, 2020

By : The Washington Post · Danielle Douglas-Gabriel · NATIONAL, BUSINESS, EDUCATION, PERSONAL-FINANCE