How the Pandemic Could Affect the Rise in Student Debt

Trends in enrollment, tuition, and families’ ability to pay for college could indicate a departure from past recessions

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How the Pandemic Could Affect the Rise in Student Debt
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Overview

Spikes in borrowing from the federal government during or closely following recessions in the past three decades have played a key role in the country’s upward march in federal student loan debt.1 The economic crisis spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic may leave a different legacy, however.

Student debt levels were already pronounced before the pandemic hit, with $91.1 billion in annual federal student lending in 2019-20, up from $20.7 billion in 1990-91. Over that same period, per-student borrowing rose from $2,110 to $6,276, after adjusting for inflation. (See Box 1 for more information on how debt levels are defined in this analysis.)

The Great Recession provides the most recent example of a surge in borrowing following the onset of a downturn. Total annual student loan borrowing from the federal government increased by over $40 billion, or 47%, when adjusted for inflation, from 2008 to 2011.2 Federal debt also rose for many students, with per-student borrowing increasing by $1,713, or 27%, over the same period.3

Evidence available as of Nov. 20, 2021, suggests that the COVID-19 downturn could have a very different impact on federal student borrowing, with some trends—such as declining enrollment, which may reduce the total number of borrowers—potentially reducing overall debt levels.

According to the latest data from the College Board, total annual borrowing from the federal government fell by $7 billion, or 8%, between the 2020 and 2021 school years, while per-student borrowing fell by $324, or 5%, over the same time frame.4

But other patterns that the COVID-19 economic crisis and recovery share with past downturns, such as elevated levels of financial hardship, could mean increased borrowing needs for certain students.

As of March 2021, almost one-fifth of all federal borrowers were in default on their loans, suggesting that repayment challenges are widespread.5 Changes in reliance on debt to finance higher education could foreshadow shifts in the extent of future repayment difficulties in certain situations, such as if borrowing is rising or falling at institutions with a track record of poor repayment outcomes.

This brief examines three key factors—enrollment numbers, college prices, and families’ ability to pay those prices—that could influence borrowing levels in a weak economy to help explain recent trends in borrowing and assess what COVID-19 and its aftermath might ultimately mean for federal student debt.6

Federal Student Lending Has Risen Sharply During or Following Past Recessions: Annual federal student loan issuance, academic years 1990-2021, adjusted for 2020 dollars

How This Analysis Measures Federal Student Borrowing Levels

This analysis focuses on two distinct measures of federal student debt: total annual borrowing and perstudent borrowing. It is important to note that these two measures provide different angles on levels of student debt. Total annual borrowing reflects the overall scope of debt issued by the federal government in a given year and doesn’t necessarily capture the amount of debt taken out by individual students. For example, total debt could rise simply because enrollment grows, even if the amount borrowed by individual students and the share of students borrowing remain the same. Per-student borrowing reflects the amount of debt individual students are taking out and the share of students who are borrowing. It is one of several ways to measure student debt amounts and does not capture how much debt the average borrower is taking on annually, or the amount of cumulative debt students have taken on when they leave school.

Past recessions led to rising enrollments, but pattern has differed in wake of COVID-19

One key factor that helps to explain at least part of the spike in total annual federal borrowing following past recessions is rising enrollment: More people attending colleges and universities could mean more people borrowing to finance their education, which in turn could lead to higher overall levels of borrowing from the federal government.

People often enroll in school during economic downturns to build job skills at a time when employment prospects are weak.7 For example, between 2008 and 2011, the years during and following the 2007-09 recession, undergraduate enrollment grew from 14.5 million to 15.6 million students.8 The total number of undergraduate student loan borrowers taking out unsubsidized and subsidized federal Stafford loans grew from 6.5 million to 9.4 million, or by 46%, in those same years.9

In addition to the overall growth in enrollment, changes in the student body and the schools they were attending also may have contributed to increased total and individual borrowing. If student enrollment shifts to more expensive schools, that could increase borrowing levels both for individual students and overall.

