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'I Am Heartbroken': Your Letters About Public Service Loan Forgiveness

LA Johnson/NPR

"Thank YOU," writes Cara Christensen, a first-grade teacher in Washington state who read NPR's deep dive into the troubled Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF). The reporting, she says, "made me feel not so alone."

We received dozens of emails, tweets and Facebook comments from aggrieved borrowers responding to news that, over the past year, 99 percent of applications for the popular loan-forgiveness program have been denied.

PSLF offers the promise of loan forgiveness to nurses, teachers, first-responders and other student borrowers who work in public service for 10 years while keeping up with their loan payments. But it has been plagued by poor communication from the U.S. Department of Education and mismanaged by servicing companies the department pays to run its trillion-dollar student loan portfolio.

Many borrowers who wrote in share eerily similar stories, of making payments for years, while working in public service, only to find out they don't yet qualify for the program because of a technicality. Perhaps, they're enrolled in the wrong repayment plan or hold the wrong type of loan.

Colleen and Dan Burton, of New York, have struggled with both:

"My loans are of the wrong type," Colleen writes, and "despite [Dan's] eligible employment history, we were extremely disappointed at the time to learn that all of his previous payments (2007-2013) were not eligible because he was not in the right type of repayment plan."

Dan's story comes with another twist. When he realized that changing to an appropriate repayment plan would force him to restart the 10-year path to forgiveness, he simply opted to consolidate his loans, worth $13,000, and move on. But, earlier this year, Congress created an emergency fund for public servants who, like Dan, have been excluded from PSLF because they were put in the wrong repayment plan.

There's just one catch, Colleen writes:

"We just learned of the temporary expanded PSLF program, so we requested a reassessment. Dan's case is the exact scenario that they were supposedly trying to rectify. He had multiple years of payments rejected due to repayment plan type. Now they are rejecting his forgiveness again because his loans have been consolidated. We consolidated BECAUSE he was rejected from forgiveness in 2014. If we somehow knew there would be this new opportunity, we would have made a different decision. ... He clearly meets the standard of the 'spirit of the law' but the 'letter of the law' is making it impossible to take advantage of the program."

We also saw this on Twitter from Nathan Fried, who teaches in the biology department at Rutgers University-Camden.

"I am one of the thousands who is trying to get answers," writes Mary Leist of Ohio. She says her loan servicer "has miscalculated my qualifying payments over the last two years, initially telling me I had only made 8 qualifying payments, then 21, then that they had to 'further review' my account after I had complained a number of times, indicating that I had, in fact, made closer to 60."

Borrowers are expected to make 120 qualifying payments — 10 years' worth — before their loans can be forgiven.

This past week, Leist says, she spoke again with her servicer, checking the status of her payment calculation, "and was told it could take up to a year for them to get back to me. I'm not sure what I was hoping for by sharing this with you ... maybe just the acknowledgement that we are real people, not just lines on a spreadsheet."

This is a common theme among the notes NPR received: Borrowers who have had their expectations of loan forgiveness dashed because of technicalities or poor communication from their servicer feel abandoned and powerless.

Ryan Coleman of Missouri writes in an email:

"When I first asked for a review of how many qualifying payments I'd made well over 6 or 7 years into my public service career, I was told the number was only 17 lol (so 1yr 5mos of payments). Incredulous, I called up, and a lady explained they'd misapplied a payment a while back and so subsequent payments hadn't counted in their initial review. She assured me they'd recalculate soon. That was seriously probably two years ago. I've called a few times and just get told it takes a while."

Justin Davis of Seattle goes on to offer some good advice — though, he admits, it hasn't helped him:

Finally, Erik Carlton of Tennessee writes that, when he repeatedly asked his loan servicer for help reducing his steep monthly payments, no one mentioned that he qualified for Public Service Loan Forgiveness nor recommended an income-driven repayment plan. Instead, he was put in forbearance.

It wasn't until Carlton reached out to the public university where he now teaches that he learned of PSLF and promptly enrolled. Though he says he has worked in public service for at least seven years, he has made just 18 of the 120 payments needed to qualify for loan forgiveness.

"I am heartbroken and heartsick ... My oldest [child] is supposed to start college in three years, my next just three years after that, and our third just three years after that. ... I have never been arrested and haven't even had a speeding ticket in 20 years. I don't drink, don't smoke, don't gamble. I vote. I am a teacher. I have been working and supporting myself since I was 16, and I have no idea how I am supposed to give my kids a future. Because I can't save for theirs. I can barely pay for their present."

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Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.