Only 96 people are included in the first cohort of borrowers of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program
So far, roughly 99% of processed applications for forgiveness under a government program aimed at helping public servants manage their federal student-loan debt had their applications rejected.
As of June 30 of this year, about 28,000 borrowers submitted 33,300 applications to have their loans discharged under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, an initiative launched in 2007 that allows borrowers who work in certain types of public service to have their federal student loans wiped away after 10 years of payments. Of the roughly 29,000 applications processed so far, 96 borrowers have had about $5.52 million in debt discharged under the program, according to a government report released Wednesday.
Of the roughly 29,000 applications processed so far, 96 borrowers have had about $5.52 million in debt discharged under the program.
Experts expect the number of approved applications to rise dramatically in the coming years. When the program launched in 2007, there was little publicity or clarity around it. What’s more, many of the repayment programs that borrowers can use if they want to qualify for the program weren’t yet available then. It’s likely few public servants took advantage of it right away and would already be eligible for forgiveness. Fall 2017 was the first time borrowers could apply to have their loans discharged under the program.
But the high rate of rejections highlights the challenges of the program. Many who watch PSLF closely have been concerned for years that its complicated mix of requirements would make it difficult for borrowers to access. There’s also likely a large cohort of borrowers who believed they’d be able to claim forgiveness under the program — and perhaps organized their careers and financial lives around it — but weren’t aware of or were confused by its many requirements, rendering them ineligible.
More than 70% of the borrowers whose applications were denied didn’t meet at least one of the eligibility requirements for the program, according to the government’s report. To qualify for a loan discharge under PSLF, a borrower must have Direct Loans — a specific type of federal student loan — be in the correct repayment program (many of the government’s repayment programs don’t qualify for PSLF), and work in the correct type of job, which includes government work and employment at certain types of nonprofits.
Borrowers also need to make at least 120 on-time monthly payments — or 10 years’ worth — on their student loans to be eligible to have them forgiven.
Borrowers also need to make at least 120 on-time monthly payments — or 10 years’ worth — on their student loans to be eligible to have them forgiven. There are a number of reasons why a borrower who has the correct type of loan, job and repayment plan might have a payment not qualify. For example, when borrowers put more than their required monthly payment towards their loan, typically the due date for their following payment is more than a month later than when they overpaid. This is known as paid-ahead status. Any payments borrowers make while they’re paid ahead don’t qualify for PSLF.
“It’s obvious that a huge number of people that couldn’t meet the requirements did not understand that they weren’t meeting the requirements,” said Clare McCann, the deputy director for higher education policy in the think tank New America’s education policy program. “The complexities in the program’s design mean that there are going to be a lot of people who think they’re eligible for PSLF and they’re not.”
Betsy Mayotte, who regularly works with borrowers as the president of The Institute of Student Loan Advisors, said she wasn’t surprised by the relatively low number of applications approved, given that we’re still in the early stages of borrowers even becoming eligible for forgiveness and that so many of the qualifying repayment programs weren’t available when PSLF first launched.
But Mayotte said she’s also concerned about the large share of rejections. “If you had asked me yesterday to predict the number of denied applications they received I wouldn’t have come near that number,” she said. “That’s troubling, that just shows that all of us in the industry have a lot more work to do communicating about the rules of PSLF.” According to the government report, 28,624 applications were rejected.
Borrower advocates have complained for years that the government and the servicers it hires to manage its student loan portfolio haven’t done enough to provide information about the program. In some cases, including in lawsuits, borrowers have alleged that servicers gave them flat out wrong information about PSLF. Officials said they’re reaching out to borrowers who may qualify for a temporary expansion of PSLF launched earlier this year aimed to help borrowers.
In addition to the more than 70% of applications rejected because borrowers were ineligible, another 28% of the applications for forgiveness were rejected because they were incomplete, according to the government. Officials advised these borrowers to submit complete applications.
To have loans forgiven under PSLF means that you enrolled in the program when it became available and worked in public service for 10 years straight.
To have loans forgiven already under PSLF means that you enrolled in the program essentially as soon as it became available and worked in public service for 10 years straight, a relative rarity, McCann noted. We don’t know anything about the borrowers whose applications have been approved for forgiveness from the government data, except the average amount of debt forgiven — about $57,500 — a sign many likely had the types of large student-loan balances indicative of a graduate degree. McCann said she’s optimistic that the publicity surrounding the program in recent years, the increased availability of eligible repayment programs and the larger number of borrowers with qualifying loans will temper the number of rejected applications in future years.
Still, Natalia Abrams, the executive director of Student Debt Crisis, an advocacy organization that conducts monthly webinars to help borrowers understand PSLF, said she regularly encounters relatively savvy borrowers — sometimes with advanced degrees — who believe they’re following the program’s requirements, but actually aren’t. “These are people who do think they’ve dotted all their ‘i’s or crossed their ‘t’s she said.
Abrams recommends that borrowers hoping to avoid the shock of rejection after 10 years in public service file an Employment Certification Form every year. These forms, which borrowers fill out with the help of their employer and send off to their servicer for approval, are the only way for borrowers to know how close they are to having their loans forgiven under the program.
“That’s the very best thing folks can do right now,” she said.