For example, during and immediately after the 2007-09 recession, for-profit schools saw a particularly large increase in attendance.10 Students at these schools have historically borrowed at higher rates and in larger amounts than students at other kinds of institutions.11 In fact, for-profit colleges are the one sector that saw significant growth at the undergraduate level during the pandemic, with enrollment jumping 6.4% in fall 2020 after several years of decline post-recession, according to the National Student Clearinghouse’s Current Term Enrollment estimates.12

Given the high levels of borrowing at these schools, rising debt at for-profit schools could offset declines in borrowing that might result from enrollment drops in other sectors. However, enrollment in for-profit schools dropped in spring 2021, and preliminary data from fall 2021 (the current school year) also shows a decline, raising questions about whether the growth in fall 2020 was an anomaly or represented a persistent trend.13 Overall, undergraduate enrollment trends during the COVID-19 pandemic have differed significantly from past downturns.

For example, data released by the National Student Clearinghouse for fall 2020 shows that total undergraduate enrollment fell from 15.5 million students in fall 2019 to 14.9 million in fall 2020 (3.6%), with a particularly large decline at community colleges.14 Financial needs and uncertainty related to the pandemic were key barriers to community college enrollment in fall 2020, a survey from the research organization New America suggests.15 Enrollment data from spring 2021 suggests a similar pattern overall, with undergraduate enrollment declining.16 Undergraduate enrollment at community colleges again saw the biggest decline, but all other sectors, including for-profit schools, also saw drops. By contrast, graduate enrollment increased across all sectors relative to the previous spring, which could push loan levels upward given high levels of borrowing among graduate students.17

Preliminary data from fall 2021 suggests that these trends have continued into the current school year, with declines across all sectors at the undergraduate level and overall enrollment increases at the graduate level.18

Whether these enrollment trends will continue depends on factors such as the level of COVID-19 cases on campus and in communities, prospective students’ financial situations and job prospects, whether institutions are able to sustain in-person instruction, and the availability of child care for student parents. The survey of community college students from New America cited above found that a majority of students who either attended in spring 2020 or considered attending school earlier in the year and didn’t enroll in fall 2020 intended to continue their education at some point, suggesting that community college enrollment could bounce back as the pandemic fades.

College prices surged in past recessions, but thus far the trend has been different in response to COVID-19

A surge in the sticker price of tuition (also known as “published tuition price”) at public institutions following past recessions may be another key reason for post-downturn spikes in student debt. Tuition rises can make it harder for students to pay for school out-of-pocket or with scholarships, increasing the need for borrowing and potentially driving up both individual and overall levels of debt.

More broadly, published tuition, the level of financial aid a student receives, and the amount students need to pay for living expenses such as room and board can all influence the amount a student borrows.

Published tuition at public schools tends to spike during and following recessions

While the published in-state tuition and fees at public institutions (which educate about three-quarters of the nation’s students) have increased consistently over time, they have seen particularly large spikes during and after economic downturns. From 2008 to 2011, published in-state tuition at four-year public institutions rose by $1,390, or 17% in inflation-adjusted terms.19 For comparison, published tuition has grown by 14% in the entire period between the 2010-11 and 2021-22 school years.

Tuition and Fees Rise as Appropriations Fall in Times of Recession: Trends in state and local funding for higher education versus published tuition and fees, 1988-89 to 2019-20

These tuition rate spikes have corresponded with periods of declining state funding, as many states have targeted higher education dollars for cuts to address recession-induced budget shortfalls.20 Public institutions fund education largely from two sources, state funding and tuition, so when state funding drops, institutions must generally either raise revenue through tuition, cut spending, or perform some combination of those approaches.21

Although state funding is not the only factor that determines public college prices, a series of recent studies suggests that past funding cuts at the state level have been linked to tuition hikes, in addition to spending reductions and the pursuit of strategies such as increased enrollment of international students, who pay higher prices than in-state students.22 As with enrollment, tuition trends following the onset of the pandemic have played out differently from past economic downturns.

States have faced widespread financial challenges as a result of the pandemic-driven recession, though the extent of their difficulties has varied widely, and many states have seen their revenues bounce back as the economy has recovered.23 Confronting these challenges, 20 states reduced higher education funding to institutions by an average of 4.4% (not adjusting for enrollment or inflation) for fiscal year 2021 (which ended on June 30 in most states), according to a report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO).24 This was after federal aid provided in response to the pandemic was taken into account. The SHEEO report adds that these trends in funding cuts “mirror the first year of state funding cuts seen in prior recessionary periods.”

