Over the past year, more than 20 million federal student loan borrowers have been able to pause their payments to cope with pandemic-induced financial stress — a postponement that President Joe Biden recently extended through September.
But those who have private student loans? Not so much.
Private student loans represent about 8% of total education debt, according to MeasureOne, which tracks data on private student lending. Not only are these borrowers left out of the payment pause granted to federal borrowers, they are also rarely included in ongoing conversations about loan forgiveness.
Betsy Mayotte, president and founder of the Institute of Student Loan Advisors, said borrowers shouldn't expect relief to come from Congress.
Private student loans, unlike federal loans, are underwritten using traditional credit standards, and over the years their default rate has been less than 2% annually, according to a 2019 MeasureOne report.
At the start of the pandemic, private lenders offered borrowers experiencing financial hardship short-term emergency forbearance or deferment or a temporary lower payment amount.
Relatively few borrowers took advantage of them. It's worth noting that many of the special forbearances were available in 90-day increments only.
A NerdWallet survey of 30 private lenders found virtually all requests for short-term forbearance during 2020 were granted. Most lenders who responded to NerdWallet's questionnaire said they weren't currently reporting delinquent accounts to collections, and among those who were, the reporting rates were low.
Some of these special relief options are continuing into 2021, but several lenders have already sunsetted their programs.
In those cases, borrowers must rely on existing options. That usually means requesting regular forbearances lenders already offer, which carry limits (typically around 12 months). If you have private student loans, contact your lender to find out what it offers.
For private borrowers who are facing financial trouble, this relief may not be enough.
Seth Frotman, executive director of the nonprofit Student Borrower Protection Center, questions whether private lenders are doing their part.
"Companies are making all of these promises about supposed help in the face of the pandemic, and we have heard time and again from borrowers that they're getting bad information, no information, conflicting information or the total runaround," Frotman says.
Anna Helhoski writes for NerdWallet. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @AnnaHelhoski.