‘Public Service Loan Forgiveness Gave Me that Extra Nudge to Focus My Job Opportunities on the Government Sector’
Floodplain management specialist
Federal Emergency Management Agency
What do you do and what is your job?
My name is Mitch Paine, and I work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a floodplain management specialist.
How did you first find out about the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program? And what made you decide to pursue it?
So I went to graduate school and started in 2011, for urban planning, and I think it's naturally a field that leads people into public service. And I had previously worked for the city of Lincoln, Neb., where I'm from prior to going to grad school. And so when I realized that I had to take loans out for grad school, you know, I think I was 23, or something like that, as a 23 year old, you know, making a $60,000 decision, it's a really big deal. And yet, there's very little other than, you know, you have to take loans out, you know, there weren't really alternatives. And so, I believe that I worked with my academic program, and maybe the financial advisors at the university, to actually figure out what the loans are–you know, they're bureaucratic names like federal direct loans. And I didn't know what any of them were. And I just said, 'Sure, that sounds great.' And then I don't think that I really understood about the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, or that aspect of the loans until close to graduation, if not afterwards.
And I think the exit counseling that they require you to do as you leave your academic program and start to get back into the repayment really talked about that. And I remember that loan counseling session, or maybe it was like, I can't even remember the details, maybe it was just like an online thing that you had to go through, identified that this was one way to, you know, be part of your repayment plan. And it said pretty clearly that you need to be on the income based forgiveness program and work for a qualifying employer. And so that's kind of what I set out to do.
You mentioned that urban planning kind of lends itself towards public service. But do you think the ability to pursue this forgiveness program sort of affected your choice of jobs after you graduated?
I think it did to some degree. After I graduated, I went to work for the World Bank, which as you know, is an international, a multinational organization. And I actually worked there on like a three-month short term consultancy with the intention of trying to get a longer term job there, and one with the state government back in my home state of Nebraska came up, I ended up taking, which was actually pretty good, because the World Bank is not a qualifying employer. International entities are not, even if they're public like the UN or the World Bank or IMF, they’re not qualifying employers, because they are not U.S. government or U.S. nonprofits. So, I honestly didn't realize that until last year, when I tried to go back and kind of get my paperwork in order, since I'm pretty close to being able to have my loans discharged.
But I think it's one of those things where I've always been really dedicated and committed to public service. I really like working for government. And so I think public service loan forgiveness kind of gave me that extra nudge to pretty much focus my job opportunities on the government sector, I didn't really even consider a nonprofit or anything except straight back to the government. And, you know, for better or worse, it's kept me in government. I have had multiple job offers from private companies to make more money, do things that are interesting, and I've turned all of them down because of public service loan forgiveness, and I don't regret it. But that was the reason and they all know that.
Do you think this program is effective in sort of the goal of attracting people to public service?
I think so, I have a lot of friends that are my age that have stuck with their government jobs, because of public service loan forgiveness. And I've worked for agencies that kind of see their contribution towards employees’ public service loan forgiveness as like a badge of honor. They really care about that and help people, you know, deal with the paperwork that comes with it. And I've worked with others that didn't even know it existed. And so I think the ones that really take it on–I have not worked for the state of Washington, but the state of Washington and all of their job advertisements advertise that public service loan forgiveness is this program and you working with the state of Washington will contribute towards your public service loan forgiveness, and I don't really know why they advertise it, because they don't do anything different. But still, it's kind of cool to see that they do that. That being said, I do think that some folks feel stuck in jobs with bad managers, or a working environment that they don't enjoy solely because of it. And I don't know that anybody's really going to feel sorry for them, because they're working towards getting loans forgiven after 10 years. But I do sense some people, you know, kind of feel stuck because of that decision. And, you know, I know that you can leave, and your payments don't get wiped away if you leave for five years and come back to government or nonprofit, you can start the clock and continue.
How did the October streamlining announcement affect your relationship with the program?
It did. So early on, in my repayment days, a buddy and I who both graduated from expensive schools on the East Coast and moved back to Nebraska, we felt a little–I think it was wrong of us–but we felt a little concerned that the program was real, or that it would actually, you know, pay off like it said it would. We always worried that this was during the Obama years, and of course, President Obama very much supported the program. But, you know, we were worried what happens if someone comes in and takes it all away. And we were concerned about, you know, we were both making pretty low amounts of money. And when I was making about $48,000 a year, with student loans that were about $65,000, so making the minimum payments based on the income based repayment, you know, barely met interest payments, if they did at all. And so both of us kind of talked about how we approach this repayment. And so we both actually started making, you know, higher monthly payments to try to kind of buy down the debt a little bit. And we both had this crazy idea that we'd actually pay the loans off. We still had some hope for public service loan forgiveness, we still stayed in the correct repayment plan, but we paid ahead. And then after a little while, I realized that that was not a really great strategy. I was basically spending too much money in a program that it'd be better if I just continued paying the minimum payments that I had to make, and if the program went away, then I could re-strategize, maybe get a higher paying job and pay them off.
