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Responding to Coronavirus Financial Crisis, Harvard Graduate Students Seek Student Loan Relief

Some Harvard students are grappling with paying off private student loans during the coronavirus crisis.
Some Harvard students are grappling with paying off private student loans during the coronavirus crisis. By Jenny M. Lu
By Ellen M. Burstein and Camille G. Caldera, Crimson Staff Writers

With millions facing financial hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump signed off on a $2 trillion relief package — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — last month. The legislation offers borrowers of federally-held student loans a reprieve from payments for six months, through Sept. 30, without accruing interest.

Many graduate students at Harvard have private loans, however, not all of which offer comparable accommodations.

Bryan O. Buckley, a student at the Harvard School of Public Health and the outgoing president of the Harvard Graduate Council, said he has both federal and private loans.

“My wife and I both have student loans. All of her loans are federal loans and so she did get a reprieve,” Buckley said. “For me, I have both federal loans, and also private loans. For my federal loans, that works. But as I'm entering into the job market, I'll have to start paying my loans back.”

“I have quite a lot of private loans and so far they have not made any moves so far as to do anything to kind of help,” he added.

One such private lender for graduate students is the Harvard University Employees Credit Union, a non-profit financial cooperative exclusive to University staff, students, and alumni.

Eugene J. “Gene” Foley, the President and CEO of HUECU, said the institution is “probably” the largest lender of student loans for Harvard graduate students.

Foley said the Credit Union is making adjustments to loans on a case-by-case basis.

“We will do interest rate reduction, we will do payment deferrals, we'll do a combination of things,” Foley said. “Our reps have been very busy as students have been calling in and seeking help, and we're trying to triage this on a case-by-case basis rather than just putting one program out there that's kind of a blanket fit.”

Noelle G. Graham — a student at Harvard Law School who has taken out all her student loans with HUECU — wrote in an email that she feels the Credit Union’s individualized approach could impose undue pressure on those struggling with their finances.

“While administering relief on a case-by-case basis offers flexibility to the institution, it raises uncertainty for those needing the relief,” Graham wrote. “It also puts the onus on each individual to vigorously advocate for themselves. And those who need this relief the most are also likely those who are feeling the most exhausted and distressed right now.”

Graham said she hopes the Credit Union will provide the same relief as the federal government due to “extreme financial uncertainty” posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Foley said the Credit Union is offering “a lot” of student loan relief comparable to federal programs. He also argued in favor of the individualized approach, noting that solutions could be “a better fit” if they are “tailor-made” to meet a particular student’s needs.

“We are doing a lot of the things that the federal government's doing, but we're doing them on a case-by-case basis to see if we can really help people out and figure things out,” Foley said.

Graham — a co-president of the Law School’s student government — said that while she is not required to make payments until after she graduates in 2021, law students who are about to graduate are particularly concerned about paying back loans.

“Many students at HLS work at private law firms after graduating, but if those firms decide to postpone their start date, then that may become a real issue for some people,” Graham said. “Students going into public sector jobs are likely in an even more precarious position.”

Foley said “the lion’s share” of recent requests for assistance coming to the Credit Union relate to student loans and mortgages. HUECU has also offered one-time skip-a-pay and three-month payment deferral options for consumer loans and personal loans.

He said the Credit Union is adapting its financial relief for Harvard students and staff as the pandemic unfolds.

"I'm not sure what the extent or the duration of this financial crisis is going to be, so we just wanted to get programs up and running out there, right away, that would help people,” Foley said. “And then we have centrally triaged the requests coming in, so that we can have a very good finger on the pulse in terms of what the problems are.”

—Staff writer Ellen M. Burstein can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ellenburstein.

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

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