Before the coronavirus pandemic brought the U.S. economy to a near halt, millions of student loan borrowers were already struggling to keep up with their monthly bills.
Now, as more people find themselves with less or no income during the pandemic, consumer advocates and former government officials say the Trump administration's efforts to help student loan borrowers have been inadequate and they warn of a worsening crisis if there isn't more relief soon.
Americans are more burdened today by the loans they take out for their education than credit card or auto debt, with the outstanding student loan balance in the country toppling $1.7 trillion. Nearly a third of borrowers are behind on their payments and 1.2 million people went into default in 2019, a 14% increase from the year prior.
"As policymakers configure a response to the economic damage of the coronavirus, history should serve as a warning: Student loan borrowers were already defaulting every 26 seconds in 2019," said Seth Frotman, the former student loan ombudsman at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, an advocacy group.
"The next wave of the student debt crisis will be much worse if Washington doesn't support student borrowers," he said.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump announced that the government would be waiving interest on federal student loans through the pandemic. And U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced on Friday that borrowers could pause their bills for at least 60 days in a "coronavirus forbearance."
"As President Trump has said, we are taking care of all Americans, and that includes our nation's students whose educations and careers have been disrupted, so that we all emerge from this challenge stronger and more prosperous," said White House spokesman Judd Deere.
In the Senate, under the stimulus package that was still in negotiations as of Monday afternoon, student loan borrowers would get a six-month reprieve from their monthly bills without interest accruing. But Democrats, including presidential candidate Joe Biden, have said that doesn't go far enough and that the government should cover the payments for borrowers throughout the crisis, forgiving up to $10,000 in debt for each person.
"Pausing payments simply kicks the can down the road," said Persis Yu, director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center. "We need to cancel student loan payments and ensure that balances go down so borrowers can make ends meet now and then recover along with the economy."
Wayne Johnson, who was in charge of student loan debt at the U.S. Department of Education until he resigned last year to run for an open Senate seat in Georgia, called the Trump administration's relief efforts "complex and confusing to administer."
He said he is concerned the companies that service federal student loans won't be able to handle the high volume of borrowers requesting the newly announced coronavirus forbearance. "I predict significant chaos at the servicer level," Johnson said.
There is confusion already.
Borrowers tell CNBC their servicers are still charging them interest on their loans, despite the president's announcement earlier this month.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education said the companies "are working to operationalize the interest waiver," but that any interest that's accrued on people's federal loans after the president's announcement would be retroactively removed.
Meanwhile, student loan servicers FedLoan and Granite State Management and Resources announced recently they were closing down call centers due to the pandemic, which will make it harder for people to get help or information with their loans.
"If borrowers have nowhere to turn to get questions answered or to enroll in affordable repayment programs, lawmakers must provide relief and cancel student loan payments for all Americans with federal loans," Frotman said.
The U.S. Department of Education doesn't appear to have slowed down its aggressive collection practices throughout the pandemic, either. It continues to seize past-due borrowers' tax refunds, wages and Social Security checks. Education Secretary DeVos has the power to suspend all of this involuntary collection, Frotman pointed out.
Frotman has also identified many cases of student loan servicers suing borrowers over their past-due debt during the global health crisis.
Lynnette Garth, 39, a single mother of three from Waycross, Georgia, is without income during the pandemic and the government seized her tax refund recently for an overdue student loan bill.
"It was my intention to stay afloat with it," Garth said. She called the U.S. Department of Education to explain her situation, but said she was told that her only hope of seeing the return was to file an appeal, a process that can take weeks.
"My rent is due on the first," Garth said.