By Thomas Ehlers

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided some unexpected opportunities for individuals with student loans, including graduate student Ashton Moss.

Moss is in her final year of her master’s degree in audiology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. After finishing her undergraduate studies at Dalton State College, she took out a direct unsubsidized student loan to help pay for graduate school. She did not expect the pandemic to affect the way her loans were handled, but rule changes helped her financially.

“Because of COVID-19, my student loans stopped accruing interest during the pandemic, and they are not set to start accruing again until January,” she said. “This has saved me thousands of dollars in total, and it is nice to know that the interest has been on pause and will continue to be for a couple more months.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Office currently offers a no-interest policy through Jan. 31, 2022. The policy was put in place in March of 2020 and has been extended on several occasions.

Moss noted that student loans and scholarships play hand-in-hand with one another. Her school took money away from scholarship funds, leaving fewer opportunities for students to receive aid other than loans.

“Losing this funding is a big hit to graduate students who already take out substantial loans to afford the degree,” she said. “I was the recipient of two of these scholarships, and they were super helpful in making my education more affordable.”

Finding a balance between scholarships, loans and other aid is a challenge for students. Individuals can only receive aid equivalent to the cost of education; no student can have more aid than the year’s schooling cost according to federal guidelines.

Although navigating financial aid is a challenge, one financial planner said both students and parents continue to make plans for the future by continuing to fund their investments aimed a paying for higher education.

Joel Theis is a financial advisor at the Raymond James and Associates branch in Dalton, Georgia. He said there has been little change in the number of student loans or the amount of concern from his clients on potential financial strain from pursuing further education.

“The concern for quality education trumps any concerns over COVID outcomes,” he said. “Most of my clients that are investing for college are investing for loved ones. They set up systematic monthly amounts years ago and not one has reduced or stopped their investments even during the pandemic.”

For those struggling to pay, the pandemic also created opportunities for graduates with loans in default. According to the U.S. Department of Education, individuals in default will not have their wages garnished, tax refunds withheld or Social Security payments withheld.

As the world continues to adapt to COVID and its variants, U.S. policymakers give students and graduates the ability to navigate the pandemic virtually without penalty. Soon, these policies will expire, and individuals will have to pick up where they left off when it comes to their pre-pandemic contracts.

Thomas Ehlers is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.