The program that public servants can use to have their federal student loans forgiven is such a quagmire for borrowers that Congress had to set up a relief program for the relief program.
So far, it’s not performing much better.
It has been nearly five months since the Department of Education released instructions for a $350 million pot of money that some public servants can use if they received bad information about the loan forgiveness program and ended up in the wrong type of repayment plan.
Tens of thousands of people have applied for the relief program. But so far, most have been rejected, and as of late last month, none among the few thousand who remain in the running have seen their debt balances go to zero.
In response to an inquiry led by Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, the department disclosed last week that 28,207 people had submitted requests as of Sept. 28 and that it had found 21,672 ineligible almost immediately. It then culled “approximately” half of the remaining 6,535 for other reasons. That leaves just over 3,000 applications still under consideration.
It can take up to six months or so to review these requests because of the complexity of both the forgiveness program and the relief fund application process. The Department of Education has shifted some staff to work more closely with the loan servicer that handles the forgiveness program.
The relief fund was created after it became clear that scores of teachers, social workers and other government and nonprofit employees had received bad information from their loan servicers about the forgiveness program’s complex terms. So far, fewer than 1 percent of applicants have had their loans discharged through the program, which got its start just over a decade ago but is only now having borrowers become eligible.
To qualify for tax-free loan forgiveness, borrowers need to make 120 on-time monthly payments (while working in an eligible public-service position), have the right kind of loan (some federal loans qualify while others do not) and be in the right kind of payment plan (the income-driven ones designed to help lower-income borrowers). I explained the process in more detail in an earlier column.
When it became clear in recent years that loan servicers had told public-servant borrowers that they were doing everything right even when they were in the wrong kind of loan or payment plan, pressure grew on elected officials to help borrowers who thought they were being meticulous only to find that years of payments had not counted for forgiveness.
Enter the Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness initiative, which is a pool of $350 million designed to help borrowers who were in certain ineligible payment plans, often because their loan servicers specifically told them to use those plans or stay in them. The relief program comes with its own rules and restrictions, which I outlined in a previous article and are available on the Department of Education’s website.
Five months in, that website is no model of clarity.
For instance, one paragraph tells borrowers that they must submit a public service loan forgiveness application and wait to be rejected (for payments that were not in a qualifying payment plan) before being potentially eligible for relief. The very next paragraph, however, tells them that they do not need to wait before submitting a request under the temporary plan.
Jolie von Suhr, a psychologist in a state psychiatric hospital in Lakewood, Wash., who was in an ineligible payment plan for years before realizing she had a problem, said the site’s conflicting information left her both perplexed and afraid.
“It kind of sounds like you can submit them both at the same time, but I’m not sure,” she said. “I’m so anxious now about doing anything incorrectly that could get me booted out of consideration.”
In fact, you do not have to wait for a public service loan forgiveness denial in order to request consideration under the temporary expanded program. I asked if the department intended to clarify this on its site and received assurances that it “will continue to review communications to borrowers and will adjust them as appropriate.”
Some eligibility determinations are easier to make than others — rejecting people who have not made 120 payments or who were in an ineligible loan, for example. The Department of Education’s loan servicer often has a tougher time producing an accurate count of months of repayment.
Plus, it now has to account for a rule under the temporary program that applies to people who thought they were in the right kind of repayment plan but found out much later that they were not. They are eligible for the temporary program only if their most recently monthly payment and the one they made 12 months before their application were higher than what they would have paid if they had been enrolled in a qualifying repayment plan. Yes, it’s complicated, and clearing this hurdle may require documentation.
The Education Department seems tired of bearing blame for all of this.
“We implement the programs Congress creates,” said the department’s press secretary, Liz Hill. She added that the forgiveness program and the temporary program were “poorly constructed programs, the rules of which are highly complex and difficult for students to navigate.”
“We are working to make it as straightforward as the rules allow,” Ms. Hill said.
Some borrower advocates are not surprised by the delays thus far.
“This is a new program in that we’re still in the first year or so of forgiveness applications,” said Betsy Mayotte, president of the Institute of Student Loan Advisors, a nonprofit adviser to debtors. “I have high hopes that the process will become more seamless and quicker over time.”