By Ron Lieber
Oct. 17, 2018
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.