Public Service Loan Forgiveness was created under the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007. Then for the next 10 years, Congress apparently forgot it existed.
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF) was designed to provide student debt relief for workers in the public sector, promising total forgiveness of loans after 10 years of employment in state/local/federal government, public education, and certain non-profit organizations. The program requires borrowers to certify their employment status and make on-time monthly payments during that ten year period (120 qualifying payments). Pretty straightforward, right? Well…
The catch is that what you think is a qualifying payment probably is not, even if you were once told that it was. College loan debt – like most debt these days – is bought and sold as a commodity. This is one of the reasons your payment almost certainly does not qualify. The
economic parasites financial wizards who buy and sell debt aren’t really interested in the complexities of federal student loan management. So when your loan is inevitably shuffled from one investment portfolio to the next, anything you may have setup at the beginning of your repayment period kind of goes on autopilot at best. Your new loanlords debt servicers are not at all interested in periodically verifying your income or doing anything else to make sure you get on – and stay on – the right repayment plan. And they certainly won’t tell you if you’ve been overpaying (more on that later). The reason for this is pretty simple: nobody told them they had to. Congress passed the bill and then slept on it for almost a decade. By all appearances, it seems that nobody even attempted to manage the program in the interim. When the first borrowers became eligible for forgiveness in 2017, the situation was immediately deemed a crisis. Like most crises in the United States, this one was totally preventable and utterly predictable. As of 2019, less than 1% of PSLF applicants succeed in receiving the loan forgiveness they were promised.
A (Temporary?) Remedy
In response to this mismanagement (really, non-management), Congress passed an emergency relief bill, the Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness (TEPSLF) in 2018. That word: temporary. It’s frightening to borrowers, and for good reason. Since Congress became suddenly aware of a bill they themselves passed, they’ve been fighting over whether to fix it or trash it. Reliably, Republicans have led the charge to renege on a promise to the public with multiple attempts to eliminate PSLF though legislation dating back to 2015. The Trump White House tried again just this year with the 2019 budget proposal. Shockingly (truly, even to me), none of the elimination proposals even include language about fulfilling existing obligations then phasing it out for new borrowers. They’re apparently happy to leave it at “fuck you.” Democrats are also fine changing the rules of the game, somewhat less brutally, by capping debt relief at about $57K, as Obama attempted in 2015. But as of now, TEPSLF is still funded and the original promise stands, as long as you can jump through all the hoops in time.
The official word from the Department of Education is “The TEPSLF opportunity is temporary, has limited funding, and must be provided on a first come, first served basis. Once all of the funds are used, the TEPSLF opportunity will end.”
Take My Loans (Please!)
As stupid as it seems, overpaying is probably what will disqualify you when you eventually apply for forgiveness via PSLF. During my 10+ years of
debt servitude repayment, I paid my loans aggressively, diligently, and on-time (I would have been less aggressive if I had known about PSLF earlier, but it only came to my attention around 6 years into my employment at a public university). I owed about $50K and made about $44K worth of consolidated payments, leaving me with a balance of… give or take, about $44K (because: usury compound interest)
When I submitted my application for forgiveness, I was denied. Twice. To qualify for TEPSLF you must first be denied through PSLF and if you’re denied for either or both once, you must resubmit all the paperwork and start the application process all over again. This seems like an odd choice since each time your paperwork will be identical, but whatever. So, as expected, my PSLF application was rejected on the first try because my payments didn’t qualify. I was told to update my payment plan and expect an email inviting me to have my application reconsidered for TEPSLF.
So, I went ahead and updated my payment plan. Apparently the thing that held me up was that my payments were simply mislabeled because any normal person would look at my payments and say, “Well, hey, that should qualify” because I had actually paid over $14K more than what was required by the approved payment plans. But whatever. I fixed it, and was all set for the next step: TEPSLF.
