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Student loans: Ending the pandemic payment pause 'is a defining moment,' Federal Student Aid COO says

·3 min read

The head of the federal government's massive student loan portfolio recently described the pandemic payment pause as "an unprecedented challenge," adding that restarting payments for tens of millions Americans after January 2022 will be "a defining moment."

Federal Student Aid (FSA) Chief Operating Officer Richard Cordray made the remarks in a Sept. 16 speech to the Education Finance Council, a national trade association representing non-profit and state-based higher education finance organizations.

The "unprecedented challenge" of the interest-free payment pause "may seem that it would be easy just to stop doing something, akin to taking a rest, but that surmise would badly misunderstand the complexities of the financial aid world," Cordray wrote in prepared remarks obtained by Politico.

"This is a defining moment, and it is important that we get it right," Cordray said at another point. "At a time when so many have been struggling — with their health, their employment, their finances — we cannot burden them with poor execution on the return to repayment."

Then-Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray testifies before House Financial Services Oversight in Washington on July 30, 2014. (REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)
Then-Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray testifies before House Financial Services Oversight in Washington on July 30, 2014. (REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

Federal actions amid the pandemic led to roughly $100 billion in total student loan forgiveness between March 2020 and September 2021, according to Education Department (ED) data and analysis from experts, providing a financial lifeline to the roughly 45 million student loan borrowers owing more than $1.7 trillion in outstanding federally-backed debt.

Millions of borrowers have been able to allocate money elsewhere to bolster their financial security amid the coronavirus pandemic, and borrowers who had defaulted on their loans also saw a pause on wage garnishments and other methods the federal government uses to recover funds.

"FSA has had multiple periods where it had to plan and prepare for return to repayment, only to reverse course, often at the last minute," he added, referring to the various extensions that have been enacted from the Trump to the Biden administrations. "The dilemma of how to communicate these mixed messages to borrowers has also been severe, with so many false starts no doubt sowing tremendous confusion about what even the immediate future may hold."

Student loan forgiveness debates rages on

Cordray noted that he anticipates a "psychological hurdle" for borrowers to resume payments after nearly a year of Democrats pushing for debt forgiveness.

"The old saying is that 'the wish is father of the thought,'" he said, "and we can expect that many, many borrowers will not be eager to return to repayment when they have been led to believe, or even to hope, that was never going to happen. Getting over that psychological hurdle with millions of Americans may be a much harder job than we know."

Some prominent Democrats have repeatedly urged President Biden to use executive authority to enact broad student loan forgiveness, and Biden's campaign website for the 2020 presidential election stated that a President Biden would "forgive a minimum of $10,000/person of federal student loans."

The Biden administration has focused more on improving the system's machinery: The Education Department, which FSA is a part of, cancelled debt of particular borrowers including those who had been defrauded by certain for-profit colleges and debtors who are totally and permanently disabled ($7.1 billion erased). 

Other reforms to the student loan system are appearing to be underway: During the speech, Cordray addressed how FSA was looking to further wind down the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program and introduce more accountability and performance metrics to loan servicers.

"The stakes are extremely high as we now proceed to change everything once again: For borrowers who may not like what they are hearing from us, may not believe what they are hearing from us, and may not be prepared to cope with what they are hearing from us," Cordray said of what comes next.

Aarthi is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. She can be reached at aarthi@yahoofinance.com. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.

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