updated 2:27 PM CET, Feb 8, 2023

Dems Abroad calls on U.S. education, student aid officials to resolve expat issues involved in Fed Student Loan Relief applications

The Democrats Abroad has told top officials in the U.S. Department of Education and its Federal Student Aid arm that they urgently need to fix certain problems that currently are preventing American expats from being able to apply for the recently-launched program that's designed to provide financial relief to Americans with outstanding government-provided student loans.

In her four-page letter, dated yesterday (Oct. 24) and copied to to eleven members of Congress – including Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Charles Schumer, and three Americans Abroad Caucus members – Democrats Abroad International Chair Candice Kerestan said her organization had received "hundreds of reports from [loan relief-eligible] members residing outside the U.S. who have been unable to access the online Federal Student Loan Relief application form at https://studentaid.gov ".

She noted that the efforts to resolve the problems during the week that the online application facility had been live had "not been remedied".  

She added: "We would greatly appreciate the opportunity to speak with you on a call to inform you of the problems this has caused for Americans abroad, offer our aid in fixing the form, and discuss how we can prevent this from happening again." 

Kerestan then details, over the next two pages of the letter, the Democrats Abroad's specific concerns, which she said included the so-called "geo-blocking" of expats attempting to access the online student loan relief application form. (Geo-blocking refers to a method of blocking access to Internet content on the basis of someone's geographical location, typically for copyright and licensing reasons.) 

"We understand the need for security, but geo-blocking citizens worldwide who have a federal student loan is not effective or acceptable," writes Kerestan.

"This harms legitimate users of the wesite, while presenting no significant barrier to malicious attackers.

"There are trivial means by which [would-be] attackers can purchase a U.S. Virtual Private Network (VPN) or rent a U.S.-based computer to launch an attack."

Some of the Dems Abroad's other concerns about the problems currently affecting the system for facilitating online applications for the Student Debt Relief program, Kerestan goes on to say, include the government's suggestions that overseas applicants use a U.S.-based VPN to access the necessary forms, as this can subject those using such networks to "unnecessary risks"; recommendations that expats visit a U.S. embassy or consulate to access the forms, since "most U.S. embassies and consulates forbid visitors from bringing or using electronic devices" within their premises; and a requirement that expat debt relief program applicants provide a U.S. phone number. 

"Mailing or faxing a paper application form is not a suitable alternative" either, Kerestan continues, as "postal services abroad are often unreliable and costly; most citizens abroad do not have access to a fax machine, particularly one that supports international faxing", and "citizens abroad overwhelmingly prefer to transmit confidential information online [as] it is the easiest, fastest and most reliable way". 

Kerestan concludes her letter by noting that time for fixing the problems affecting expats with student loans who are eligible for the debt relief program is "running out", as such expats are keen to apply for the relief "before [their] payments and interest resumes [on] Jan. 1, 2023. 

"Removing the geo-block is the best and safest way to ensure that they can do so as easily as Americans living inside the U.S."

Biden's Student Loan Relief program

The student loan relief program at the center of the Kerestan's letter was a Biden campaign promise that went live on Monday, Oct. 17, and is said to potentially cancel as much as US$20,000 in student loan debt for millions of Americans, providing they are able to navigate the loan relief application process.

The program – sometimes referred to as a "forgiveness" rather than "relief" regime – also saw a pause on monthly student loan payments being extended until at least January, as well as a changes to the program to make it easier for individuals to pay for. (As reported here yesterday, under the program going forward, monthly payments will be capped at 5% of a borrower’s discretionary income (down from 10%), and institutions of higher education are to be held to "new standards of accountability for rising tuition costs", according to the Democrats Abroad.)

As soon as the program went live, U.S. expats began reporting on such social media sites as Twitter and Facebook that they were unable to access the loan relief program's online application forms, receiving an "access denied" notice when they tried. 

As reported, the Democrats Abroad immediately began trying to help to resolve the issue, with yesterday's letter representing the overseas arm of the Democratic Party's latest attempt to do so. 

Meantime, as noted yesterday, U.S. citizen holders of Federal student loans have been told that they must now wait to have any application forms that they do manage to access from the studentaid.gov website until a federal appeals court in St. Louis, Missouri has had a chance to consider a legal challenge against the program that has been brought by the governments of six Republican states. 

Kerestan's letter to the Education Department and Student Aid Department officials has been posted on the Democrats Abroad's website, where it may be read and downloaded by clicking here.