In March, as it rapidly became clear that the coronavirus pandemic would upend our lives, the U.S. Department of Education offered student loan borrowers a break from their monthly payments.
Less than 11% of people with federal student loans are repaying them during the pandemic, according to data analyzed by higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz. That means about 4.6 million out of 42 million borrowers are continuing to pay down their debt.
The government's so-called coronavirus forbearance on federal student loans has freed up money for basic essentials for many borrowers, many of whom have seen their income dry up due to the public health crisis. It's also given people a window into what life would be like without education debt.
Student loans have long outpaced credit card and auto debt as a burden to Americans, and each year 70% of college graduates start off their lives in the red. The average balance is around $30,000, up from $10,000 in the early 1990s, but many borrowers owe $100,000 or more. The typical monthly payment is $400.
U.S. Department of Education press secretary Angela Morabito said that while "the vast majority of our loan portfolio is currently in forbearance," borrowers made nearly $6.2 billion in federal student loan payments in May, June and July. Still, that's a fraction of the outstanding $1.6 trillion U.S. student loan balance.
Before the pandemic, 22-year-old Cecilia Sena of New York had to work three jobs just to cover her rent, groceries and monthly $250 student loan bill. She owes around $25,000 in education debt.
Her full-time position as a research assistant at Columbia University, from which she graduated in 2019, pays just around $38,000 a year, so she babysat on weeknights and taught Hebrew school on the weekends.
"I was out all the time," Sena said. "It was exhausting. There just wasn't time for myself."
As student debt has ballooned, wages have sputtered. Starting salaries for new college graduates have grown less than 1% over the past two years, remaining at around $50,000.
Now that Sena can take a break from her monthly student loan bill, she doesn't have to work as much and is able to spend more time at home.
When she was juggling multiple jobs, she rarely cooked and relied on microwavable meals and takeout. Now she cooks every day. Some of her favorite meals? Steamed sweet potatoes with tahini butter, chickpea salad and challah, honey and apples.
"It's so soothing," she said of cooking. "It's one way I feel present in my body and life." With the extra time, she also does yoga and takes long strolls and bike rides around the city.
But the debt still hangs over her.
"When student loan payments become mandatory again, that's a scary thought," she said.
Sena worries about having to take on more jobs that could put her health in jeopardy. New York City appears at risk of a second wave of the virus. "I'm relieved that I don't have to seek additional work at this moment that would put me and my roommates in a more difficult situation," Sena said.
In March, the U.S. Department of Education said student loan borrowers could pause their payments without interest accruing until September, but President Donald Trump signed an executive order that extended the reprieve through the end of the year. Still, that means borrowers may have to resume their payments in less than three months, while unemployment rates remain high and cases of the virus continue to surge across the U.S.
In the meantime, Olivia Elder, 24, is enjoying a life that no longer revolves around paying down her student loans. She left George Washington University in 2018 with more than $30,000 in debt, and had been throwing all of her extra cash, including her tax refunds and bonuses at work, to the balance.
"There was never a ton of money in my checking account," Elder said. "It wasn't comfortable."
The pandemic — and the break for student loan borrowers — has changed her priorities.
"My life has just expanded to much more than that," she said.
Recently, Elder, who works in criminal justice reform at a political organization, became the owner of a two-bedroom condominium in Washington, thanks to a first-time homebuyer program in the city.
"It feels great," she said. "My grandparents always stressed the importance of owning something."
Student debt is a hindrance to homeownership. Researchers at the Urban Institute found that if a person's education debt went from $50,000 to $100,000, their chance of homeownership declines by 15 percentage points.
Even when her student loan bill resumes, Elder said, she'll probably just make the minimum payments. She cares much more now about building up her own savings.
"I don't feel my job is in danger, but neither did a lot of people before the pandemic," she said. "At least I could pay my mortgage for awhile if something were to happen."
During the break from her $500 monthly student loan bill, Morgan Hopkins, director of political strategies at a national nonprofit, has paid off more than $12,000 in credit card debt and has started saving for a down payment on a house in Philadelphia.
Hopkins, 32, would like to buy a home within two years with a backyard, and she and her partner are thinking about children, too.
"It's been completely life-changing," Hopkins said. "I used to feel like I was suffocating under student loan debt." She still owes around $68,000.
These months without student loan bills have served as a social experiment, she said: "We're seeing what's possible for our generation."