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COMMENTARY | The student loan forgiveness process for public servants is a disaster. After almost five years, I’m still waiting to have all my loans forgiven.
Growing up, I remember seeing vehicles with a bumper sticker proudly proclaiming, “let me tell you about my grandchildren.” I’m convinced that our generation will have bumper stickers that say, “let me tell you about my student loans.”
Like millions of Americans, I took out student loans to fund my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Since 2004, I have worked as a public servant in the same small bedroom community of Lake Isabella, Michigan. I made payments on my undergraduate loans until I went to grad school. After finishing my master’s degree in 2017, I decided to contact the U.S. Department of Education about obtaining forgiveness for my undergrad loans under the Public Service Loan forgiveness program. I wanted to get an accurate count of how many more payments would be needed after having them deferred during grad school.
After submitting the paperwork, I was informed that none of my past payments counted toward forgiveness. Why? Because I was on the wrong repayment plan, and I was not with the correct loan servicer of the federal government.
Getting my loans moved to the correct provider was simple; figuring out the payment plan was not. At the time, I was paying about $200 a month. I was told that I needed to move from a graduated plan to an income-based repayment plan.
That gave me pause, I wondered how much more per month the Department of Education wanted from me? By this time, I was married with a young family, and disposable income wasn’t a luxury in our life. Turns out they wanted about half of my then $200 payment. I thought that was great, as not only would my payments be lower, but surely all those past payments above what I should have been paying would count.
Going Through the Process Yet Again
Shortly after that experience, the Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness (TEPSLF) program was launched. So, I went through the whole process again. This time, after a few phone calls, I was told that under TEPSLF that my February 2020 payment would be my 120th and final one needed for forgiveness. I submitted my application for forgiveness in March 2020 under TEPSLF and waited. And waited. And waited.
The Covid-19 pandemic caused all sorts of disruptions so I didn’t hear back from the Department of Education until September. It was then that I was informed that I did not qualify for forgiveness because I hadn’t made the necessary 120 payments, which wasn’t the case. After calling around again and speaking with several people, no one could explain what had happened. The only justification I eventually received was that I had submitted the form with a digital signature.
The Education Department’s website allowed for a digital signature at that time, so I didn’t see what the issue was. Since I was applying for forgiveness, I was told to submit a new form with an actual signature. I did and waited again. Finally, in January 2021, I got the great news that two of my three loans were forgiven under TEPSLF.
According to the Education Department, my third loan wasn’t eligible for forgiveness because I only had 119 qualifying payments. Yet, the payment history never showed a different number of payments on any of the three loans. They all had the same count every time I had checked.
Rather than argue I decided it would be easier to submit another application for that last loan. That was February 2021. Considering it took five months for the first forgiveness application to be processed, I estimated I would hear back about my last loan by late summer.
In September, I received an email congratulating me on the forgiveness of my two loans. This was identical to the email and letter I received in February. I reached out again to learn about the status of the outstanding loan. Once again, no one could give me any insights as to why this loan was yet to be forgiven. I asked for it to be reviewed again and was told that a request was sent in for review but that I shouldn’t worry since I was clearly over 120 qualifying payments.
A few weeks ago, I called for an update--and still no one knew what was going on. I was asked if I sent in a signed form and verified my employer through studentaid.gov. That was not required when my other two loans were forgiven. But because this was how forgiveness was now being handled, if I didn’t apply with the current system through studentaid.gov, they really couldn’t tell me when, or even if, they would get around to my remaining loan forgiveness application from February.
When I attempted to verify my employer to submit another application for forgiveness, the website said they couldn’t find my employer, and I was “likely not eligible” but could upload documents for review.
My employer was verified several times leading up to the forgiveness of my first two loans. Under the American Rescue Plan Act, my employer was also awarded over $175,000 in funds as a nonentitlement unit. This is the same employer I’ve been with since 2004 that has worked alongside federal agencies such as FEMA and the Census Bureau.
After uploading several documents to prove that my village is an actual governmental unit, I mailed a signed application to request forgiveness on my last loan. And now I wait, again.
A Moving Target
I would estimate that in my effort to get the Education Department to forgive my loans, I’ve spent six hours on the phone and mailed at least as many applications for them to review. In all these phone calls, I’ve yet to get a person on the other end of the line with any authority to resolve my issue. The best they can do is “submit a request to their supervisor.”
I’ve talked to colleagues who hear my story and don’t even want to bother applying as they see what a struggle it has been. Think about that. It’s preferable for people to continue making payments with their hard-earned money rather than go through the drawn-out process of loan forgiveness. It shouldn’t be that way.
Loan forgiveness programs should not be a moving target. And yet that has been my entire experience. Although the Education Department has made additional changes to its Public Service Loan forgiveness program recently to help more public servants get out of student loan debt, none of those changes will matter if the Department does not clean up, standardize and simplify the review and application process.
Tim Wolff has served as the village manager of Lake Isabella, Michigan since 2004. He has over 20 years of municipal experience in both elected and appointed positions.