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Student loan borrowers who've been repaying for about 20 years got some good news

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

It's a good time for federal student loan borrowers to go online and become reacquainted with their loans. Payments resume in October after a three-year pause for the pandemic. But lots of borrowers - hundreds of thousands of them - are finding out they do not have to pay. NPR's Cory Turner talked to some of them to learn why.

NIKKI MILLER: Can you see me? Let me see video.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hi. How are you?

MILLER: I'm good. How are you?

TURNER: Nikki Miller started college back in the late '90s and has about $8,000 left to be repaid on her student loans. She lives in Rochester, N.Y., and, like many borrowers, is confused heading into October. She's looking for an affordable monthly payment but doesn't want interest to blow up her balance.

MILLER: I don't want to pay, A, for another 20 years, and I don't understand why my balance would increase.

TURNER: A few days ago, we spoke over Zoom to talk through her repayment questions. But when she logged into her account, she got kind of quiet. And then...

MILLER: My loans were forgiven.

TURNER: Wait...

MILLER: The page is different.

TURNER: But you're - so you're just looking now, and your loans are gone?

MILLER: Why are - they're forgiven.

TURNER: (Laughter) Well, I guess you don't have any more questions.

MILLER: I don't. I was wondering why the hell I couldn't get in, too. My loan balance is zero.

TURNER: Nikki is one of more than 800,000 borrowers who have had their balances recently wiped away. And here's why - for years, borrowers should have had access to a special repayment plan that was meant to keep their payments affordable. The problem is that plan was a mess. It was way too hard to get into and badly mismanaged by the U.S. Department of Education and its loan servicers. After years of complaints from borrowers and advocates as well as an NPR investigation, the department promised last year to do a big, retroactive fix. And it turns out that fix is erasing the debts of borrowers like Nikki Miller, who have been in repayment for at least 20 years. Another borrower, Kurt Panton, is almost there. He lives in Germany now with his wife and 10-month-old daughter, Pauline.

KURT PANTON: Here she is.

TURNER: Aw, I see her.

PANTON: Pauline. Yes.

TURNER: Oh, my goodness.

PANTON: She's only really seen Grandma on video calls. So she's like, OK, this person does not look like Grandma (laughter).

TURNER: Kurt took out loans to go to college and has been steady as a metronome repaying them. He's down to about $20,000. To figure out just how close he is to forgiveness, we hopped on Zoom a few days ago to go over his payment history. Like Nikki Miller, Kurt needs to be in repayment for 20 years, which is 240 monthly payments.

PANTON: So I'm at 233. So that means I have seven more months.

PAULINE: (Babbling).

PANTON: I've never seen her react in such a way to an Excel spreadsheet.

TURNER: If Pauline sounds more excited than her dad, it's because he doesn't quite believe that forgiveness is only seven months away. He already got his hopes up earlier this year before the Supreme Court struck down President Biden's big loan relief plan. Still, after almost 20 years in repayment, Kurt should be, by our math anyway, just a winter away from having his debts erased.

PANTON: I see, I think, a light at the end of the tunnel, and the tunnel is not that dark anymore (laughter), you know?

TURNER: Kurt pauses a second, doing the math. Seven months from now would be March - his birthday month. Happy birthday to me, he laughs. No more student loans.

Cory Turner, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOONCAKE'S "CAST THE ROUTE")

MARTÍNEZ: For the millions of borrowers who still have student loans when repayment starts in October, we want to hear your questions. We'll even have Cory back on the show to answer some of them. You can send them to npred@npr.org. That's npred@npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOONCAKE'S "CAST THE ROUTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.
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