804,000 long-term borrowers are having their student loans forgiven before payments resume this fall

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Karin Engstrom, 82, poses for photos at home, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, in Seattle. Engstrom recently had student loans forgiven. She's one of 804,000 borrowers who will have a total of $39 billion forgiven under a one-time adjustment granted by the Biden administration. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

NEW YORK – Karin Engstrom thought she’d be paying off her federal student loans for the rest of her life. The 82-year-old was shocked when she logged on to check her balance ahead of payments resuming in October and found that more than $175,000 in debt had been erased.

She's one of 804,000 borrowers who will have a total of $39 billion forgiven under a one-time adjustment granted by the Biden administration. It's for people in income-driven repayment plans who have been paying back loans for 20 or 25 years but who never received credit for late or partial payments. It also credits borrowers for periods before the pandemic when they were allowed to pause or reduce payments due to financial hardships.

To correct mistakes by loan servicers, the Department of Education is retroactively adjusting accounts, resulting in forgiveness. The department says 95% of those who qualify have now been informed of the cancellation.

Engstrom didn't immediately believe it when she saw her balances had been erased, but she eventually found a letter from the Federal Student Aid office dated August 28 that confirmed the cancellation was real.

“Info: Your student loans have been forgiven,” the letter read. “Congratulations! The Biden-Harris Administration has forgiven your federal student loan(s) listed below with Edfinancial Services in full.”

The letter listed two original federal loan amounts of $30,067.45 and $45,729.97 — now gone, along with accumulated interest that more than doubled her total.

Like many borrowers who now qualify for cancellation, she had paid on them for decades, but had never received relief because of administrative and servicer errors.

“I didn’t realize what a lift I would get,” Engstrom said, of the moment of realization. “I thought it would be forgiven when I died.”

Engstrom worked until recently as a substitute teacher and teacher's aide, and had previously been a professional photographer.

“It was a burden,” she said, of the debt. “I couldn’t think of it all the time. It was just there in the background.”

Patricia Vener-Saavedra, 70, an artist based in Hamden, Connecticut, had more than $88,000 forgiven.

“It's a relief it's no longer hanging over me,” she said, adding that it means “hope for everyone else, that they can get out of this situation.”

She worries, though, about her nephew, who's looking to go to college part-time, which means he'll be taking out private loans, rather than public ones.

“He's going to get himself into the situation we're all trying to get out of,” she said.

Vener-Saavedra said her debt had made it difficult for her to build credit or get a loan to buy a car in recent years. Attempting to get a mortgage, she eventually turned to a “fly-by-night” company and asked her sister to act as a co-signer, which affected her sister's credit, she said.

“I looked into getting a different mortgage, now that my loans are gone,” she said, “but the rates are so high, it doesn't make sense.”

The White House has said it will continue to contact borrowers who qualify for cancellation based on their income-driven payment counts through the end of the year, every other month, as new borrowers become eligible. Here's what to know about the cancellation:

WHO QUALIFIES?

Borrowers who have made 20 or 25 years of qualifying payments (depending on the repayment plan) qualify, if they hold direct loans or Federal Family Education Loans with the Education Department, including borrowers with Parent PLUS loans.

WHEN WILL THESE BORROWERS RECEIVE FORGIVENESS?

The Education Department said it will continue to inform borrowers who qualify through the end of this year, and that discharges of the debts will take place roughly 30 days after those emails are sent. If you received an email or letter in August, for example, your loan balances should go to zero in September.

WHAT IF I'M WAITING FOR AN UPDATED PAYMENT COUNT TO DETERMINE IF I QUALIFY?

The Department of Education has said it will continue to update borrowers' payment counts once they have processed loan cancellation for borrowers already eligible for debt forgiveness based on their current payment counts.

WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE?

The official Federal Student Aid guide to the Income Driven Repayment adjustment is a good resource for updates.

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