For many recent college graduates, monthly student loan payments can be overwhelming. The good news is that a measure of relief is on the way for more than a million borrowers. The Obama Administration recently announced changes that will allow many borrowers to take advantage of a new repayment plan that could lower their monthly federal student loan bills.
The plan, known as Pay As You Earn, caps monthly payments for many recent graduates at an amount that is affordable based on their income. That helps borrowers to stay on track to repay their loan and avoid default.
The Pay As You Earn plan, which President Obama first announced in October 2011, caps payments for Federal Direct Student Loans at 10 percent of discretionary income for eligible borrowers.
As many as 1.6 million Direct Loan borrowers could reduce their monthly payments under the new Pay as You Earn plan. The new option complements additional repayment plans offered by ED to help borrowers manage their debt, including Income-Based Repayment, which caps monthly loan payments at 15 percent of a borrower’s discretionary income. Borrowers who are not eligible for Pay As You Earn may still qualify for Income-Based Repayment, which more than 1.3 million borrowers already use.
Over the past several years, the Obama Administration has worked to improve repayment options available to responsible student loan borrowers. Since 2009, former students have been able to enroll in an “Income Based Repayment” (IBR) plan to cap their student loan payments at 15 percent of their current discretionary income if they make their payments on time.
In 2010, President Obama signed into law an improved income-based repayment plan that would lower this cap to 10 percent of discretionary income for students who take out loans after July 1, 2014. Then, last October, the President announced an executive action to make that lower cap available to more borrowers by the end of 2012, rather than 2014. The latest change will likely reduce monthly student loan payments for more than 1.6 million responsible student borrowers.
Despite these opportunities and policy improvements to help graduates make their monthly payments, too few responsible borrowers are aware of their repayment options. Even among borrowers who understand their options, many have difficulties navigating and completing the application process.
Today, President Obama is introducing a Presidential Memorandum that will help educate more students about their loan repayment options and streamline the IBR application process. Read through the questions below to learn more about income based repayment and how these changes might affect you.
1. What is income-based loan repayment?
Income-Based Repayment (IBR) is a repayment plan that caps your required monthly payments on the major types of federal student loans at an amount intended to be affordable based on income and family size. All Stafford, Grad PLUS, and Consolidation Loans made under either the Direct Loan or Federal Family Education Loan programs are eligible to be included in the program. Non-federal loans, loans currently in default, and Parent PLUS Loans are not eligible for the income-based repayment plan.
The program lowers monthly payments for borrowers who have high loan debt and modest incomes, but it may increase the length of the loan repayment period, accruing more interest over the life of the loan.
2. Who qualifies for IBR?
IBR helps people whose federal student loan debt is high relative to income and family size. Currently, your loan servicer (the company you make your loan payments to) determines your eligibility, but starting in September 2012, students won’t have to contact their loan servicer to apply—they will be able to apply directly through the Department of Education’s website, thanks to a new directive from President Obama.
You can use the U.S. Department of Education’s IBR calculator to estimate whether you are likely to qualify for the plan. The calculator looks at your income, family size, and state of residence to calculate your IBR monthly payment amount. If that amount is lower than the monthly payment you are paying on your eligible loans under a 10-year standard repayment plan, then you are eligible to repay your loans under IBR.
3. Will my eligibility change if I’m married? What if my spouse also has loans?
If you are married and file a joint federal tax return with your spouse, both your income and your spouse’s income are used to calculate your IBR monthly payment amount.
If you are married and you and your spouse file a joint federal tax return, and if your spouse also has IBR-eligible loans, your spouse’s eligible loan debt is combined with yours when determining whether you are eligible for IBR. If the combined monthly amount you and your spouse would pay under IBR is lower than the combined monthly amount you and your spouse are paying under a 10-year standard repayment plan, you and your spouse are eligible for IBR.
4. How will enrolling in IBR affect my monthly payments compared to the standard repayment plan?
It depends on your income. But, take for example a nurse who is earning $45,000 and has $60,000 in federal student loans. Under the standard repayment plan, her monthly repayment amount is $690. The currently available IBR plan would reduce her payment by $332, to $358. President Obama’s improved “Pay As You Earn” plan — reducing the cap from 15 percent to 10 percent — will reduce her payment by an additional $119, to a more manageable $239 — a total reduction of $451 a month.
6. How will enrolling in IBR affect my payments over the life of the loan compared to the standard repayment plan?
In general, your payments will increase as your income does, but they will never be more than they would have been under the standard 10-year repayment plan. Although lower monthly payments may be better for some borrowers, lower payments may also mean you make payments for longer and the longer it takes to pay your loans, the more interest you pay compared to the standard repayment plan.
7. Is it possible my payments will be higher under IBR than they would under the standard repayment plan?
IBR will never cause your payments to increase more than they would have been under the standard repayment plan. It is possible, however, that your income and the size of your outstanding loan balance may mean that IBR is not beneficial to you. If your payments would be higher in IBR than they would be in the standard repayment plan, the IBR option will not be available to you.
Also, because a reduced monthly payment in IBR generally extends your repayment period, you may pay more total interest over the life of the loan than you would under other repayment plans.
8. How do I opt in to IBR?
To sign up for IBR, call your loan servicer. The loan servicer is the company that sends you your monthly student loan bills. If you don’t know who your servicer is or would like more information about your loans, such as the balance and interest rates, you can look it up on www.nslds.ed.gov. To see a list of and contact information for common servicers of student loans held by the US Department of Education, you may visit the Loan Servicer page.
9) What does today’s Presidential Memorandum mean for IBR?
The PM will do three things:
Streamline the IBR application process: The Department of Education, in collaboration with the Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service, will create a streamlined online application process for IBR that allows student loan borrowers with federally held loans to import their IRS tax return income data directly into the IBR application. This process will allow income information to be seamlessly transmitted so that borrowers can complete the application at one sitting. Federal direct student loan borrowers will no longer be required to contact their loan servicer as the first step to apply.
Enhance online and mobile resources for loan repayment options and debt management: The Department of Education will create integrated online and mobile resources for students and former students to use in learning about Federal student aid, including an explanation of the various options to cap monthly payments based on income. The Department will also develop and make available to borrowers an online tool to help students make better financial decisions, including understanding their loan debt and its impact on their everyday lives. This tool would incorporate key elements of best practices in financial literacy and link to students’ actual Federal loan data to help them understand their individual circumstances and options for repayment.
Increase awareness of IBR: The Department of Education will instruct Federal direct student loan servicers to make borrowers aware of the option to participate in IBR before a student leaves school and upon entering repayment. The Department of Education will make available for institutions of higher education a model exit counseling module that will enable students to understand their repayment options before leaving school and to choose a repayment plan for their student loans that best meets their needs.