Evidence to date suggests the outlook for state higher education funding is mixed. In their budget proposals for the current fiscal year (fiscal 2022, which began on July 1 in most states), some governors included funding cuts for higher education while others proposed flat spending compared with fiscal 2021, or even suggested increases.25 These proposals came before the latest federal stimulus package, which provided states, territories, tribes, and localities with $350 billion to address fiscal and other challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, and an additional $39.5 billion to public and private institutions of higher education to address their own coronavirus-related difficulties; at least half of a school’s federal stimulus money must be provided in the form of emergency grants to students.26

Most legislatures have now finalized their states’ budgets for the current year. Although analysis about what these decisions mean for higher education funding is limited, early reports suggest that a number of states have increased their support relative to last year.27 Going forward, the trajectory of the pandemic and economic recovery and their implications for state budgets will play an important role in determining the future course of state funding for higher education.

In the face of these funding patterns, the overall trend in tuition at public institutions has thus far been fairly flat during the pandemic, with in-state tuition and fees at four-year schools, for example, falling by about 2% since the 2020 school year, after adjusting for inflation.28 Some commentators have noted that the shift to online education, a desire to be responsive to students’ financial circumstances, and state limits on tuition increases may have constrained institutions’ ability to raise tuition since the pandemic began.29

If the past is any guide, however, states that do have continued state funding declines could see at least some public higher education systems and institutions respond by raising tuition to address their pandemic-driven financial struggles.30

Grant aid increases in past recessions have helped offset tuition and cost-of-living increases

Beyond published tuition and fees, grant aid (financial aid that doesn’t need to be repaid) and living expenses such as room and board also are key in determining how much students borrow to pay for higher education.

While the 2007-09 recession saw a surge in the sticker price at public colleges and universities, policy decisions to increase grant aid, particularly a major boost in the federal Pell Grant, helped to offset the impact on students.31 According to data from the College Board, average grant aid from all sources, including federal and state governments and institutions, rose by almost $1,700 at public four-year public institutions, after adjusting for inflation, more than offsetting the rise in tuition at those schools between 2008 and 2011.32

But students borrow to cover not just tuition and fees, but also living expenses, including room and board. Between 2008 and 2011, the total cost of tuition, fees, and room and board grew by $690, or about 5% on average, even after taking the aforementioned large increases in grant aid into account.33

Thus far, federal policymakers haven’t made a comparable boost in Pell Grants in response to the COVID-19 recession. For example, in December 2020 the federal government increased the maximum Pell Grant award by $150, the same amount as the prior year’s increase.34 To put this in context, policymakers increased the Pell Grant maximum award by $619 from 2008 to 2009 in response to the 2007-09 recession through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.35 But the latest framework agreement being negotiated between the Biden administration and Congress for the president’s Build Back Better plan calls for a $550 increase in the maximum Pell Grant and would provide funding to historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, and other minority-serving institutions in part to support financial aid for low-income students.36

And as noted above, the federal government required that at least half of the COVID-19 stimulus funding provided to higher education institutions go to students in the form of emergency financial aid grants intended to help them weather the impact of the pandemic.

The pandemic leaves many families financially vulnerable, which could affect their ability to pay for college

A third factor that helps to explain why borrowing rises after downturns hit is increased financial hardship. If students’ families lose jobs or incomes, or they themselves have a hard time finding work, they may have less money to pay for school and a greater need for student loans, potentially driving up both individual and total borrowing levels.

The unemployment rate during the pandemic peaked at 14.8% in April 2020, higher than even the unemployment rate at the height of the 2007-09 recession (10.6%).37 It has since come down sharply to 4.6% in October 2021, but remains above the 3.5% level from just prior to the pandemic.38 And beyond employment losses, many Americans have seen reductions in pay and work hours. A series of surveys shows large swaths of the country have faced serious hardship, including difficulty paying for basic needs such as housing and food, while many households have withdrawn from savings or retirement accounts to make ends meet.39 These financial challenges have been particularly prevalent among Black and Latino Americans, women, low-income families, those without a college degree, and adults ages 18 to 29.40

The economy has shown strong signs of recovery, but this has been tempered by continued uncertainty, particularly as the delta and omicron variants of the coronavirus prolonged the impact of the pandemic.41 For example, gross domestic product growth (a broad measure of economic growth) slowed in the third quarter (July-September), according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, reflecting “the continued economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”42 Even with the economy rebounding, recent evidence raises concerns that many of the Americans hardest hit by the pandemic downturn may be left behind, with lingering employment losses among other challenges.43

