Rare Success for Complex Program: His Debt Was Forgiven

Posted May 4, 2018 7:29 p.m. EDT
Updated May 4, 2018 7:36 p.m. EDT

In recent months, as I’ve written about the vagaries of the federal public-service loan forgiveness program, I’ve heard from scores of people who have been tearing their hair out trying to qualify and get their loan servicer to give them coherent status updates.

In theory, millions of borrowers are eligible to have their debts forgiven after a decade of public-service work. In practice, the program has produced a litany of frustrations. One doctor was flummoxed enough that she handed the mess off to her lawyer — who also happened to be her mother — to try to make sense of it, to no avail. Another lawyer who actually works at the federal Department of Education, which administers the program, has also run into brick walls.

But there is at least one person who has made the 120 qualifying payments and now has a zero balance as a result, thus joining a very small club of the forgiven. He is Michael Mitchell, a 47-year-old New York City musician turned clinical social worker and counseling psychotherapist. For years, he also had a proofreading side hustle, which helped him turn the interpretive back flips necessary to analyze the program at its birth in 2007. In the ensuing years he navigated a system so confounding that it recently drew $350 million of additional federal money to help the many people in incorrect repayment plans who were stymied by the complexity.

How did Mitchell do it? It took him over two hours to tell the story sitting in his apartment in Manhattan, with his husband, Ted Altschuler, filling in some details. Between them sat a 2-inch stack of loan documents and an iPad containing the list of electronic files that document Mitchell’s loan history.

Mitchell had set out to change careers, not become a pioneer. A professional musician with debt from graduate school, he turned to social work and got a master’s degree from Hunter College in 2006. His debt from all of his degrees was about $129,000 by then.

While searching the internet for information about state loan forgiveness programs for social workers, he stumbled onto a website for financial aid professionals about a fledgling federal public-service loan forgiveness program. It was still a proposal, but Mitchell tracked it through its passage.

Then he did what very few people seem to have done: He printed out the entire bill that made loan forgiveness the law of the land and read it. Then he read it again, over and over and over.

“I read it like a proofreader,” he said, having spent years doing that professionally for books ranging from a cultural history of the penis to parts of “The Joy of Cooking.”

The forgiveness program seemed simple at first glance: Work 10 years as a public servant and the federal government will forgive your loans. But deep, repeated, near-Talmudic parsing of the words revealed the following: Borrowers need to be in exactly the right kind of federal student loan. They need to be in the right kind of repayment plan. They need to pay on time in exactly the right way. And their full-time work has to qualify as proper public service.

Mitchell already had the right kind of direct federal loan. He was also in the right repayment plan, namely one tied to his income. As for sorting out the rest of it, he was entirely on his own in those early years of repayment. The Department of Education wasn’t issuing much detailed guidance. And when he called his loan servicer for advice, his requests were often met with silence or confusing advice that made him doubt that he was on the right track.

“I’d come away thinking that I’d better go over the law again to make sure I’m as clear about this as possible,” he said. “So I would pull it up and reread it every six months or so, and sometimes I’d read it and think, ‘That looks different now.'”

The anxiety was warranted. Like many people in income-driven repayment plans with modest salaries and large amounts of debt, Mitchell was making monthly payments that were so low they weren’t even covering all the interest each month. So his balance was going up, not down, and rather quickly. Any mistake could lead to enormous financial consequences. In 2012, he had a good scare when the Department of Education introduced its employer certification forms. Borrowers needed to fill them out to make sure their job qualified for the program and that their payments were counting toward the required 120 months. At first, the word back was that he had made no qualifying payments at all. Only later did it become clear that his two jobs at the time did indeed add up to full-time employment.

So Mitchell marched ahead, biding his time and crossing his fingers. “It would be Saturday morning, and I would be reading The Times and he’d be in bed looking at regulations like some treasure was going to pop up,” Altschuler said. “And I’d be thinking, ‘Thank God I don’t have to do this, because I’d never have the patience.'”

By 2016, it was clear that few people had made as much progress as Mitchell. While the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has estimated that one-quarter of the U.S. workforce could potentially qualify for the forgiveness program, only 139 people had made at least 97 qualifying payments toward their goal of 120 as of 2016, according to figures that the Department of Education presented at a conference.

This lack of successful uptake represents a huge systemic failure, and as Mitchell surfed the internet for more information and started reading horror stories about the administration of the program, he became more determined not to mess anything up.

He began recording all his phone calls with FedLoan, which services loans for people trying to qualify for forgiveness. He left a comment on a column of mine from last year, and we became email penpals. And as he approached 120 months, he also asked for a complete accounting of all of his payments, to check for any discrepancies between his records and FedLoan’s. His diligence and follow-up eventually prompted an internal review, causing his payment count to temporarily fall into the 50s, wiping out years of credit.

“I had no idea what was going on,” Mitchell said, while replaying his call to FedLoan for me. “You can hear my heart beat faster.”

“You freaked out and didn’t sleep all night,” Altschuler added.

All turned out to be fine, and FedLoan restored the payments and submitted his account to the Department of Education for one last review. Weeks passed. Mitchell kept making monthly payments, just in case something was awry. And on the day I visited his apartment, he logged in and saw the magic number for the very first time: Zero. There was no balance left; after making just over $24,000 in payments over a decade, the federal government had wiped away his balance of roughly $170,000 tax free. As long as the public-service loan forgiveness program continues to exist, there should be fewer high-wire stories like Mitchell’s. Awareness will spread further, and people will find their way into the program sooner and face fewer obstacles later on.

That will probably take many years, however. Mitchell said he felt a bit weird about being one of the few successes so far. He knows he was lucky that he had the right loan and repayment plan at the outset and lucky, too, that he did not have distractions, like children, that might have kept him from devoting so much time to staying on track.

But it should not have been this hard. “I’m always helping my patients figure out how to tolerate uncertainty and not freeze up in an uncertain world,” Mitchell said, “and that’s one of the things that has gotten me through this. I didn’t stick my head under a rock because it was freaking me out. I leaned into it.”