With the Fate of Public Service Loan Forgiveness Uncertain, Here are Tips for Confused Borrowers

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More than half a million Americans are working toward Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), a program that eliminates federal student loan debt for people with jobs in the public sector. But the proposed 2018 White House budget reportedly calls for ending PSLF for future borrowers — and even current participants’ status could be in doubt, with a lawsuit claiming the government has reversed previous assurances given to certain borrowers that their employment qualifies.

Final decisions have not yet been made in either scenario. But even with this uncertainty, there are steps both current borrowers and interested potential future PSLF participants can take to make themselves as secure as possible.

First, a quick primer on PSLF: The program began in October 2007 under George W. Bush, and it wipes clean the remaining federal student debt for qualifying borrowers who have made 120 payments, or 10 years’ worth (more information is available at StudentAid.gov/publicservice). So the earliest any public service worker could receive loan forgiveness under PSLF is October 2017.

“The idea is to avoid making debt a disincentive to choosing public service,” explains Mark Kantrowitz, a student loan expert and publisher at college scholarship site Cappex.com. “Think about a public defender. They might make $40,000 a year, but they’ll incur $120,000 in debt for law school. That debt-to-income ratio is impossible, so PSLF makes that career path possible — and attracts people who might have otherwise taken high-paying private-sector jobs.”

Public Service Loan Forgiveness — on the chopping block?

At this time, the biggest threat to the future of PSLF is President Donald Trump’s 2018 White House education budget proposal. The budget proposal would eliminate PSLF — citing costs — and replace all current income-based repayment/forgiveness plans with a single income-driven system. While existing borrowers would be grandfathered into PSLF, any new students who take out their first federal loans on or after July 1, 2018, would not qualify. Still, all of this can happen only if Congress passes the budget — and it remains to be seen whether this section will pass as currently written in the proposal.

If you’re one of the more than 550,000 borrowers who is already working toward forgiveness — that is, you have already taken out at least one federal loan and/or you’ve completed school and are working in public service — the proposed cancellation of PSLF won’t affect you. Again, if the program is cut, it will impact only students who take out their first federal loans on or after July 1, 2018.

But even existing borrowers working toward PSLF can’t fully relax. As first reported by The New York Times, the Department of Education added a serious wrinkle by sending letters to people saying their employment was no longer eligible for PSLF, after the borrowers had confirmed with their loan servicer that they qualified. Four borrowers and the American Bar Association have filed a lawsuit against the department, and the case is currently in progress.

That may leave many workers questioning whether or not they will ultimately be eligible for loan forgiveness after all — even if they work in the nonprofit or public sector. MagnifyMoney has spoken to experts and reviewed the rules of the program to help.

How Can I Be Sure I Qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness?

Qualifying for PSLF depends on meeting several specific requirements, so the first step in determining your eligibility is to make sure your loans and employment check all the boxes.

1. Your student loan must qualify for forgiveness.

PSLF provides forgiveness only for federal Direct Loans:

  • Direct Subsidized Loans
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans
  • Direct PLUS Loans—for parents and graduate or professional students
  • Direct Consolidation Loans

Note that loans made under other federal student loan programs may become eligible for PSLF if they’re consolidated into a Direct Consolidation Loan, but only payments toward that consolidated loan will count toward the 120-payment requirement. And, according to ED, parents who borrowed a Direct PLUS Loan “may qualify for forgiveness of the PLUS loan, if the parent borrower—not the student on whose behalf the loan was obtained—is employed by a public service organization.”

2. You must be enrolled in the right type of repayment plan.

You must be enrolled in one of the Direct Loan repayment plans, some of which are income-based. The umbrella term for these plans is income-driven repayment plans, which include the Pay As You Earn and Income-Based Repayment plans. While payments under other types of Direct Loan plans, like the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan, do qualify and count toward your 120 payments, you’ll want to switch to an income-driven plan as soon as possible — because if you stick with a standard 10-year repayment, you’ll have paid off your loan in full after 10 years with nothing left to be forgiven under PSLF. Check the official PSLF site for more details. And note that private loans, including bank loans that are “federally guaranteed,” do not qualify.

3. You must make 120 on-time payments while employed full time by an eligible employer.

If you drop to part-time work, those payments won’t qualify. You must also be employed full time in public service at the time you apply for loan forgiveness and at the time the remaining balance on your eligible loans is forgiven. After you make your 120th payment you’ll need to submit the forgiveness application, which the Department of Education says will be available in September 2017.