It is also important to note that over the course of the pandemic, the federal government has passed sizable economic stimulus packages intended to promote economic growth and make sure that growth benefits all Americans.44 Congress included provisions to help higher education students, institutions, and student borrowers as well as low-income families, the unemployed, and the broader economy, but much of that assistance has now come and gone or is scheduled to expire soon. For example, enhanced unemployment insurance benefits expired in September, and a pause on student loan payments is scheduled to expire at the end of January.45

Such trends could impede the ability of individual students and their families to pay for college and drive up the need for loans, particularly among students most vulnerable to student loan repayment challenges. For example, as noted above, Black Americans have disproportionately felt the adverse economic impacts of the pandemic, and Black students were borrowing and defaulting on their loans at higher rates than their White peers before the COVID-19 pandemic, raising concerns about the role that factors such as labor and housing market discrimination might play in these disparate loan outcomes.46

Conversely, deteriorating economic circumstances could increase students’ eligibility for need-based financial aid grants, potentially mitigating the need for additional borrowing. But the precise impact of financial changes on aid would depend on a student’s specific circumstances, and some research has raised questions about how well financial aid responds to changes in students’ financial needs.47 Of particular concern is that financial aid award eligibility is generally based on income and tax information from two years prior, unless a student files an appeal, meaning that students’ financial aid awards may not reflect changes in their financial circumstances resulting from the pandemic. 48 Changes in the FAFSA application form—the form that students and families use to apply for federal assistance for higher education and expanded Pell Grant eligibility—may make it easier for students to qualify for financial aid in the future, though these changes will not fully take effect until the 2024-25 school year.49

While financial struggles could drive up the need for loans among those who attend college, they could also be keeping students from attending school altogether.

Conclusion

Federal student loan levels both overall and for individual students have risen precipitously over the past several decades. Evidence from past recessions, which have seen spikes in student borrowing from the federal government, suggest that the economic fallout from the pandemic could drive these levels even higher.

So far, the pandemic has affected higher education very differently than past economic downturns in some key ways, and consequently, borrowing from the federal government both overall and on a per-student basis actually fell modestly over the past year. For example, undergraduate enrollment, which tends to rise when the economy is weak, has been trending downward since the pandemic hit; this helps to explain why overall borrowing has declined. Additionally, tuition and fees at public institutions—which tend to spike when recessions hit—have been fairly steady, which may be contributing to the drop in borrowing per student.

The pandemic does share some trends common to past recessions, such as elevated levels of financial hardship, which have the potential to increase the need for individual student borrowing, which, in turn, could push up overall levels of debt.

Overall, student debt levels dropping in the face of the coronavirus pandemic would not necessarily indicate good news for students. Financial circumstances brought on or compounded by COVID-19 may be dissuading potential students from pursuing education that would enhance their job skills and could lead to future higher earning potential.50

Likewise, a decline in the average amount of borrowing by individual students could mean that students who don’t have the financial means to pay for education on their own simply aren’t enrolling in school. It also doesn’t necessarily indicate that borrowers are struggling any less to pay their loans; in fact, it is often the borrowers with the lowest balances who face the biggest challenges in repayment.51

Conversely, given the large share of students struggling to pay their loans even before COVID-19 struck, changes in student loan levels as a result of the pandemic could have implications for borrowers’ future financial wellbeing. But while the broad patterns discussed in this analysis are an important starting point, knowing exactly what fluctuations in loan amounts really mean for students’ and borrowers’ well-being will require a closer look.

Another piece in this series focuses more specifically on the connection between recessions and student loan repayment challenges.52

