A Teacher’s Long Road to Student Loan Forgiveness (and a $4,500 Surprise)
Posted December 7, 2018 7:31 p.m. EST
Updated December 7, 2018 7:36 p.m. EST
Jed Shafer’s wife, Mary, riffled through the mail on Nov. 29, no longer expecting any unwelcome news.
For a couple of years, that daily sorting of papers had been fraught: The couple had been mired in the federal public service loan forgiveness program’s appeal process. Shafer’s attempts to get credit for qualifying payments that he was sure he had made became a twisting story, and they never knew what sort of bad news might turn up in the mailbox outside their home in Eugene, Oregon.
But earlier in November, Shafer had received word that he was among the first beneficiaries of a pot of money that Congress had set up to help many people like him. His loan servicer had wiped away all his remaining loan payments. So he and his wife weren’t expecting any more surprises, of any sort.
Yet there it was. There they were, in fact. “Oh, my goodness, Jed, come in here quick,” Vuksich-Shafer shouted to him. Among the early holiday cards and assorted catalogs were nine envelopes, each containing a check for over $500 from the U.S. Treasury.
And so the story of Jed Shafer, which I’ve chronicled twice before, comes to a happy end. But for untold numbers of other public servants, the struggles have only just begun.
The entire story began in 2007, the dawn of the public service loan forgiveness (PSLF) program. Not a lot of people knew about it at first, and the servicers that the federal Department of Education hired to process student loans did not always give public servants the best advice about how to become eligible for the program.
Here’s how it’s supposed to work. First, you must do eligible work, as a government employee or for nearly any nonprofit. Then, you must have an eligible loan, namely a federal direct loan. You must make 120 monthly payments on time, in full. (But be careful: Paying more than the amount due can trip you up.) Finally, you must be using an eligible payment plan, generally one that bases your monthly payment on your income. (If you found that too simple, feel free to read and reread the appropriate Education Department website for even more of the complex details.)
The pool of potential applicants is enormous: About a quarter of all jobs qualify and roughly two-thirds of college graduates now borrow to complete their degrees. Still, it took many years before large numbers of people heard about the program and tried to figure out how to sign up.
Over the last year or two, many of the early adopters realized that they were doing it wrong. Some (or all) of their payments had not counted toward that total of 120, and they complained — loudly — to the Education Department, their servicers and their elected representatives. Plenty of them say they took the advice of their loan servicers only to discover, years later, that the advice had been wrong.
When I first encountered Shafer in October 2017, the longtime teacher (he helped 124 dropouts get their general education diplomas last school year) had discovered that years of payments he had made were ineligible, because he was in what’s known as a “graduated” repayment program. All along, various servicers had told him that he was on track, he said.
By March, things had taken a turn for the better. Since I first wrote about him, the Education Department and his servicer reclassified many of his disputed payments as eligible. Moreover, his story and the tales of others like him had helped inspire Congress to set aside $350 million to help similarly situated borrowers. Since March, that figure has grown; now, depending on the circumstances of the various borrowers, there may be up to $1 billion available — albeit on a first-come, first-served basis.
Not every aggrieved public servant is eligible for the loan relief program’s relief program. If you’ve been in the wrong kind of loan all along — like a Perkins loan or a Federal Family and Education (FFEL) loan — this new Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (TEPSLF) won’t help you. But if you were in the wrong kind of repayment plan — a graduated one like Shafer’s or an extended plan — you may be eligible to seek relief.
There’s a catch, though: Your last payment before you put in for the new temporary program and the payment a year before that generally have to have been higher than what they would have been if you had been enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan. Got all that?
(If you want to know more, please read the various federal websites and my previous columns before emailing me for help. Of course, the lines remain open for tales of triumph and truly hard-luck stories at email@example.com. I’ve answered hundreds of questions about the program over the past couple of years and will try to keep doing so when I can. I enjoy helping. Please renew your subscription. Thank you.)
Despite the complicated requirements, Shafer thought he might qualify, so he applied. In early September, he received a confusing rejection notice. Now, his servicer was tracking his eligibility in two ways: Under the PSLF column, his eligible payments had somehow been wound back to the mid-20s. But on the same page, there was a TEPSLF count as well. That one was at 116, four short of forgiveness.
Something was working! And after a bit more correspondence and some additional paperwork and further adjustments, he got word on Nov. 19 that he was done and that his balance was zero.
“We’re now going to mindfully stimulate the economy in any small way that we can,” he said. The couple’s second car dates to the 1990s, but that will soon change.
So about those checks. Shafer was persistent enough that his servicer seems to have ultimately determined that his good-faith effort to enter PSLF dated back 129 payments, not 120. And so it refunded those extra payments, one by one, check by check, in separate envelopes that showed up on the same day.
Was there any warning? Any explanation? “Nope,” Shafer said. “You don’t get to look at the man behind the curtain.”
For now, he is in a very small group of very lucky and determined public servants. Just 26 people had received TEPSLF approval as of Oct. 16, according to a presentation that a Department of Education employee made last month. Among them, they had $1.4 million in debt forgiven. That’s out of 33,947 requests under the temporary program; 3,288, including Shafer’s, were still under review as of mid-October. The reviews can take up to six months even when everything is going right, so be patient if you are in the queue. And if things don’t seem right, do what Shafer did: Complain to your senators and elected representative in Congress. Contact the ombudsman at the Department of Education, too. At one point, a phone representative at his servicer told him that his account was marked with an alert because of his ombudsman complaint — meaning that his account got more attention.
“There are thousands and thousands and thousands of people like me out there,” said Shafer, who now also counsels the frustrated public servants who find their way into his email box, desperately hoping to get the loan forgiveness that the law says they deserve.
“Whatever the amount of battle,” he said, “it’s been worth it if some other people can get that letter, too.”