So I dropped my payments back down to the minimum amount, but the loan servicer doesn't do a good job understanding that I was making increased payments to buy down my debt. I wasn't making the increased payments to get cheaper payments, you know, early on, or shortly afterwards. So my payments actually came in at, you know, I think I had five loans as part of the loan package. And so some of the months that I was paying, you know, minimums, after my overpaying days, meant that I wasn't paying on a couple of the loans individually, because essentially, they were treating it as if I was paying ahead rather than paying extra. I bet that I did something wrong in it, for sure. But nobody told me about that and they did not make it easy to understand that. Again, I was a 25-year-old trying to figure out how to manage my life with $65,000 of debt. And, you know, I didn't really know. And so it was probably a year or so, you know, maybe nine to 12 payments, that that kind of fell into that category. So they would always show up as non-qualifying payments. And that was obviously very frustrating. As well as the World Bank days, the few months that I worked there and paid didn't count, because it wasn't a qualifying employer. So it kind of set me back emotionally a little bit. But the recount, if you will, that the Biden administration did, or initiated with the Education Department did make those count as qualifying payments. That was I think that was part of their desire to kind of clean it up. And, you know, I was intentionally paying more, I wasn't paying ahead. And so I think that that kind of cleaned my accounts up a bit, and it took a good six or seven months before I got the accounts updated.
And we should say that especially early on because this is an income based repayment program, those earlier payments are going to be much smaller than what you would have to pay if you have to make them up at the end.
Right. And when loans are at, you know, my loans are at 6.8% and 7.8% interest. That's insanity. I mean, I took out graduate loans that, as I understand it, were part of a deal that the president made with Congress back in like 2010 or so to save Pell grants by eliminating the subsidy on graduate student loans. So graduate student loans went from about three and a half percent, where undergrad loans are at, all the way up to basically 7%, and I had no choice. So there wasn't anything that I could have made different. But, you know, I took out about $65,000, I've paid about $50,000 into it over the years. And my loan balance is at $54,000.
You said you’re on track to get these loans forgiven soon. What is the timeframe that you're looking at?
I believe the counts as they've been updated, have my forgiveness set, assuming that I stay with a qualifying employer, for next October, October of 2023. And I'm very ecstatic about that.
What was sort of the hardest part of this process for you?
Yeah the hardest part of the process for me, wasn't the usual one. You know, I've worked for the state government, a local government and the federal government, so there's no question that they were qualifying employers. So I feel lucky that I've been in jobs that have had, there's been no question about that. The loan counseling helped me understand what the qualifying repayments and qualifying repayment plans were. And so I pretty much stuck to them. But I think the hardest part for me just has been, you know, and like I said, I've worked for government my whole life. I I have a lot of trust in government organizations, because I'm a part of it. I'm part of the bureaucracy. I trust it, but it was hard for me all along to trust that it was actually going to happen, which is kind of weird for me, honestly. But that was hard. And I think towards the end, I realized . . . they don't pull the plug on programs like that easily. And, you know, if something changes by the end, you can always figure something out.
Do you remember any other specific hurdles that you had to overcome aside from that lingering uncertainty, because it's one of those things that you just, you have to by faith stick to it for a decade?
Yeah, getting the employer certification form. You know, because that didn't start–they didn't release that, or it wasn't promoted widely as, ‘This is what you need to do,’ until I think, the mid 2010s. And I, frankly, wasn't really on top of that. And so I was putting together my employment certification forms after I had left the state of Nebraska, and that was an organization that, and it's no fault of their own, but the department I worked for, the HR staff had never heard of the program. So they didn't really know that I needed that. Nobody could really tell me, nobody from Fedloan, nor anybody I talked to, could tell me who exactly needs to sign that form. To me, it read like HR needed to sign it. But, you know, in my experience, HR doesn't usually like to sign things like that. And so it was always really tricky to figure out how to get that signed, by whom and to actually convince people that they weren't signing some weird thing that, you know, committed them to something. So it was actually a bit of a struggle to get my HR department to sign that form, demonstrating that I'd worked there for four years. I mean, they came around in the end, they didn't fight me on or anything, but they were just like, ‘What is this? I don't think we can sign that.’ And I'm like, ‘I don't know what to tell you. This is, you know, the Education Department, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program,’ and send them articles about it . . . So, again, I don't feel like my hurdles in this program have been terribly great. I've had a few hiccups along the way. But, you know, realistically, the program has worked out pretty well, for me.
Is there anything else that we haven't covered that you think we should know about?
This is one of those things where I think the idea of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is just such a solid idea. I spent my career trying to convince people and, you know, bring people into the fold of public service. I think that government at all levels plays such a pivotal role in helping society in all the ways that it does. And so I think programs like this help people see government as a career and see that there's benefits beyond lower pay and all that other stuff. And so I'm really glad to see that this administration is taking it seriously and trying to make some reforms to it, so that it stays a valid program. Because I think it certainly can be an incentive out there now that everybody knows about it. And so I think that, as people leave their undergrad or grad school, you know, it probably puts a little bit more focus on the fact that government is a job that you can do. And, you know, all that comes with it, including the pride and public and higher mission, but there's also this incentive out there for student loan repayment is a really big deal.