About 20 million Americans could have their student loan debt wiped out in just six weeks after the Biden Administration launched the official application for debt cancellation on Monday.
The application launch kicks off the process of forgiving up to $20,000 in student debt per borrower. Borrowers can apply for forgiveness anytime before Dec. 31, 2023.
“I’m keeping my commitment to relieve student debt as borrowers recover from this economic crisis caused by the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic,” President Joe Biden said on Monday.
But while Biden touts the completion of a campaign promise weeks ahead of the midterm elections, the program is currently facing several legal challenges from conservative groups and Republican-led states.
Here’s what to know about the application.
Who is eligible for loan forgiveness?
Individuals who make less than $125,000 per year, or married couples who make less than $250,000 per year, are eligible for up to $10,000 in loan forgiveness. Borrowers who meet those same income requirements and attended college with Pell Grants, designed to help low-income students, are eligible for up to $20,000 in forgiveness.
The income requirement is based on a person’s adjusted gross income, which is usually lower than their total income. Adjusted gross income can be found on line 11 of the IRS Form 1040 in their federal income tax filings from 2020 or 2021.
A September report by the Congressional Budget Office estimated the plan could cost about $400 billion.
Who is not eligible for loan forgiveness?
About 45 million people owe a collective $1.6 trillion in federal student loan debt. And more than 40 million borrowers are expected to receive some debt relief through this program. Private students loans will not be forgiven by the program.
Borrowers who took out Parent PLUS loans, which are federal loans that carry higher interest rates and fees that parents can use to help their children pay for college, are eligible to receive up to $10,000 in relief. But they do not qualify for the extra $10,000 in relief if only their child attended college with a Pell Grant.
A change to the program in September also excluded about 800,000 borrowers and limited the amount of relief for many more, NPR reported.
The change affects borrowers who took out loans through the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFEL), which ended in 2010 and had offered federal loans managed by private banks.
The federal student aid website initially said that borrowers with privately held federal student loans could receive debt relief by consolidating those loans into a federal Direct Loan, a student loan held by the U.S. Education Department. It did not mention a deadline for that consolidation.
But the department later changed that guidance. Borrowers with privately held federal student loans can no longer obtain debt relief, unless they had already applied to consolidate their loans before Sept. 29.
That’s frustrating to borrowers like Jennifer Newell Davies, who said she initially felt a huge sense of relief when Biden announced the loan forgiveness program. Davies, 36, said she owes just under $10,000 in federal student loans after graduating in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She expected that would all be forgiven.
But most of her federal debt consists of FFEL loans, which are now held by private banks and are no longer included in Biden’s debt relief plan. Davies, who lives in San Diego, started a petition to include FFEL borrowers in student debt relief again.
“We were sold these loans as federal loans,” she says. “I never asked for them to be private. I explicitly avoided private loans as much as I could.”
The Education Department says it is discussing the issue with private lenders and exploring “alternative pathways” to grant relief to these borrowers.
“We are working on pathways there to support those,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Monday, when asked about people with privately held loans who are not eligible for forgiveness. “But we’re moving as quickly as possible to provide relief to as many people as possible.”
What’s the status of lawsuits against the program?
Several conservative groups and Republican-led states have filed lawsuits against the program, arguing that Biden doesn’t have the authority to roll out this policy.
A federal judge heard arguments last week from the Republican-led states seeking an injunction to halt the debt-forgiveness plan. But he hasn’t issued a decision yet.
“Republican members of Congress and Republican governors are trying to do everything they can to deny this relief, even to their own constituents,” Biden said Monday. “Their outrage is wrong and it’s hypocritical.”
He acknowledged the ongoing lawsuits, but said he doesn’t expect them to stop the debt-relief program.
How do I apply?
The application is simple and free, and can be found at: https://studentaid.gov/debt-relief/application
It asks borrowers to enter their name, social security number, birthday, and contact information. Borrowers aren’t asked to upload any documents, but must certify under penalty of perjury that they meet the eligibility requirements for the program. The Education Department could request proof of income later.
“We’ll determine your eligibility and will contact you if we need more information,” the application page states. “Your loan servicer will notify you when your relief has been processed.”
When should I apply?
The White House is encouraging borrowers to apply as soon as possible. About eight million borrowers applied over the weekend, after a beta version of the application went live, and another four million borrowers applied after the official launch on Monday, Biden said.
Cardona has encouraged borrowers to complete the application by Nov. 15 in order to receive relief before the pandemic-related pause on student loan repayment ends on Dec. 31.
The Biden Administration has argued the President has the authority to cancel student debt based on a 2003 law that allows the Education Department to change student financial assistance programs during a “national emergency”—in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic.
But as other pandemic-related programs wind down, and after Biden said that “the pandemic is over,” it could undermine the administration’s legal argument.
How long will it take to see relief?
Cardona previously said that borrowers should expect to see relief four to six weeks after completing the application.
In a recent court filing, the Education Department said it would not cancel any loans before Oct. 23.
Should I keep paying off my loans while I wait to know if my debt was forgiven?
When Biden announced the debt-forgiveness plan in August, he also extended the pandemic-related pause on federal student loan payments “one final time” through Dec. 31.
That means borrowers should expect to start making student loan payments again in January. But many borrowers could see their debt eliminated before then, if they apply now.
Borrowers are encouraged to apply for forgiveness by Nov. 15, so they can receive debt relief before payments resume.
Could I get turned down for loan forgiveness?
Only people who meet the income requirements are eligible for debt forgiveness through this program. The application requires borrowers to sign the form and affirm that they made less than $125,000 individually or less than $250,000 as a married couple in 2020 or 2021.
The Education Department might ask applicants for proof of income. If borrowers don’t provide that proof by March 31, 2024—or if they don’t meet the qualifying income requirements—they will not receive debt relief.