President Biden extends AOA-, AOSA-backed federal student loan relief through September
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden signed an extension of the suspension of repayment of federal student loans through Sept. 30, 2021. The AOA and the American Optometric Student Association (AOSA) had been pushing for the extension to support optometry graduate students and the future patients in communities they will serve.
The AOA and AOSA continue to urge the new administration to consider longer-term solutions to student debt hardship, especially during the pandemic. In 2018, 81% of U.S. optometry graduates accumulated debt with a mean average of $178,922.
The extension was one of 17 executive orders, on topics as varied as immigration, climate change and the COVID-19 crisis, President Biden signed on his inauguration day.
“At the request of President Biden, the Acting Secretary of Education will extend the pause on federal student loan payments and collections and keep the interest rate at 0%,” the White House news release reads. “Too many Americans are struggling to pay for basic necessities and to provide for their families. They should not be forced to choose between paying their student loans and putting food on the table.”
Pressing the case for debt relief
Under the CARES Act, the historic $2.2 trillion economic relief package passed by Congress in April in the early days of the pandemic, payments were suspended, along with interest and collections, on federally backed student loan programs. That relief had been extended through Jan. 31, 2021, and now through Sept. 30, 2021.
In a Jan. 19 letter to the Biden-Harris transition team lead in the U.S. Department of Education, the AOA and AOSA not only sought a repayment extension but also implored the new administration to consider long-term solutions to students’ crushing debt.
In this pandemic, students are already bearing the burden of a disrupted education, an uncertain job market and delays in their ability to practice in a stressed economy, say AOA President William T. Reynolds, O.D., and AOSA President Alexander Bennett in the letter.
“Doctors of optometry serve as frontline primary care doctors with respect to eye and vision care, and optometry practices nationwide are delivering essential care to patients during the public health emergency,” Dr. Reynolds and Bennett say in the letter. “However, without addressing the continued financial and workforce concerns of student borrowers, many student doctors of optometry may not be able to play a future frontline role in caring for the needs of neighbors and helping communities recover.
“During this time of crisis, it has been made especially clear that a strong and well-trained health care workforce is critical for our country’s success,” they say.
They urged President Biden and his administration to provide further relief for student loan borrowers, including considering additional student loan forgiveness measures.
Crushing student loan debt
Student loan debt has long been a priority issue for the AOA and AOSA because it can impact not only how and where future doctors of optometry practice, but also the growth of the nation’s future small businesses. There are about 7,200 students currently enrolled in optometry schools.
Bennett, who attends Western University of Health Sciences and plans to graduate from its optometry school in 2021, says he has heard from students who express concern over their debt, which in some cases can be “financially crippling.”
“The debt facing optometry students is an ever-increasing concern,” Bennett says. “The average wages of optometrists are not rising at the same rate as the cost of attending optometry school.
“COVID is not over and students need relief,” he adds. “While 0% interest was incredible, I realize it can't last forever. But having some form of student assistance would be crucial to ensuring new grads and working grads aren't falling behind on their repayment schedule.”
The AOA’s advocacy and guidance in accessing federal relief funds has already helped the profession access over a billion dollars for doctors of optometry. These federal relief options have helped offset coronavirus-related hardships and support practices and positions for future doctors of optometry. Continuing to provide relief to AOA members and students impacted by the pandemic remains a priority.
What can doctors of optometry and optometry students do?
Contact your members of Congress regarding relief needed for student loan borrowers. Please use AOA’s Legislative Action Center or text “Student” to 855.465.5124.
Attend a webinar hosted by AOAExcel®
Congress’ Sept. 15 deadline for bill language passes with lawmakers backing key guardrails that AOA’s advocates say must be in place for a workable benefit. Yet, price tag developments may forestall efforts.
A September deadline means now is the time for AOA members to act. Attend an upcoming special advisory group session for the latest legislative information and contact your members of Congress.
The AOA continues its support of optometry students, advocating for a temporary suspension of student loan debt due to the pandemic, as well as a long-term avenue toward loan forgiveness and repayment.