This story was written for J310F Reporting Words, Spring 2016
Rebecca Wilcox thought she was doing the right thing. She paid her student loan bills on time every month. She worked a public service job as a faculty member at The University of Texas.
But when she attended a talk on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program at the 2016 Public Service Career Fair last Friday, Wilcox found that despite her public service profession, she most likely did not qualify for loan forgiveness. Without the student loan forgiveness, Wilcox would have to shoulder the burden of her $25,000 of debt by herself.
In the talk, Heather Jarvis, a former law student turned loan forgiveness educator, addressed this issue, as well as other problems faced by public service graduates as they work to navigate the PSLF and deal with ever-increasing amounts of student loan debt.
“I am a little bit pessimistic after this talk,” Wilcox said. “I may not qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, even though I have been in public service all my life.”
The PSLF is a government plan started in 2007 that promises complete loan forgiveness to public service employees, if they can meet specific criteria. Jarvis says that while PSLF is a valuable program, the stringent requirements can be tricky to meet.
“It is very generous, but it is weirdly complicated,” she said. “There is nothing automatic about it.”
The program requires the borrower to make 120 months of timely, complete payments towards the debt, while working for an approved public service employer such as a nonprofit or the government.
That may seem simple, but here’s the catch: the loans have to be the right kind of loans—federal direct loans. Other types of loans, such as the privately funded Federal Family Education Loan, or the Federal Perkins Loan, do not qualify for the program.
Jarvis explained that in order to make these loans eligible for the PSLF, they have to be combined into a Direct Consolidation Loan. This is where many people go wrong, according to Jarvis.
“When I speak to practicing public employers there are always people in the audience who are like, ‘You’re kidding me. I have been making payments all these years on my federal loans thinking I was getting closer to forgiveness, and you’re telling me I’m not?’” Jarvis said in the talk. “It’s very sad. It keeps me up at night, literally.”
For people like Wilcox, who currently owes around $25,000 in student loan debt, this is incredibly frustrating. Wilcox said that she has been making monthly payments for 6 years, only to find that she is no closer to loan forgiveness than she was when she began. Also, thanks to high interest rates, her amount of debt has stayed constant, despite the thousands of dollars she has paid out.
“I think my strategy right now has to be to get a lot more information about my individual loans and how they fit into the repayment plans,” Wilcox said.
Other members of the audience had concerns similar to Wilcox’s, and often interrupted Jarvis’ talk to questions. When they were on the wrong track to receive the PSLF, like Wilcox, Jarvis helped them understand the requirements and even offered her email to follow up with further questions.
By the end of the talk, the anxious atmosphere that had blanketed the room had not entirely lifted, but the mood felt lighter. Nicole Simmons, Director of Public Service Programs, said that this is one of the reasons that Jarvis has been invited back to UT to speak again and again.
“I had walked through this very complicated process [of working towards the PSLF], and I thought our students need someone who was really an expert,” Simmons said. “The response has been great. Students always thank us for having the program.”
Jarvis said she intends to keep returning to UT to help people navigate the PSLF. Although she said that Public Service Loan Forgiveness is a step in the right direction, she is not optimistic about the future trends of student loan debt.
“Its all about how much investment we as a society want to make in education, and do we want to make it for everyone or only for certain people,” Jarvis said. “I’m just trying to help people figure it out, because there’s a lot of stress involved with having debt.”