Endnotes

  1. College Board, “Trends in Student Aid 2021” (2021), https://research.collegeboard.org/trends/student-aid.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Private student lending from companies, which makes up a much smaller share of the student loan market, saw a significant contraction after the Great Recession hit as many private lenders tightened their lending standards. The decrease in private lending, along with an increase in limits on federal borrowing around the time of the recession, may have contributed to the surge in federal loans. But even taking this decline in private loans into account, total student borrowing still rose significantly over the same time frame while per student borrowing rose modestly, according to College Board data.
  4. College Board, “Trends in Student Aid 2021.”
  5. Federal Student Aid, “Federal Student Loan Portfolio,” accessed Sept. 9, 2021, https://studentaid.gov/data-center/student/portfolio.
  6. Pew researchers identified three key factors that vary with economic downturns and may contribute to trends in student debt. These factors are not meant to be an exhaustive list of all factors that contribute to student borrowing levels.
  7. S. Dynarski, “In a Sharp Downturn, College Can Be a Shock Absorber,” The New York Times, Jan. 19, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/19/business/college-downturn-absorber.html.
  8. Urban Institute, “Education Data Center,” accessed July 28, 2021, https://educationdata.urban.org/data-explorer/.
  9. College Board, “Trends in Student Aid 2021.” Data found in Table 6.
  10. S.W. Kight, “How the Great Recession Fueled For-Profit Colleges,” Axios, Sept. 15, 2018, https://www.axios.com/great-recession-forprofit-college-education-debt-d6d33ec8-b4ac-47ae-aeeb-c5e39a3a9447.html.
  11. A. Looney and C. Yannelis, “A Crisis in Student Loans? How Changes in the Characteristics of Borrowers and in the Institutions They Attended Contributed to Rising Loan Defaults” (Brookings Institute, 2015), https://www.brookings.edu/bpea-articles/a-crisis-in-studentloans-how-changes-in-the-characteristics-of-borrowers-and-in-the-institutions-they-attended-contributed-to-rising-loan-defaults/.
  12. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “Current Term Enrollment Estimates Fall 2020” (2021), https://nscresearchcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/CTEE_Report_Fall_2020.pdf.
  13. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “COVID-19: Stay Informed With the Latest Enrollment Information,” accessed Nov. 19, 2021, https://nscresearchcenter.org/stay-informed/.
  14. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “Term Enrollment Estimates: Fall 2020” (2020), https://nscresearchcenter.org/wpcontent/uploads/CTEE_Report_Fall_2020.pdf.
  15. R. Fishman and S. Nguyen, “Where Did All the Students Go? Understanding the Enrollment Decline at Community Colleges During the Pandemic,” New America, accessed July 28, 2021, https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/edcentral/community-collegeenrollment-survey/.
  16. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “Spring 2021 Current Term Enrollment Estimates,” accessed July 28, 2021, https://nscresearchcenter.org/current-term-enrollment-estimates/.
  17. S. Baum and A. Looney, “Who Owes the Most in Student Loans: New Data From the Fed” (Brookings Institute, 2020), https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/10/09/who-owes-the-most-in-student-loans-new-data-from-the-fed/.
  18. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “COVID-19: Stay Informed With the Latest Enrollment Information.”
  19. College Board, “Trends in College Pricing 2021” (2021), https://research.collegeboard.org/trends/college-pricing. Data from Table CP-2.
  20. J. Delaney and R. Doyle, “State Spending on Higher Education: Testing the Balance Wheel Over Time,” Journal of Education Finance 36, no. 4 (2011): 343-68, https://www.jstor.org/stable/23018116.
  21. D.A. Webber, “State Divestment and Tuition at Public Institutions,” Economics of Education Review 60 (2017): 1-4, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econedurev.2017.07.007.
  22. S. Baum et al., “Tuition and State Appropriations” (Urban Institute, 2018), https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/96791/2018_03_08_tuition_and_state_appropriations_finalizedv2.pdf; Webber, “State Divestment”; B. Zhao, “Disinvesting in the Future? A Comprehensive Examination of the Effects of State Appropriations for Public Higher Education” (working paper, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, 2018), https://www.bostonfed.org/-/media/Documents/Workingpapers/PDF/2018/wp1801.pdf; J. Bound et al., “A Passage to America: University Funding and International Students” (working paper, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2016), http://www-personal.umich.edu/~gkhanna/International_Students.pdf; S. Goodman and A.H. Volz, “Attendance Spillovers Between Public and For-Profit Colleges: Evidence From Statewide Variation in Appropriations for Higher Education,” Education Finance and Policy 15, no. 3 (2020): 428-56, https://direct.mit.edu/edfp/article/15/3/428/58665/Attendance-Spillovers-between-Public-and-For; R. Chakrabarti, N. Gorton, and M.F. Lovenheim, “State Investment in Higher Education: Effects on Human Capital Formation, Student Debt, and Long-Term Financial Outcomes of Students” (Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2020), https://www.newyorkfed.org/medialibrary/media/research/staff_reports/sr941.pdf.
