'You Have to Be Your Own Advocate'
Former federal employee in emergency management and hazard mitigation
Director of Federal Engagement, Urban Sustainability Directors Network
What do you do?
I currently work for a national nonprofit. And historically, I have served about eight years in the federal government primarily focused on emergency management and hazard mitigation.
So how did you find out about the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program?
I used to be a volunteer in the Peace Corps, and I served from 2007 to 2010. And at the end of my service, many of us had graduated from our undergrad, prior to serving in the Peace Corps, and were pursuing or at least considering going into graduate school after our Peace Corps service. And a lot of the other members were talking about this Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, and that not only would our time in the Peace Corps qualify, but we could possibly even have some of our existing loans, if we had them, part of the cost of those loans would be reduced while we were in our service. So there were a number of individuals talking about this at that time, I believe it was introduced in 2007. So just as I was heading into the Peace Corps, and I started taking advantage of it after I finished my graduate work.
Did your knowledge of this program sort of help affect your decision to go to graduate school or your choice of jobs, you know, from the Peace Corps on?
It definitely influenced my work selection after graduate school. And after going into the Peace Corps, my interest in working in public service was solidified regardless of this program. But where I went to school and whether or not they held a program that was supportive of my background, which is in city and regional planning. That's where I started to make my decisions of where I wanted to work after graduation, and this program does require that you're working in public service. But I think maybe even in advance of selecting where I wanted to work, this program also requires that you have very specific loan types. And of course, that informed what kind of loans I could take out through my graduate work. It was already solidified for what I had taken out in my undergrad at that point, thankfully, all of them have qualified.
That's great to hear. Do you think that the program is successful in helping to attract people and young people to public service?
I can't speak for all of the people who are aware of it, but I can speak for a number of my colleagues who I've worked with in public service. And I'm surprised by the number of people who are not taking advantage of it, who are working in public service and who do have student loans. And I believe it may be that there are two reasons why they're not taking advantage of it. One, it appears to be so cumbersome, it's just not worth it to them. And then I would also say that the second reason being, and this is all perspective, mine based upon conversations with them, I'd say the second reason also appears to be just a lack of information. I learn bits and pieces about the program every time I go online, or each time I call my loan servicer, which is FedLoan Servicing. I don't feel like there's a comprehensive list of or rather an explanation of the program answering all the questions and really informing the applicant of everything they need to know, prior to initiating the program for themselves. There's plenty of information that I don't feel like it answers all the questions in one place.
How did the October streamlining announcement affect your relationship with the program?
It hasn't changed a lot for me. I have been very diligent simply because I took out loans as an individual, I did not have support from parents or from anyone else. I'm completely 100% responsible for everything I took out. So I have been very diligent about understanding the program and the requirements. So I believe the modifications to the program that occurred in October, I think it allowed me to gain one or two more months toward the 120 payments that are required to qualify for forgiveness.
Have you gotten your loans forgiven yet?
I am slated to have them forgiven, assuming there are no hiccups, in March or April of next year.
What has been the hardest part of this process?
You have to be your own advocate. Like I mentioned earlier, there is just not a comprehensive list anywhere of all of the pieces of information you need to know before you embark on this journey. And I feel like I'm constantly sharing bits and pieces with people so that they can, but as I mentioned earlier on, I feel like a lot of people don't take advantage of it because there just isn't enough information or it seems too difficult and not worth the time. So in my experience, it feels like a very stressful journey. I contact my loan servicer at least two to three times a year. Any phone call is one that you can expect to be on the phone for at least an hour. There are multiple loan servicers. Mine, FedLoan Servicing, they have a specific team that you have to talk to if you have any questions regarding the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Regardless of every time I talked to someone and I asked for a specific phone number, that I call to get a direct line to that team–regardless of the number I call, I get sent to just the general line. And I have to spend 20 or 30 minutes on the phone waiting to talk to a single person. And then they want to ask you a series of questions of, you know, what's your name and your email and your address to make sure they have all of that right information. And then finally, I verified you work with that federal student loan forgiveness program. No? Great, can you put me in contact with that team, and I’m at upwards of two hours. Once I talk to that first person, I've waited an additional two hours to talk to someone on that team. Now, once I do talk to someone, they're usually very helpful and supportive. But just the amount of time that you have to spend to get someone on the phone who can answer your questions is excruciating. And in order to qualify for this program, you have to work, so you're calling them during the work day, because they're not open on weekends. And it's very frustrating.
I mean, that's just one obstacle I want to describe. I would say 80 to 90% of the time I am getting consistent advice from the people I'm speaking to. I have not had the experience of horror stories that I've read where people are being told to go into forbearance when they shouldn't. I have had one issue that was resolved recently with the changes made in October that you described earlier, where when my initial loan servicer, Great Lakes, from when I graduated from undergrad was transitioned over to FedLoan Servicing. Great Lakes put my loans in forbearance just for a one or two month period as that transition occurred. However, that means that you're not making a payment at that time. And that doesn't seem like a big deal in the long run. But at the very beginning of my career, when I'm starting to make those 120 payments, my salary is a lot lower than what my salary is likely to be 10 years later. And just for a sense, your payment at the very beginning of your career could be a couple hundred dollars or not at all. Whereas your payment much later in your career. It could be 5, 6 or $700. So you want to get as many payments to count as early as possible to save yourself some money. And thankfully, I was able to make enough phone calls and talk to enough people that I got those months, you know, from years back to count, but you really have to advocate for yourself. And it means that you have to have a job that's willing to allow you the time to spend time on the phone. So I can understand why people do not want to participate in this program. Because it requires a lot of patience, and it has caused quite a bit of stress. However, to have my loans forgiven, I would say is important.
