Since the PSLF program was introduced, fewer than 1 percent of applicants have had their loans forgiven.
It’s been months since California high school teacher Shdari Crane has had enough money in the bank to make her monthly student loan payment. She knows she should. But she also needs to keep the lights on, the water running, the car insured, the roof over her head, and more. As a single parent, who also has borrowed to help pay her daughter’s college tuition, she can’t manage it all. Today, she still owes $130,000, mostly from her master’s degree. “One hundred and thirty thousand dollars,” she sighs. “It’s way too much. The interest gets larger and larger and larger. And, you know, with teachers, our salary goes up a tad each year.”
“One year, my income went up, so my loan payment went up—but then so did my insurance, so it wasn’t like I got a raise at all!” Crane, 46, has been teaching English in California’s Central Valley since 2001. “If I were to have become a doctor, or whatever, I would have been able to pay off these loans. As a teacher, there’s no way,” she says.“The only way I could pay this off would be to sell my house—and then where would I live?” As it is, she teaches during the summer to help pay the bills. “I know, as a teacher, we’re supposed to instill the value of higher education in our students, but I feel like I shouldn’t tell them that—because it’s going to put them into debt.” The federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is the “light at the end of the tunnel,” she says—but 10 years is a long time, she points out. Five would be better (and five could be an option under the What You Can Do For Your Country Act, introduced this spring by U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). In any case, Crane will never qualify for PSLF as it is, if she can’t afford to make the 120 required, on-time payments. “I wish they would just wipe them out,” she says. “Obviously, if you’ve been teaching for more than 10 years, you’re committed to the profession. Just wipe them out!”
“Obviously, if you’ve been teaching for more than 10 years, you’re committed to the profession. Just wipe them out!”
Greg Cechak, a sixth-grade teacher in Pennsylvania, is “trying not to get anxious” about his impending application for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Every time he calls Fed Loan Servicing, a PSLF counselor assures him that he’s doing everything right. He consolidated his loans in 2011, entered a federal income-driven repayment program, and has never missed an on-time payment. (He keeps digital PDFs and paper records.) Still, a lot rides on this promise made to public-service workers by the federal government. Cechak, 32, and his wife, also a public school teacher, have two daughters, ages 4 and 1. They have a home mortgage, two cars. They might not have made those choices—had children, bought a house, etc.—if the promise made to public-service workers is false.
Currently, Cechak still owes about $40,000 for his B.A. and master’s degrees, both earned at Pennsylvania’s public Bloomsburg University. He’s counting on loan forgiveness for his own personal financial stability—but he also wants lawmakers to understand that PSLF isn’t just a personal boon. It’s about the teaching profession and the future of public education. “We’re going to be hitting a teacher shortage in the next two to five years, depending on the state, and the reasons are obvious,” he says. “I mean, if my kids told they wanted to be teachers, it’s not that I would advise them not to…but I would tell them to be very prepared for the debt that will be coming!” he says. (And, he adds, the lack of respect!) Federal loan forgiveness should be a more efficient, simpler process, he says. Legislation proposed by U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Kirsten Gillibrand appeals to Cechak because it would deliver a more transparent process. “You should be able to see online how much debt is remaining, how many payments have qualified,” he says. As it is, he relies on information provided by people answering the phones at Fed Loan. (And this is why it’s hard not to be anxious!) “You shouldn’t need a law degree to figure this out,” he says. “But it seems like whoever is reviewing your application one day could make one choice, and if somebody different reviewed it the next day they might make a different choice.”
“You shouldn’t need a law degree to figure this out.”
As of March 31, more than 99 percent of the people who have applied for federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness—educators, firefighters, nurses, and others—have been denied forgiveness, mostly for missing paperwork. As one of the roughly 600 people out of more than 132,000 applicants to actually get loan forgiveness, Oregon fourth-grade teacher Kristy Fouts feels… liberated. “Oh my gosh, it’s huge! It was a nightmare. We have not been able to save, or invest in the future as much, because of the student loan payments,” says Fouts. “It’s been a huge burden and stress to worry what might happen in an emergency without any savings. It’s very freeing.” Fouts, who borrowed to earn her B.A. and M.Ed. from the University of Oregon, had about $30,000 in debt erased. It was a good end to a long, arduous, frustrating experience. The hours that she spent on the phone with FedLoan agents, trying to get their stories straight, or complaining to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and, early on, to her Congresswoman—all point to a broken system.
“My best advice is to be aware of when your exact qualification date is, and start the paperwork very early. In my experience, and the experience of lots of friends of mine, FedLoan Servicing and other national loan providers have been making many, many errors, and it took me a long time to fix those and get the paperwork processed correctly.” In Fouts’ case, her loans had been sold to FedLoan by another servicer, and records of her five years of on-time monthly payments to that first servicer were missing. Although she had proof of payment, they wouldn’t accept it from her. On that issue, she reached out to the office of U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR). “I had been waiting for more than a year. After I did that, the missing records were located within weeks. At some point, I also put in a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—that escalated things and got them to look a little more. The most recent thing, that actually got it done, was a complaint with the DOE’s ombudsman person,” she says. “Quite literally the only way I got a reply from FedLoan Servicing was if I put in a request with an external agency, and then they’d call me back.” And even then, she says, “I got different answers from different representatives.” She became her own expert in PSLF, and kept detailed records of every call—the time, date, and employee’s name and number. “Many times they’d tell me ‘we don’t have a record of that conversation with you,’ and then I’d say, ‘look at this date, this time, this person,’ and they’d say, ‘okay, I see that…’” Her best advice? “Be your own advocate—because nobody else is going to be.”
