A group of over one hundred organizations representing student loan borrowers recently wrote an open letter calling on the Education Department to overhaul its income-driven repayment program. The goal of an income-driven repayment plan is to make payments more affordable and give borrowing who have already been paying for 20 to 25 years a way out. However, these plans are so poorly designed that only 32 people have qualified for forgiveness as of the beginning of 2021.
According to the National Consumer Law Center, a consumer advocacy group, the government made a promise to borrowers that federal student loan payments would be affordable and would not be a lifetime burden. Unfortunately, the Education Department’s income-driven repayment program has “failed to deliver on every aspect of that promise.”
What is an income-driven repayment plan?
An income-driven repayment plan sets your monthly student loan payment to an affordable amount based on your income and family size. There are several different income-driven repayment plans, but they all generally require borrowers to pay between 10 and 20% of their discretionary income for 20 or 25 years.
What are the downsides to this type of student loan?
Although income-driven repayment plans exist to help low-income borrowers, they come with several downsides as well.
You might not qualify
Most private student loans don’t offer income-driven repayment plans, so you will likely only qualify if you’re a federal student loan borrower. The qualifications can be confusing though: Federal Parent PLUS loans are not directly eligible for this type of repayment plan but may become eligible by including the loans in a Federal Direct Consolidation Loan.
Your loan balance might increase
It’s also possible for student loans to be negatively amortized under this type of repayment plan, which means the loan payments you are making are less than the interest that accrues each month. This results in a higher loan balance which can feel like you’re making zero progress when paying down your debt.
Married borrowers might have a higher payment
Some income-driven repayment plan payments may increase if the borrower gets married and their spouse has a job. This is typically seen as a marriage penalty and can result in a much higher payment than you’re used to due to your joint income.
Student Loan Forgiveness takes a long time
If you’re seeking forgiveness of your student loan debt, you won’t see it until after 20 or 25 years of payment on an income-driven repayment plan. This can feel like you’re in debt forever since you’ll owe money for longer than the standard repayment plan and will end up paying more interest in the long run.
What’s next for student loans?
Advocates are calling for massive reform to the income-driven repayment program since the current program is too complicated, requires too much paperwork, and is poorly managed by the loan servicing companies that run them. Only about 34% of borrowers manage to recertify every year, which is a dismal amount considering these repayment plans are supposed to be helpful.