10/27/2021

Spreading the word: Student debt relief is here

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As word spreads that student debt relief for public service workers is actually within reach, the AFT is connecting with members to ensure they get on that path to discharging all their school loans. Along with student debt clinics and a tailored debt relief guide called Summer, the union used an Oct. 26 Facebook live townhall to reach hundreds of members with details about how to take advantage of changing policy and get out from under student debt.

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“Our goal is to make sure that everyone sees a zero balance in their student debt account,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten.

The changes making all this possible stem from two primary shifts: an overhaul of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program at the Department of Education, and the settlement of the lawsuit Weingarten v. DeVos, a case involving Weingarten and eight AFT members against former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Together, the two developments untangle what Weingarten calls “a Gordian knot” of confusing requirements and misleading conventions perpetrated by loan servicers and the system itself.

“It was a complete mess,” said Weingarten, recalling one member who started out with $40,000 in student debt, but by the time loan servicer Navient had twisted her accounts and schedules, she owed $61,000. Now, said Weingarten, “That’s all over.” Changes to the program will prevent such disasters moving forward.

Originally, PSLF was meant to attract borrowers to public service professions that don’t always pay high salaries by promising to cancel public service workers’ student debt after 10 years of payments. But the program has been broken for years, plagued by negligent or intentionally misleading loan servicers and Byzantine processes that reject applicants for the most inconsequential errors. The PSLF program was so broken that until now, 98 percent of those who applied for relief were rejected. 

But today, as the town hall made clear, a temporary waiver will allow all those who were refused  PSLF a fresh review. From now until Oct. 31, 2022, anyone who was rejected for having made payments on the “wrong” loan type or the “wrong” payment plan will now qualify, and their payments will count retroactively toward the 120 payments required for final approval and forgiveness. “Under the new rules, any prior payment made will count as a qualifying payment, regardless of loan type, repayment plan, or whether the payment was made in full or on time,” reads the Education Department’s waiver website. “All you need is qualifying employment.”

Thousands of borrowers have already shot ahead on their payment schedule, and thousands more have had their debt erased completely.

“Teachers and school staff come to this career to make a difference in the lives of children and to impact the future of our society,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “It makes no sense that someone commits their career to educating the next generation and gets saddled with debt that stays with them for a lifetime.”

“I’m here today to make sure that all of you are able to take advantage of this program,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), who is co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Public Service Loan Forgiveness Caucus. Boyle is the first in his family to go to college, and he is married to a teacher—two facts that make him uniquely committed to access to higher education and relief from student debt. “As a member of Congress, I believe that if the federal government makes a solemn promise to people, … we have an obligation to keep that promise,” he said. “I will keep working in Congress to make sure this program works.”

The Department of Education is trying to apply the PSLF changes as automatically as possible, said Julie Morgan, a senior adviser in the Office of the Under Secretary at the Department of Education. Some borrowers have already gotten emails informing them that their payment count has gone up.

Those who have FFEL (Federal Family Education Loan), Perkins loans or other formerly unqualified loans will not see automatic changes: They must first consolidate their loans into direct loans, a process they can start by going to studentaid.gov. Others may need to resubmit their PSLF employment qualifications.

Most important, said Morgan, is that contact information is up to date in the loan database. Borrowers can go to studentaid.gov to make sure their information is correct.

“I want to make sure that every borrower who wants to take advantages of the changes knows how to do it,” said Morgan.

AFT members can get individualized help through Summer, the student loan assistance organization the AFT has partnered with to help borrowers navigate their specific path to loan relief. Summer is a member benefit for AFT members and can be accessed at aft.org/benefits/summer. For more general information, see www.aft.org/pslf.  

[Virginia Myers]