Where to go to get help with college debt

A guide to resources that can help individuals and families struggling with student-loan debt, from apps and advice to free legal aid.

  • By Cheryl Winokur Munk,
  • The Wall Street Journal
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Many borrowers feel up to their necks in student debt and don’t know where to turn.

It isn’t surprising, given that around 45 million Americans collectively owe more than $1.6 trillion in student-loan debt, according to Federal Reserve and Federal Reserve Bank of New York data.

To ease their burden, many borrowers get sucked in by too-good-to-be-true offers, which often sends them even further down the rabbit hole.

The good news is there are many free or low-cost resources available for borrowers who need help understanding their debt, or who want advice on getting out of debt and viable options for their specific circumstances.

Here are some places to find that type of help:

Federal resources

One of the first places to try is the office of Federal Student Aid, which oversees or manages the federal student-loan program. Borrowers can visit studentaid.gov for free information on managing loans and programs such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness and income-driven repayment that might be appropriate for their circumstances. Another helpful resource is the Student Loan Simulator, available at studentaid.gov/loan-simulator, which helps borrowers find a repayment plan that meets their needs and goals.

Low cost/free resources

For free or low-cost advice, try one of the following.

Forgive My Student Debt, forgivemystudentdebt.org. This site offers information on Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

Higher Ed Not Debt, higherednotdebt.org. A service from a combination of organizations including labor groups, think tanks and nonprofits that offers educational resources to student-loan borrowers.

National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project, studentloanborrowerassistance.org. Tells borrowers more about their options and rights. It explains the workings of student loans, repayment, bankruptcy, cancellation, private loans and more. There are referral resources, forms and other information for struggling borrowers as well.

National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), nfcc.org, 800-388-2227. Provides financial reviews and education to consumers in person, over the phone or online. NFCC member agencies provide free or low-cost services including student-loan debt counseling.

Financial Counseling Association of America (FCAA), fcaa.org. Provides free or low-cost counseling services through member agencies in areas that include student-loan counseling. Borrowers can use the website to be in touch with a credit counselor.

The Institute of Student Loan Advisors (Tisla), freestudentloanadvice.org. Works with several thousand borrowers a year to provide free advice on student loans and dispute resolution. Borrowers can receive expert information and guidance on deciding on a repayment plan, determining if they are eligible for loan forgiveness or discharge, student-loan disputes, completing forms and applications, and getting out of default or delinquency.

Digital resources

There are apps that could help borrowers as well, although users have to decide whether the ones that cost money are worth it. One note on apps: If you’re planning on benefiting from the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, make sure you continue to make a full installment payment every month. Check with your loan servicer to ensure payments from the app are being applied correctly. The program forgives the remaining balance on your Direct Loans only after you have made 120 qualifying monthly payments under a qualifying repayment plan while working full time for a qualifying employer. A qualifying payment, when made up of multiple partial payments, must total at least your monthly payment amount and be made no later than 15 days after the payment due date, according to Federal Student Aid.

Pillar, pillar.app. Analyzes a borrower’s loan balance, income and spending trends to make a personalized recommendation about his or her payment plan, monthly payments and refinancing. This service is free, though in the future it may introduce a small monthly fee for some premium features.

ChangEd, gochanged.com. Helps borrowers set aside change from normal purchases and apply the money to pay off their student loans. The service analyzes a borrower’s purchases and rounds up to the nearest dollar. Once the accumulated change reaches $5, it is transferred to an FDIC-insured ChangEd account until the total reaches $100. Then it is automatically applied to a borrower’s loans. Borrowers can also make extra payments toward their loan. The service costs $1 a month; family and friends who want to help the borrower with repayment can also sign up and contribute. A new $2-a-month premium service will allow users to make more-frequent extra payments and sets a payment threshold of $50 for payments to be sent to a servicer, says co-founder Dan Stelmach.

Chipper, chipper.app. This service is currently available online and on iOS phones and will be available for Android by July, says Tony Aguilar, the founder and chief executive. Borrowers can use its Discover Tool free to help determine which repayment or forgiveness options they are eligible for. For $2 a month, the app will round purchases up to the nearest dollar and apply the rounded-up portion weekly to loan repayment; allow recurring extra contributions; and accept contributions from family and friends.

Zero Student Debt Initiative Inc., rounduptozero.com. Allows borrowers to round up daily purchases to help pay off their loans, set recurring payments and invite supporters to help pay off their loans. The company charges a one-time $1.50 account setup fee and a $0.99 monthly subscription fee. Payments are made once roundups reach $10.

Helpful information sources

The following sources can help borrowers learn general information and understand what questions they should be asking. But always double-check the information. Content providers on this topic are often compensated by lenders for referrals, so borrowers should look for potential conflicts.

Edvisors Network Inc., edvisors.com. Offers information on managing and paying back student loans.

Savingforcollege.com. Offers tips and advice on student loans, refinancing and other ways to pay for college.

NerdWallet Inc., nerdwallet.com. Helps borrowers find options for dealing with student-loan payment troubles and information on refinancing, forgiveness and other related topics.

Student Loan Hero, studentloanhero.com. A subsidiary of LendingTree Inc., TREE 3.23% it provides information, calculators and data on student-loan repayment.

Student Loan Sherpa, studentloansherpa.com. A blog that covers student-loan forgiveness, federal repayment strategies, consolidation and other student-debt topics.

Student Loan Planner, studentloanplanner.com. Offers free calculators and information about refinancing, income-driven repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness, as well as paid consulting services.

Legal resources

Student-loan borrowers have limited legal recourse, but low-cost avenues to explore include:

Local legal aid, lsc.gov/what-legal-aid/find-legal-aid. Helps people find a legal-aid organization near them.

LawHelp.org. Developed and maintained by Pro Bono Net, a national nonprofit based in New York and San Francisco, it helps people who have low and moderate incomes find free legal aid in their communities.

National Association of Consumer Advocates, consumeradvocates.org. Enables borrowers to search for attorneys focused on student loans.

National Consumer Law Center, nclc.org. Enables borrowers to find broad consumer-debt advice and be directed to legal assistance sites and other consumer debt resources.

Advocacy-based organizations

For those interested in the rights of student-loan borrowers, or who want to become more involved on an advocacy level, the following nonprofit organizations can help.

The Institute for College Access & Success (Ticas), ticas.org. Focuses on research and advocacy for student-centered public policies that promote affordability, accountability and equity in higher education.

Student Debt Crisis, studentdebtcrisis.org. Dedicated to overhauling student-debt and higher-education loan policies.

National Student Legal Defense Network, defendstudents.org. A borrower-advocacy group focusing on student-debt relief and related consumer protections.

Student Borrower Protection Center, protectborrowers.org. Through advocacy, policy making and litigation, their work includes fighting student-debt-related abuses and protecting borrowers’ rights. The group also provides a listing of student-loan advocates or ombudspersons in 10 states that offer this resource.

Other resources

Some providers that generally work with employers to provide student-debt services to their employees are offering their services directly to affected borrowers at no cost during the pandemic.

Savi, bysavi.com. Helps individuals identify the best repayment and forgiveness options and gives assistance enrolling in those plans. Through September, at least, borrowers affected by the pandemic can use Savi’s student-loan technology free by visiting crisishelp.bysavi.com. The tool is being offered in partnership with Student Debt Crisis.

Summer, meetsummer.org. Borrowers affected by the pandemic can, free through the end of the year, create an account at meetsummer.org/covidrelief/ customized help identifying, comparing and enrolling in the best repayment and forgiveness programs based on the borrower’s loan situation.

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