It’s been three months since the federal government resumed student loan payments, but many borrowers have refused to pay a single penny.

Activists say this is not a temporary lapse but a “massive student debt strike” as borrowers await progress—any progress—on the White House’s student loan forgiveness program.

“Faced with the impossible choice of feeding their kids, keeping a roof over their head, or throwing an average of $400 a month into the Department of Education incinerator, borrowers are rightly choosing to keep themselves and their families financially afloat,” said Astra Taylor, co-founder of Debt Collective, a union advocating on behalf of debtors.

According to the Department of Education, 22 million borrowers had payments due in October, but only 13 million settled their bills. That means 40% of borrowers failed to make payments.

Creditnews reported in September that the resumption of student loan payments would hit American families hard, but very few expected four out of ten borrowers to miss payments.

Before the pandemic, about one-quarter of student loan borrowers were dodging payments.

It's not surprising that the transition back to loan repayment after more than three years of forbearance is bumpy. But students aren’t the only ones to blame.

What has changed since the pandemic?

Student loans went into forbearance in March 2020 just as Covid-era lockdowns forced millions out of work. Since then, Americans have acquired a habit of not paying that debt, using the money to tackle other expenses like rent or grocery bills.

Reallocating up to $500 a month to student loan payments was always going to be difficult, but with today's record costs of living and borrowing, it's more challenging than ever.

According to Persis Yu, deputy executive director at the Student Borrower Protection Center, however, it wasn’t just borrowers who were to blame for the October shock.

“Neither borrowers nor the student loan system were prepared to resume repayment,” Yu told CNBC.“ Servicers are overwhelmed and are failing to help struggling borrowers navigate the options that are available to them,” she said.

Carolina Rodriguez of the nonprofit Education Debt Consumer Assistance Program agrees. “Servicers are having a very hard time getting people back into repayment,” she said.

Student loan forgiveness: Reality or pipe dream?

Many student loan borrowers are waiting for debt relief pledged by the Biden administration, but those efforts have hit a major snag.

President Biden initially proposed a $400 billion bailout program that would erase up to $20,000 in federal debt for roughly 40 million borrowers. The Supreme Court struck down the plan in June, claiming that the president overstepped his authority.

Since then, the Department of Education has been working with a panel of experts to negotiate a watered-down version of the program. But even they have failed to reach a consensus so far.

An Education Department spokesperson said the panel is on track to submit a new student debt relief proposal by May, but there’s no guarantee that it’ll get passed.

What doesn't help is that 2024 is an election year, and student loan forgiveness is a hot-button issue. In fact, several conservative lawmakers promised to block any attempts to erase student loans at the expense of taxpayers.

Read more

- How to fly for free with credit cards in 2024