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You asked us about Biden's student debt relief plan. We found the answers

Where do I apply? Who qualifies? Can borrowers get a refund? NPR took the most frequently asked questions readers had about Biden's student loan relief plan and answered them.
Janice Chang for NPR

When Biden's student loan relief application officially went live early last week, we asked readers what questions they were still struggling with. There's been some confusion over what loans – and which borrowers – qualify. And it makes sense borrowers want to get this right – the plan has the potential to impact the debt of over 40 million Americans and completely wipe out the balances of about 20 million.

Some questions were easier than others, but NPR's education desk answered a few of the most frequently submitted topics posed by readers.

How do I apply for student loan relief?

The application itself is straightforward. The U.S. Department of Education has set up a website dedicated solely to this one-time relief. Applicants simply need to go there, and fill out the form. It will ask for your name, date of birth, social security number, phone and email. You will not need to create an account or upload any additional documents.

There is one box that borrowers have to check to certify, under penalty of perjury, that they meet the program's income requirements: $125,000 for individuals or $250,000 for couples. If you met those requirements in either 2020 or 2021 you qualify for the relief

I filled out the application – what happens next?

After submitting, borrowers will receive an email confirmation from the Education Department essentially saying, "Hey, we got it. It's time to wait."

Senior administration officials say the Education Department will then verify your eligibility using loan and income information it already has on file. It sounds vague because it is! The department has revealed very few details on this process, but it has said that it plans to flag any discrepancies. Borrowers who get flagged may need to submit additional documentation to verify their incomes.

But if you don't get flagged, the department says you probably won't hear from them until your application has been approved.

There is no official timeline for when borrowers will hear whether or not they've been approved, but Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told NPR in September, he hopes to process as many of the applications as possible before the federal student loan payment pause ends on Jan. 1.

There are lawsuits challenging the plan. Is it possible one of them could stop the Education Department from actually canceling these debts?

It is possible. Here is what the landscape looks like as of Friday morning:

The administration got two legal wins late last week. One case, filed by a taxpayer group in Wisconsin, was rejected by the Supreme Court. The other, which legal experts told NPR was probably the strongest case against debt relief, was dismissed by a federal judge in Missouri. However, that decision was immediately appealed, and within 24 hours, a U.S. appeals court had ordered the debt relief be temporarily put on hold. It's unclear how long it will take for that case, or any others that may arise, to resolve itself.

Legal experts who spoke to NPR have different takes on what would happen if courts block the program after borrowers have already seen their debt reduced. Most agreed, however, that it would be highly unlikely for the administration to reinstate the debt.

What if I paid off a portion of my loans during the pandemic payment pause? Can I get that money back?

The guidance here from the Education Department has been confusing. At first the department suggested that borrowers should ask their servicers for a refund first and then apply for debt forgiveness. Now the guidance says that borrowers whose loans are less than the relief they're entitled to – either $10,000 or $20,000 – only have to submit the one application and the department says they will handle the rest of it. These borrowers can expect an automatic refund for payments made during the pause up to their entitled relief amount.

The Education Department gave an example in its guidance:

Let's say you're eligible for $10,000 in debt relief. If you currently owe $9,500, that amount of relief will be applied to your loan(s). If you paid $1,000 during the payment pause, you'll be automatically refunded $500—the remaining amount of your $10,000 of debt relief.

Can I choose which loans are reduced first? What if I want a loan with a higher interest rate to be prioritized?

The department says it will apply relief to any defaulted loans first and then it will target loans with the highest interest rate first.

Officials say they are trying to prioritize the loans that are causing the most harm to borrowers.

What if I am waiting for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, or PSLF? Should I just wait for that relief?

The short answer is don't wait. Apply for the relief even if you're still working toward PSLF.

And, while we're on the topic, there's an important deadline coming up for PSLF. Last year, the administration opened up a waiver for borrowers working in public service jobs to apply to PSLF under new, more flexible regulations. This week the Education Department made some of those changes permanent, but says borrowers should still apply for the waiver. It expires on Monday, and it's unlikely it will be renewed. So if you have any possibility of qualifying for PSLF, apply here.

Are Federal Family Education Loans, or FFEL, eligible for relief under Biden's plan?

FFEL loans held by private lenders are excluded under this loan relief plan. Not sure if your FFEL loans qualify? A good litmus test is: Did you have to keep making payments over the pandemic pause? Did your interest keep accruing? If the answer to either of these is yes, that's because your loans are still held by one of these private lenders and don't qualify. If your payments were paused during the pandemic, you should be eligible. Only borrowers with loans managed by the Education Department were eligible for the pause.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sequoia Carrillo
Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.