“These are anxious times, particularly for students and families whose educations, careers, and lives have been disrupted,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement. “Right now, everyone should be focused on staying safe and healthy, not worrying about their student loan balance growing.”
All federal student borrowers, regardless of whether they choose to postpone their payments, will automatically have the interest on their loans set at zero for at least 60 days. The new interest rate will be retroactive to March 13. Any payments borrowers make will go strictly to the principal of their loans once all interest accrued before March 13 is paid.
People in public service jobs will have to think twice about postponing their payments. Opting out for two months will result in a longer path to debt cancellation for those working toward Public Service Loan Forgiveness. The federal program cancels the remaining balance of a borrower’s debt after 120 on-time monthly payments, but postponing the bill will lengthen the process.
“We do not want covid-19 disruptions to penalize borrowers who are on a pathway towards [Public Service Loan Forgiveness] or [income-based] forgiveness. But it’s pretty clear that the administration has gone as far as they can go, or are willing to go,” said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “So our attention is now turning towards Congress for further student borrower help.”
The Education Department’s announcement comes a day after congressional Democrats and Republicans issued competing student-loan relief proposals.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) released a stimulus package Thursday that would halt all payments on student loans for three months, with an additional three-month suspension at the education secretary’s discretion. The proposal would also ensure students would not be forced to repay their federal loans if they leave school in the middle of the semester because of the coronavirus.
“This is a smart emergency policy that avoids blanket student-loan forgiveness,” said Lindsey Burke, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy. “Large-scale student-loan forgiveness would be inappropriate and would place an additional burden on those who did not take out loans — the vast majority of taxpayers.”
Burke, like other conservative higher-education experts, takes a dim view of Senate Democrats’ proposal of at least $10,000 in tax-free debt cancellation for all federal student-loan borrowers.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) floated the idea Thursday as part of a host of measures to help borrowers. Senate Democrats want the Education Department to assume loan payments for the duration of the national emergency and then institute a three-month grace period during which borrowers could forgo their payments without penalty. Payments made by the agency would still count toward loan forgiveness for borrowers in public service jobs.
Separately, the president said his administration is waiving federal requirements for standardized tests for K-12 students because the coronavirus pandemic has forced most schools in the country to close for an indefinite period during annual testing season.
“The Department of Education will not enforce standardized testing requirements, very importantly, for students in elementary through high school for the current year,” Trump said at his daily briefing. “They’ve been through a lot. They’ve been going back and forth. Schools open. Schools not open. I think a lot of the students will be extremely happy. Some probably not. The ones that work hard, maybe not.”
States have an annual federal mandate through the Every Student Succeeds Act to test most students in specific subjects to assess student performance, and the spring testing season is being disrupted across the country, with millions of students in 45 states and the District of Columbia at home because their schools closed.
State education officials had been pleading with the administration for relief from the federal mandates, and some states did not wait for the federal government to cancel the tests. At least 10 had already moved to cancel or postpone tests without federal approval.
DeVos said that because student performance, as measured by assessments, is required to be used in statewide accountability systems, states can ask for and receive a waiver from the requirement that this testing data be used for accountability purposes.
In another sign of upheaval in the nation’s education system, the organization that oversees the Advanced Placement program announced Friday that face-to-face AP testing will be canceled because of the coronavirus crisis and replaced by shorter online versions of the exams that can be taken in 45 minutes at home.
Nick Anderson contributed to this report.