“Quite literally the only way I got a reply from FedLoan Servicing was if I put in a request with an external agency, and then they’d call me back.”
One truth about Caroline Hardin is that she loves her job. The other truth is that Hardin will die before she pays back her student debt. The 68-year-old paraprofessional with two master’s degrees owes $140,000—and, after 12 years with Denver Public Schools, earns $14.09 an hour for her work in early childhood education. Last year, in order to replace her 18-year-old car, Hardin did a reverse-mortgage on her home. “I didn’t get anything for the house, but I can live here for as long as I’m alive,” she says.
“I didn’t want to do that, but I’d be homeless if I hadn’t.” With master’s degrees in family counseling and gerontology, Hardin probably could earn more doing something else. She chooses the children. “I always like to figure out things about people, to reach them and help them,” she says. “I’m really able to use everything I’ve learned, even though it wasn’t specifically education.” Because Hardin’s repayment is income-based, her monthly payments are $19 a month. That’s all she can afford. But the stress is enormous. “I’m stuck. And I’m scared,” she says. Making matters worse, when she applied for PSLF, she was told that her first seven years—as a paraprofessional on a school bus—won’t count as public service. “Why doesn’t that qualify?” she asks. “I’m helping them with their homework on the bus, getting them into a good place in their minds so that they’ll obey and be safe on the bus…” At this point, Hardin doesn’t hold much hope that things will get better. “You know you get on this merry-go-round,” she says. She’s never taken a vacation. Doesn’t even have a couch right now. “But I’m trying to make the best of what I have,” she says. “I enjoy being in my house. I enjoy my job. My principal tells me, ‘the students ask for you!’”
And I’m scared.”
Jeff Gale wouldn’t have become an educator if the federal government hadn’t made a promise to public-service workers. “My plan was to go into private practice, but I had a teacher who told me, ‘you’d be really great in a school,’ and he told me about public service loan forgiveness,” recalls Gale, a high-school counselor in northwest Illinois. Today, after seven years of on-time payments, Gale, 33, still owes about $62,500 for the undergraduate and graduate degrees he earned at the University of Wisconsin Plattsville. “When you start out making $40,000 a year—and you owe $60,000 in student loans—it’s pretty tough!” he says.
Between his loan payments and his wife’s, the newlyweds pay more than $900 a month. “It feels like it’s hard to get into a position where you can get ahead, or where you won’t be directing a large portion of your income to debt,” he says. To save money, he rides an electric scooter to school. The answer for Gale and his young family—the couple welcomed a baby boy this year—is the promise of PSLF. Every month, Gale’s payment is automatically deducted from his bank account, and he checks FedLoan frequently to monitor his PSLF status. “I had an issue, when they said I paid too early, and wouldn’t count some payments. They said it would take a year or two to review my status,” he recalls. For a while, every time he would check, the estimated date of forgiveness would be pushed further back. Now, it looks like the date is correct, but Gale is concerned about federal lawmakers’ commitment to the program. “This is going to have an extremely large impact on my life. If it works out, a college fund for my son will be started and we’ll finally get a reliable vehicle.” And if it doesn’t? “If it doesn’t, we’ll be moving into my parents’ basement.”
“When you start out making $40,000 a year—and you owe $60,000 in student loans—it’s pretty tough!”
This December, Mary Binauea, a first-grade teacher in Yakima, Wash., who has spent her career in high-needs, high-poverty classrooms, will make her 120th qualifying, on-time monthly payment on her federal student loans. She hopes it will be her last. “It seems like [Public Service Loan Forgiveness] should be pretty straightforward,” she says. “If you send in the paperwork, and your employer provides proof of employment, it should work.”
If it does, Binauea’s remaining debt—roughly $50,000, mostly from her master’s degree—will be wiped away, and the 51-year-old will be able to turn her attention to the needs of her three college-age sons. But Binauea knows firsthand that the process isn’t likely to be so smooth and simple. Every year, she sends in the PSLF paperwork. Often she calls FedLoan Servicing to check on it. “The last time I sent in [the paperwork], they sent a rejection letter that said I didn’t qualify [for PSLF] because my employer didn’t put a phone number on their part. I looked at the copy of what I sent and, surprise! There was the phone number,” she recalls. Binauea is determined not to be one of those educators who carries their student loan debt into retirement, even if it takes a daily call to get her paperwork straight. “They’re still saying I’m short on qualifying payments, and that’s a lie,” she says. “I am highly motivated to harass them. This summer, on my quote-unquote ‘time off,’ I’ll be making a lot of calls!”
“They’re still saying I’m short on qualifying payments, and that’s a lie.”
Now that you’ve read the stories of educators burdened with student debt, let your member of Congress know how important it is to overhaul the current system so that all public servants get the loan forgiveness they deserve.
At NEA, we understand how cumbersome student loan payments can be. So in addition to fighting for new PSLF legislation that makes loan forgiveness accessible to more public servants like you, we also offer tools to our members to help them with their student loan payments now.
One of those tools is the NEA Student Loan Forgiveness Navigator powered by Savi, which helps you traverse the current maze that is applying for public service loan forgiveness. It helps determine which type of loan forgiveness you qualify for, if you can lower your payments with income based repayment, and helps you apply for all of the loan forgiveness programs you qualify for.