Federal student loan payments resume this month after a three-year pause. WBEZ is answering questions from Illinois borrowers and sharing their reflections on what the pandemic-era pause has meant to them, how they’re managing the payment restart and whether their debt was worth it.
When Freddie Ramos’s kids were still in elementary school, he took them to eat lunch at colleges across Illinois. He wanted Freddie Jr. and Gabriel to understand the importance of higher education and to feel like they belonged on campus. So when it came time for his kids to go to college, the Chicagoan felt an obligation to help them pay for their degrees.
“It wasn’t a vision that I gave to them and turned around and walked away,” said Ramos, 63. “It was a vision we shared together.”
To help finance the last year of their older son’s college in 2018, Ramos and his wife took out more than $20,000 in PLUS loans, a form of federal student debt parents can tap into on behalf of children in undergraduate programs. More than 3.7 million American families owe approximately $104 billion of this type of debt, according to the nonprofit Century Foundation.
These borrowers, like millions of others across the country, didn’t have to pay down their debt for the past three years because of a pandemic-era payment pause. That ends this month. And Ramos still has $12,500 left to pay.
PLUS loans offer a way for parents to fill the gap when other financial aid doesn’t cover all of a student’s expenses. But they are riskier and more burdensome than other federal undergraduate loans, especially for parents of color, advocates say.
Parent PLUS loans have higher interest rates and virtually no limits on the amount that can be borrowed. And they are not eligible for many of the relief plans other borrowers can use, including the new federal SAVE plan. These plans adjust monthly payments based on a borrower’s income and promise cancellation after a minimum number of payments are made.
There is a loophole Parent PLUS borrowers can slip through to get onto one of these plans. Unfortunately it’s complicated, and it’s closing in July 2025. The multi-step process is sometimes referred to as “double consolidation” and is explained by Massachusetts’ attorney general.
Borrowers should be aware this backdoor option is not publicized by loan servicers or the Department of Education, which plans to shut it down next summer.
Despite these drawbacks and the barriers to relief, more Black and Latino parents with fewer resources are leaning on PLUS loans to send their kids to college, according to researchers at the Century Foundation. That’s in part because Pell grants for students from low-income families aren’t keeping up with rising costs. And families of color are less likely than white families to have the family wealth needed to afford the increased cost of higher education.
“PLUS borrowing by Black parents is especially concerning because Black parents are borrowing outsized amounts relative to their incomes and assets and struggling with repayment, especially in retirement,” The Education Trust, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group, wrote in a recent report.
Loan payment restart means cuts to the family budget
Ramos, who is Mexican American, is not on any kind of income-adjusted payment plan. After retiring from his first career as an electrical engineer in 2017, he started working for nonprofits near Belmont Cragin, his Northwest Side neighborhood.
“I said, ‘Well, let me keep working, I’ve got kids in school,’ ” said Ramos, now a program lead at Metropolitan Family Services on the Northwest Side. “So there was a short period there that I was a little stressed out because I was looking for work.”
Before then, Ramos had managed to help cover his sons’ college bills by dipping into his retirement savings. But in 2018, for the last year of his older son’s college, that wasn’t an option so he and his wife turned to PLUS loans.
Ramos and his wife, an accountant, had paid off about $8,000 of those loans before the pandemic struck. The three-year payment pause allowed them to afford some home repairs, like a new roof. Now that the pause is over, they are tightening their budget again and cutting back on minor daily expenses to pay off the remaining $12,500.
“We’re thinking about clothes, you don’t have to have the latest fashion,” he said with a laugh. “We’re old already.”
Ramos seems more than willing to make these sacrifices to pay back the debt that helped his sons get through college. They’ve both graduated. Freddie Jr. is a data analyst and Gabriel works in physical therapy. Ramos said their diplomas are among the few things in life that can’t be taken away.
“To get invited to the table, you have to have that piece of paper,” he said of a college degree. “That’s just how it is. And I made that clear to them, ‘You need that paper. That’s the only way you’re gonna get invited to the table, to a job, to an interview or whatever.’ ”