I received the promised TEPSLF email, which told me that to have my application reconsidered, all I needed to do was respond to the email saying I wanted them to reconsider. This process seems oddly fragile and informal, but again, whatever. So I sent an email that said “Please reconsider my application.” Some time later, I received a letter in the mail saying that I didn’t make enough payments and that, although I’d been making a single consolidated payment for over ten years, somehow one group loans had 119 payments and another had 114 payments. Odd and incorrect, but whatever. I made some phone calls and they informed me that they were reviewing my payments because, well, that looked wrong to them too. Eventually they decided both of my loan groups had an equal number of payments: 119.
One month later I made the 120th payment and called to verify that we had the same count. My count was more like 123 or something but that’s okay I guess. The important thing is that I was all set up to be rejected for PSFL a second time, enabling me to respond with another email asking to be reconsidered a second time via TEPSLF.
A few months after sending my reconsideration request (followed by a call or two to confirm receipt and check in on progress), I finally received some good news: my loans had been forgiven… but only partially. It turns out even though I consolidated my loans over a decade ago, they did not all have the same number of applied payments. Nonetheless, I was really happy to shed almost $37K of debt, even if I was left with almost $8K still to pay. I gave myself a few days to experience a sense of relief and then got back to work finishing the job.
After a call to FedLoan Servicing, we determined that the payments to two individual disbursements were automatically put into temporary forbearance during the various changes to my loan status over the years (I consolidated my loans after finishing undergrad, and again after grad school, and also transferred my loans from private management to the federal system as part of the PSLF process). Even though I had opted to make payments during those forbearance periods, they wouldn’t be counted. Instead, those were considered optional over-payments. Those hundreds of dollars in account credit could hypothetically be reapplied as scheduled payments but even the call center representative for FedLoan Servicing seemed uncertain whether that would break one of the program’s arcane rules, so I decided to just eat that cost and set up a new payment plan for the two remaining payments, which ended up being about $50/month. And no, I was told, I was not able to just submit both payments in advance; they needed to be scheduled during each of the two remaining payment periods. Again, over-payment and bureaucracy was something I’d just have to live with.
Two months and two payments later, I got to start the whole PSLF process over again, completing my forms, getting signatures verifying my employment, etc. – all the while knowing that those documents were just there to prompt a rejection, which would allow me to send that final TEPSLF reconsideration request via email. So a few more months of waiting (and continuing to make $50 payments just in case), I got my rejection, sent the reconsideration request (this time, unprompted for some reason), and waited (and paid) some more.
Some time later I saw an ad on Twitter. The tweet was sponsored by FAFSA, and contained a link with some not-all-that-useful advice for navigating PSLF. Naturally, the reply thread was full of comments expressing anger, frustration, and disappointment. This being the internet, I of course added my own complaint:
Shortly thereafter I got a reply from FAFSA, then another from FedLoan Servicing, inviting me to send them a direct message with my contact info so they could investigate. Not expecting much, I sent them my information.
Then it happened. Without notice, all my loans were finally forgiven. I happened to log in to my account and instead of showing what I owe, it showed an account credit of a few hundred bucks!
I felt like Frodo watching the ring descend into the lava of Mount Doom. My quest complete. My enemy defeated. My burden lifted. My journey had left me weary and injured, but also wizened and acclaimed. Or something.
Apparently, with renewed interest in Congress in how the program has been mismanaged over the years, FedLoan Servicing (a.k.a. the public-private organization, Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency) was starting to feel the heat. With the Senate breathing down their necks, they seem to have set loose the rarely-used power of actual human judgement. Someone, somewhere, granted the right to make decisions, looked at my loans and said, “yeah, this should be forgiven.” It’s strange that they didn’t let me know in any formal way and even stranger that it took a Twitter complaint to expedite my review (though one should never underestimate the power of a Twitter complaint), but here we are.
Ultimately, the whole process of loan forgiveness took about twelve months to complete from initial application to final resolution. Twelve months of submitting the same paperwork over and over. Twelve months of ridiculously long processing delays. Twelve months of rejections, reconsideration requests, phone calls, and compulsive account logins. Twelve months of shifting expectations based on unreliable information and rules that seem to only reveal themselves after you’ve broken them. Twelve months of worrying about the end of TEPSLF itself. I never gave up. But I can certainly understand why many people do.
