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Even before President Joe Biden announced his plan to forgive up to $20,000 for most people with federal student loans, he had already made a number of less high-profile changes to the student loan system.
For many borrowers, advocates say, some of those changes will end up being more significant than the $10,000 to $20,000 of across-the-board debt forgiveness — because they will lead to full cancellation.
“I’ve been working in the student loan industry in a compliance or advocacy role since the world was round,” said Betsy Mayotte, founder and director of the Institute of Student Loan Advisors. “And the last two years have had more significant and positive changes, especially for the most vulnerable student loan borrowers out there, than I’ve ever seen in my career combined.”
Some of the most significant changes have been temporary ones made to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which Congress created in 2007 to encourage people to go into lower-paying public service jobs.
“These are our nurses, teachers, doctors, emergency service professionals, our social workers,” said Jane Fox, a New York Legal Aid Society attorney who has done a lot of organizing and advocacy around PSLF and had her own loans forgiven through the program in 2020.
Basically, anyone who works in government or at most nonprofits can apply to have the balance of their federal student loans forgiven after 10 years of regular, on-time payments. (Full disclosure: That includes people who work in public radio, including this reporter.)
It also includes Erica Romero. She’s 48, lives in Arlington, Virginia, and she’s worked for higher education nonprofits since 2005. That’s when she started paying back the $100,000 in student loans she’d taken out for her master’s in public policy.
“I don’t remember the payment amount, but I know I was not making much of a dent,” she said.
When she learned about PSLF a couple of years into her career, she figured she had a path to getting rid of her loans.
But there are a lot of specific rules about what kind of loan you must have, and what kind of repayment program you have to be in, to qualify. For a long time, very few people understood them, and Romero was not among them.
“I went and I applied after 10 years for Public Service Loan Forgiveness and got denied,” she said. “Because it turned out I was in one of the repayment programs that didn’t qualify.”
It was not just her; almost everyone who applied for PSLF in the first few years was denied.
“The program never really exceeded a 1% to 2% approval rate,” said Adam Minsky, a lawyer who focuses on helping student loan borrowers.
“The original PSLF program requirements were not really adequately communicated to borrowers. And so people were applying without realizing, hey, I didn’t have the right type of loan, or I wasn’t on the right type of repayment plan, or I consolidated and reset the clock.”
The companies that service student loans didn’t help, he said. They generally didn’t tell borrowers that the program even existed or help them get on track for it.
“When someone would call in and say, ‘Hey, what are my options? I can’t afford my payments,’ they would just put people into a forbearance,” Minsky said. “And the result is that because, under the rules, forbearance periods don’t count towards anything, borrowers wasted a lot of time that might otherwise have counted towards loan forgiveness.”
Now, though, all of those payments can potentially count toward forgiveness.
Last fall, the Biden administration announced it was retroactively changing many of the requirements for PSLF with a temporary waiver.
“What the waiver does is it sort of gives borrowers, like, a one-time-only Get Out of Jail Free card,” Mayotte said.
Anyone who’s been working full-time for a qualifying employer who applies by Monday can get credit for years of past payments — on the wrong kind of loan or the wrong repayment plan — that normally wouldn’t count. It’s effective even if they’ve retired or are no longer working in public service, which is not usually the case.
“It’s huge,” Mayotte said. “A lot of people have gotten forgiveness right out of the gate, where before this waiver, they didn’t think they were ever going to get it.”
That includes Erica Romero, whose first PSLF application was rejected a couple of years ago.
When she first heard about the waiver, she said, “I was a little reluctant. I’m like, ‘Do I really want to bother to go through this just to get rejected again?’” But then she started seeing friends post on social media about having their loans forgiven under the waiver.
“After I started seeing more and more stories of folks getting approved,” she said, “I’m like, ‘OK, it’s gonna be worth the effort. Let’s give it a try and see what they say.’”
Romero applied again, and about five months later, she got the email: The roughly $40,000 in federal loans she had left had been forgiven. Her balance was zero.
Not long after, she also received a refund check in the mail for about $7,000 for all the extra payments she’d made on her loans over the required 10 years.
“It was amazing,” she said. “It really was a relief to know that I would be done paying my loans before I retired.”
That’s something she had figured would never happen after her application was rejected the first time.
So far, more than 236,000 people have had a total of $14 billion in loans forgiven, according to the Department of Education. Many more have applied and are waiting for their applications to be processed.
There are likely still a whole lot more people who could benefit but haven’t applied, per Betsy Mayotte at the Institute of Student Loan Advisors.
To them, she said, “If you’re within the sound of my voice … you should be applying for consolidation, assuming you need to, and you should be submitting a PSLF form ASAP.”
The limited PSLF waiver expires in a few days, at the end of October.
But some of the changes to the program will stick around. Just this week, the administration announced that borrowers who miss the deadline will get one last shot to adjust their PSLF status next summer. And going forward, it will be easier for people to qualify for the program.
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