  23. B. Rosewicz, J. Theal, and A. Fall, “States’ Tax Revenue Recovery Improves at Start of 2021,” The Pew Charitable Trusts, accessed Nov. 8, 2021, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2021/10/15/states-tax-revenue-recovery-improves-at-startof-2021.; L. Dadayan, “State Tax and Economic Review, 2021 Quarter 1” (Urban Institute, 2021), https://www.urban.org/research/publication/state-tax-and-economic-review-2021-quarter-1.
  24. S. Laderman and D. Tandberg, “SHEEO Analysis of Fiscal Year 2021 State Funding for Higher Education” (State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, 2021), https://sheeo.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/SHEEO_Analysis_FiscalYear2021_State_ Funding.pdf.
  25. B. Sigritz, “Summaries of Fiscal Year 2022 Proposed Budgets” (The National Association of State Budget Officers, 2021), https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASBO/9d2d2db1-c943-4f1b-b750-0fca152d64c2/UploadedImages/Issue%20Briefs%20/ Fiscal_2022_Proposed_Budgets_-_Summary.pdf.
  26. American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, H.R. 1319, U.S. Congress (2021), https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/1319/text.
  27. E. Whitford, “State Higher Ed Funding Looks Positive,” Inside Higher Ed, Aug. 10, 2021, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/08/10/after-year-cuts-state-funding-looks-positive-fiscal-2022.
  28. College Board, “Trends in College Pricing 2021.” Data from Figure CP-9.
  29. R. Kelchen, D. Ritter, and D. Webber, “The Lingering Fiscal Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Higher Education” (Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, 2021), https://www.philadelphiafed.org/-/media/frbp/assets/consumer-finance/discussion-papers/dp21-01.pdf; S. Hubler, “As Colleges Move Classes Online, Families Rebel Against Costs,” The New York Times, Aug. 15, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/15/us/covid-college-tuition.html.
  30. Whitford, “State Higher Ed Funding”; J. Bauer-Wolf, “Digging Out of the Pandemic’s Economic Turmoil, Public Colleges Hike Tuition,” Higher Ed Dive, Aug. 4, 2021, https://www.highereddive.com/news/digging-out-of-the-pandemics-economic-turmoil-public-collegeshike-tuitio/604473/.
  31. N. Johnson, “College Costs, Prices, and the Great Recession” (working paper, Lumina Foundation, 2014), https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED555862.pdf.
  32. College Board, “Trends in College Pricing 2021.” Data from Figure CP-9.
  33. Ibid.
  34. U.S. Department of Education, “2020-2021 Federal Pell Grant Payment and Disbursement Schedules,” Federal Student Aid, accessed Sept. 28, 2021, https://fsapartners.ed.gov/knowledge-center/library/dear-colleague-letters/2020-01-31/2020-2021-federal-pell-grantpayment-and-disbursement-schedules.
  35. C. Dortch, “Federal Pell Grant Program of the Higher Education Act: Primer” (Congressional Research Service, 2018), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45418.pdf.
  36. The White House, “President Biden Announces the Build Back Better Framework,” news release, Oct. 28, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/10/28/president-biden-announces-the-build-back-better-framework/.
  37. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The Employment Situation—April 2020,” news release, Sept. 23, 2020 (reissue with corrections), https://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/empsit_05082020.htm.
  38. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The Employment Situation—September 2021,” news release, Oct. 8, 2021, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf; TED: The Economics Daily, “19.2 Percent of the Unemployed Had Been Jobless for 27 Weeks or More in February 2020,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed July 28, 2020, https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2020/19-point-2-percent-of-theunemployed-had-been-jobless-for-27-weeks-or-more-in-february-2020.htm.
  39. K. Parker, R. Minkin, and J. Bennett, “Economic Fallout From COVID-19 Continues to Hit Lower-Income Americans the Hardest,” Pew Research Center, Sept. 24, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continuesto-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/;Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Tracking the COVID-19 Economy’s Effects on Food, Housing, and Employment Hardships,” accessed Nov. 8, 2021, https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/8-13-20pov.pdf; S. Treger, “Emergency Savings Protected Retirement Savings During COVID, but Emergency Savings Gaps Prevent Everyone From Having That Protection,” Aspen Institute, accessed Aug. 27, 2021, https://www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/how-to-protect-the-emergencysavings-of-american-families/.