What could the government do going forward to make this a little less painful of a process?
Here's one example that comes to mind quickly is the program started in 2007. And that meant that the first time that people who qualified for loan forgiveness would have been what, 2017? 2018? I remember that those who were first applying for forgiveness, which is what I assumed initiated this review, have needed to provide more general forgiveness. I remember reading horror stories about people being told over the last 10 years by their loan servicer, who are contractors, they're not government employees, so they don't have the authority to make decisions . . . But they are government contractors who are given the authority, not to make final decisions, but they are giving you information, and that is your only point of contact. In fact, when I call the Department of Education, and I'd be happy to talk about my experience working with them, to ask questions, anytime I want to talk about the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, they won't talk to me about it. They say I have to speak to my loan servicer, so they're even, you know, they're serving out that work to their contractor. But the contractor doesn't really have any power. So my recommendation would be that either the Department of Education take this on, if they're not going to empower their contractor to make decisions. Or they empower the contractor to have final say, because I've read articles about people getting a determination 10 years later, only to find out either their employer didn't qualify or the loans didn't qualify, but they had been told for 10 years that everything looked good.
And then come to find out the department even said, ‘I don't care what your servicer told you. In fact, you know, they were wrong.’ And now you have another 10 years of payments, or you can pay now, it's a mess. And it's broken. I currently work for a nonprofit where my my current work is supporting communities and counties as they navigate federal funding programs. And this is another example of a broken system, where the system needs to be simpler, so people know how to navigate it. And it needs to be easier to access and understand. And it can't be where you allow a consultant to manage the program, but you don't give them the power to make decisions.
So you mentioned some difficulty trying to contact the Education Department. Do you want to expand a little bit more about sort of dealing with this Education Department vs. loan servicer contractor bureaucracy, sort of how difficult that is?
We're dealing with something right now. I'll highlight that the Department of Education, their contract with most, if not all, of their loan servicers is ending this summer. So I mentioned just a few moments ago that when that happened to me several years back, that caused a hiccup in my payments, and they didn't count. So I tried to provide recommendations to my servicer when they go through that transition. Please don't do that to people again, that, you know, this costs thousands of dollars in the long run. But right now, one of the requirements, one of the issues I'm going through right now, is that part of this program requires that you submit–you don't have to, but I do just to make the paperwork trail more consistent and easier at the end. But you should submit your annual employment certification. And that's where the applicant, myself is filling out who I work for, including their tax ID information, and then I have my employer sign the document to verify, yes, I work for them. So I submit that annually, and I have been receiving error messages from my loan servicer.
After, you know, spending a few hours on the phone to figure out why, I come to find out that the Department of Education has recently provided a new database of qualifying employers to my loan servicer. And my last employer was not on it. My last employer was a city government, and there's no reason why they shouldn't be alright. And I contacted my loan servicer and asked, you know, do you know what's going on. And they said, The only way to deal with this is if you contact the Department of Education, file a complaint and get them to approve this. Otherwise, it could take months, which could go beyond the date in which I'm supposed to be forgiven. Right. So I contacted the Department of Education, I have filed a complaint, I filed the complaint at the end of April, I was told this would be addressed within 10 to 15 business days. We’re far past that now. I contacted the Department of Ed again last week, and I was told that they would put some type of note on my claim or my complaint so that it would be addressed swiftly and someone would be contacting me within 24 to 48 hours. It's been more than a week since then. So I'm working with the complaints department at the Department of Ed to fix an issue that they've created, making it impossible for my application to be approved. This is holding up or could potentially hold up hold up whether or not I get my forgiveness.
But it's one of the things you have to do in order to get forgiveness on time. Because what I have learned and I continue to read, there are a lot of gaps in their information online. But what they are clear about is you can stop making payments, if you believe you have if you want to submit your paperwork for forgiveness. However, if they determine that you haven't made enough payments, then you know you've missed out on that gap. So you are expected to continue making payments until you get that letter that you are forgiven. And that could be months. This is not an equitable process, to go back to your question. For me, what the government can do to make this a better program is to consider equity. That should be the forefront in the center of every question and program that the federal government is implementing and this program is not equitable.
Is there anything else that we haven't covered that you think we should know?
We don't have enough time. I would say assuming that we, those of us who are participating in the program can continue to get forgiveness and that it works. I think it's worth the stress. But I don't think that should be the norm. I'm willing to be part of the pioneering effort where I started paying into the or rather participating in the process just a few years after it started. And I realized that it's likely to continue to be improved. That's my hope . . . It's impacting people's lives. I have completely changed the course of my career in order to qualify. it has impacted my salary. I could have worked in the private sector and made much more but of course, my loan payments would have been much more. It also impacts where you live, because the cost of your payment, there's a consideration for the cost of living in the city or state that you live in. It doesn't take into consideration whether or not you live in a city or in a rural area. But it definitely impacts your financial mobility and life. And I don't think a group of individuals who are trying to give back through public service should have to fight their way through it.