So with that experience in mind, I offer a few tips to keep you going on your quest for student debt relief.
TIP 1: Transfer your Loans ASAP
When you send your initial PSLF application for forgiveness and employment certification forms, your loans should be automatically transferred to FedLoan Servicing. But… they might not be. For some reason, my initial transfer failed. I believe it was because they had recently been acquired by a new servicer around the same time. I didn’t notice this failure for at least a year or two, so I continued to make payments as usual, which may or may not have complicated matters. In any case, follow up well before you’ve completed your 10-year period to make sure your loan has been transferred. The transfer process takes 2-3 months in my experience and you can’t afford long delays. Take note of any suspended payments.
TIP 2: Expect to be Denied
Unless you are among the fortunate 1% of borrowers, you will be denied for PSLF (probably more than once after all is said and done). Come to terms with this in advance and focus on what you need to do to be reconsidered for TEPSLF. Think of PSLF denial as the first step to TEPSLF acceptance.
TIP 3: Get on the Phone
Every time you take a step, follow up with a phone call a few days later. The whole application process appears to be extremely error-prone and fragile, but the call center representatives are usually very helpful. As always, be kind to your friends on the other line. They are not responsible for this mess and they seem to understand that the whole thing is sort of broken and potentially confusing/panic-inducing. Just tell them something like “I completed this step or submitted that form and just want to follow up to be sure it’s been processed.” This will give you peace of mind and also help to identify issues that need may require further action.
TIP 4: Log in and Read Everything
Carefully read every letter FedLoan Servicing sends to your home and, perhaps more importantly – since time is of the essence regarding TEPSLF’s tenuous funding – actively log into your account at myfedloan.org and check your inbox regularly (like, at least every week). Mailed correspondence tends to be at least a week or two behind.
TIP 5: Keep Copies
Keep a folder of documents handy. You will likely end up with dozens of letters and forms you may need to reference. Be especially careful to keep copies of your submitted paperwork. Since this process can be redundant, it’s nice to have copies ready to be signed, dated, and resubmitted on demand. If you have pre-filled copies of your applications, it will likely save you some time (and make you less irritating to others) when you go to your HR Department to re-certify your employment, etc.
TIP 6: Contact Your Representatives
Never let your elected officials forget that they are responsible for keeping a promise to the public. Let them know that loan forgiveness is an important program for their constituents and that you expect them to protect it. Maybe also let them know that our privately-funded education system is a national shame.
It’s generally considered most impactful to call your elected officials on the phone or write mailed letters but you can also use ResistBot.
Consider supporting candidates who are strongly in favor of student debt relief. Maybe even join DSA and work toward real structural economic change.
TIP 7: Talk to your Co-Workers and Students
It’s hard to know what the future holds for PSLF/TEPSLF, but it’s important that borrowers know about it, continue to sign up for it, and understand how it works. The more people use a program and rely on it and defend it, the harder it is for Congress to eliminate. And helping others navigate the process can only help.
If you know someone who might qualify – or who has maybe decided they don’t qualify – send them this article. It might help. I don’t know.
TIP 8: Don’t Give Up
So many people I’ve spoken with gave up after some discouraging news from their HR Department, their loan servicer, or the Department of Education. Sometimes giving up is the right choice for your sanity and even for your bank account (especially if you don’t owe much and are just entering repayment). But more often than you might think, you may still have a chance at forgiveness. For example, many people are under the impression that because they didn’t begin the PSLF process until later in repayment that they are automatically disqualified. This is not the case. Trust expert advice but don’t be afraid to challenge and verify for yourself. Not everyone cares as much as you, so keep at it until you are 100% certain.
Bonus Tip: Complain on Twitter I guess?
Who knows, that might actually work if you have a good case. I wouldn’t bet the farm on it, but it’s worth a try.