4. Your employer must count as a public service organization.

This is the big one, and the most complicated step of the process for some borrowers to figure out. While the Education Department does address types of employers that fit under the PSLF program, there are some gray areas.  Broadly, the types of employers that qualify include governmental groups, not-for-profit tax-exempt organizations known as 501(c)(3)s, and private not-for-profits. That last category includes military; public safety, health, education, and library services; and more.

Pro tip: Certify that your employer is included in the program every year.

Each year and whenever you change employers, you should fill out and send an Employment Certification form to FedLoan Servicing. The form isn’t required to be submitted on an annual basis, but it’s highly recommended to fill it out annually so there are no unhappy surprises down the road.  It also helps you keep track of progress toward your 120 payments and gives you a chance to find out whether there is any change to your eligibility status.

What if you fear your job’s eligibility is unclear?

The validity of that FedLoan Servicing certification form is at the center of the lawsuit against the Department of Education. Although it’s important to have your employer’s eligibility certified by the department, the Education Department has said the form isn’t necessarily binding and the eligibility of employers can possibly change. As The New York Times put it, the department’s position implies “that borrowers could not rely on the program’s administrator to say accurately whether they qualify for debt forgiveness. The thousands of approval letters that have been sent … are not binding and can be rescinded at any time, the [DOE] said.”

That puts existing borrowers in a tough spot, says Joseph Orsolini, CFP and president of College Aid Planners: “[PSLF] is sort of an all-or-nothing in that you can’t apply for the forgiveness until you’ve already done your 120 payments. So to have someone choose this career path and work for years only to be told, ‘never mind, you no longer qualify even though we said you did,’ it would be hard for them not to see that as reneging on a deal.”

That possibility is “terrifying” for Frances Harrell, 35, a preservation specialist who works for a nonprofit that supports small and medium-size libraries in caring for their collections. She completed a library graduate school program in 2013 and emerged with a total of about $125,000 in debt, including her undergraduate loans.

“Everyone I know is in public service, and we all saw the Times article [about the PSLF lawsuit] and flipped out,” says Harrell, who currently lives in Gainesville, Fla. “I felt like I had been dropped in a bucket of ice. We’re making life decisions based on this understanding, and it feels so precarious not to have any true confirmation that we’ll get the forgiveness in the end.”

Christopher Razo, 22, who this month will begin classes at Chicago’s John Marshall Law School, plans to take advantage of PSLF while working toward his dream of becoming a state attorney. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Razo)

Harrell has also dealt with confusion from loan servicers and other experts — and based on incorrect advice, she nearly consolidated her loans in a way that would have reset the clock on her years of payments.

Christopher Razo, 22, who this month will begin classes at Chicago’s John Marshall Law School, is relieved that he is enrolling before the 2018 uncertainty begins. Razo is one of Orsolini’s clients, and he plans to take advantage of PSLF while working toward his dream of becoming a state attorney.

“[PSLF] is complex as it is, so my initial thought was, ‘Wow, great timing for me that I’m starting in 2017,’” Razo says. “But I understand the program affects way more than just me. [PSLF] gives you comfort to pursue public-service goals without having to make your employment about the money. I’m optimistic that [lawmakers] will see the good in the program so it can continue.”

When in doubt: Follow the ‘3 phone call rule’

While borrowers may think their loan servicer has all of the answers, Harrell’s situation isn’t uncommon, says Orsolini. He recommends “the three phone call rule”: Call three times and ask the same question, documenting whom you spoke to and when.

“These programs are complicated — which is one of the issues that critics [of PSLF] bring up — and you don’t always get the right information,” Orsolini says. “Before you plan your whole life around the [first] answer you get, you have to double- and triple-check that it’s right.”

If you’re taking out your first qualifying loan on or after July 1, 2018, Orsolini says “there’s not much to do besides hurry up and wait” to see what happens with the White House budget as it relates to PSLF.

“The important thing to remember is that a proposal is just a proposal, and these don’t always see the light of day,” Orsolini adds. “It doesn’t do any good to be overly worried, but you’ll want to keep a close eye on the news.”

Other types of loan forgiveness, cancellation, or discharge:

PSLF isn’t the only option. But not all types of federal student loans offer the same forgiveness, cancellation, or discharge options. See the chart below and check out StudentEd.gov pages here and here for more details.

Still, borrowers should know Trump’s desire to streamline federal programs into a single option means some of these loan types and forgiveness plans could be changed or canceled as well.

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