  40. K.G. Carman and S. Nataraj, “Heading Into the Holidays, Americans’ Financial Difficulties Continue,” Rand Corp., accessed July 28, 2020, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA308-10.html; L.M. Monte and D.J. Perez-Lopez, “How the Pandemic Affected Black and White Households,” U.S. Census Bureau, accessed Sept. 8, 2021, https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/07/how-pandemicaffected-black-and-white-households.html.
  41. “Daily Business Briefing,” The New York Times, Nov. 5, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/11/05/business/jobs-report-stockmarket-news.
  42. U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, “Gross Domestic Product, Third Quarter 2021 (Advance Estimate),” accessed Nov. 8, 2021, https:// www.bea.gov/news/2021/gross-domestic-product-3rd-quarter-2021-advance-estimate.
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  44. American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, H.R. 1319.
  45. P.K. Burns, “Pandemic-Enhanced Unemployment Benefits Expire Saturday,” WHYY, Sept. 4, 2021, https://whyy.org/articles/pandemicenhanced-unemployment-benefits-expire-saturday/; U.S. Department of Education, “Biden Administration Extends Student Loan Pause Until January 31, 2022,” news release, Aug. 6, 2021, https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/biden-administration-extends-studentloan-pause-until-january-31-2022.
  46. A. Carnevale, “One Year of the COVID Economy,” Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, accessed July 28, 2021, https://medium.com/georgetown-cew/one-year-of-the-covid-economy-6f2d35d4c027; F. Addo, J. Houle, and D. Simon, “Young, Black, and (Still) in the Red: Parental Wealth, Race, and Student Loan Debt,” Race and Social Problems 8 (2016): 64-76, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12552-016-9162-0; Sattlemeyer and Remedios, “Race and Financial Security.”
  47. J. Ramirez-Mendoza and T. Jones, “Using Professional Judgment in Financial Aid to Advance Racial Justice and Equity,” The Education Trust, Dec. 3, 2020, https://edtrust.org/resource/using-professional-judgment-in-financial-aid/.
  48. M. Kantrowitz, “Can I Use Last Year’s Taxes on This Year’s FAFSA?” Saving for College, accessed July 29, 2021, https://www. savingforcollege.com/article/can-i-use-last-years-taxes-on-this-years-fafsa.
  49. Federal Student Aid, “Beginning Phased Implementation of the FAFSA Simplification Act (EA ID: General-21-39),” U.S. Department of Education, accessed Oct. 11, 2021, https://fsapartners.ed.gov/knowledge-center/library/electronic-announcements/2021-06-11/beginning-phased-implementation-fafsa-simplification-act-ea-id-general-21-39.
  50. Fishman and Nguyen, “Where Did All the Students Go?”
  51. K. Blagg, “Underwater on Student Debt” (Urban Institute, 2018), https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/98884/underwater_on_student_debt.pdf.
  52. See “How Will Student Loan Borrowers Fare After the Pandemic?” https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2021/06/28/how-will-student-loan-borrowers-fare-after-the-pandemic.
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Agenda for America

Resources for federal, state, and local decision-makers

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Data-driven policymaking is not just a tool for finding new solutions for emerging challenges, it makes government more effective and better able to serve the public interest.

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Students With Default History Foresee Difficulties

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With payments on federal student loans set to resume in early 2022 after a COVID-19-related pause, findings from a new survey focused on borrowers’ experiences with default indicate that the restart could be especially hard for one group of vulnerable borrowers: those who have experienced default in the past but had exited it before the start of the pause.

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How Will Student Borrowers Fare After the Pandemic?

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Policymakers acted swiftly last year to help student loan borrowers after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn by pausing most required payments through at least September 2021. Much of the recent student loan policy discussion has focused on short-term issues, such as borrowers’ abilities to make payments during a public health emergency, but what happened after the Great Recession suggests that repayment challenges could linger or accelerate after the pandemic ends.

Economic Downturns: Protecting State and Local Budgets

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In particularly challenging times, when revenue is volatile and priorities may need to be reassessed, it is important that lawmakers manage budgets effectively to mitigate fiscal stress.