“I really do hope and pray every day that I will see an email that says spousal joint consolidation loans are being forgiven as a category,” says Deborah Kearse director of the Division of Program Integrity at the National Institutes of Health.

“I really do hope and pray every day that I will see an email that says spousal joint consolidation loans are being forgiven as a category,” says Deborah Kearse director of the Division of Program Integrity at the National Institutes of Health. Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

'I Have Been Paying off My Ex-Husband's Student Loans and Mine Ever Since'

Deborah Kearse

Director, Division of Program Integrity
National Institutes of Health

What agency do you work for?

I am the director for the Division of Program Integrity at NIH. It falls under the Office of the Director. So I'm in charge of a team of auditors and investigators that help make sure that NIH grant money is spent appropriately for the purposes for which the grants are given, and that NIH employees are abiding by the rules of behavior and conduct.

Tell me about how you found out about the program. How did you decide to pursue it? And did it affect your job choice after graduation?

I have had student loans since before this student loan forgiveness program came into effect. I've had student loans since the 1990s. In the early 2000s, I was working for the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, so I was already working in public service. And like most people, I had graduated from law school in 2000. So, I had undergrad and law school loans. So every topic among new law graduates have student loan debt is prevalent. So we were all like looking and thinking of how we can actually get into some of these student loan forgiveness programs. And I had been thinking the entire time because I was working for a nonprofit, then when I transitioned to work for the government.  I just thought there, of course, after I work for the requisite number of years and pay this loan, as a public servant, I would qualify. It came as a shock and surprised that I didn't because of the type of loan that I had.

Do you think the program helps attract people to public service?

I can tell you, absolutely. It is a reason many of my friends and people I know have stayed in public service jobs, have sought out federal government jobs and county jobs and teachers and so forth. If you're a person that has a passion for public service, knowing that you will someday be forgiven and rewarded in a way for giving your life in a profession where you may be paid less than counterparts and other people you graduated with, but you can still follow your passion and still not have student loan debt for 30 years.

How did the October streamlining announcement affect your relationship with the program?

Oh, my goodness. First of all, can I tell you that I read that like, every day for a week, I was so excited to see that I was so happy to see it. I thought, "Finally, I'm going to be out of student loan jail." Everybody was emailing each other, people like who don't even have to do loans themselves, but knew about mine were sending me messages. I was so happy. And I was actually afraid. When you have the student loan hanging over your head, I was afraid to actually contact the Department of Education because I thought that I would get some email back saying, "Oh, Deb we forgot you owe us an extra $150,000?" Don't poke the pitbull with a stick, that kind of thing. Yeah. So I waited actually for two months before you know so that the whole sight in your mind that I thought was going to come would have time to happen. So this way I could apply after you know, we know, I was satisfied that it wasn't a hoax, it was real and it was actually working for people.

What is your loan story?
I was a person who didn't go to undergrad, traditionally, I worked and had to support a family. So I had to take out student loans just to supplement my life. Throughout undergrad. When I went to law school, I still had the undergrad debt. But I did not take out as many law school loans as most of my fellow students, because I had a half scholarship. I thought I was taking out the minimum that I could, and I was married at the time. And my husband also had undergrad loans that he was paying. In 2003, I was working for the Legal Aid Bureau, and I was paying my student loans, and my husband was paying his loans. And I called in the helpful, but ultimately not helpful at all, student loan counselor, who has suggested to me that I apply for a spousal consolidation loan. So in the late '90s, to early 2000s, there was this spousal joint consolidation, loan debt, if you were married, you could actually combine the debt of you and your spouse into one loan and have a lower payment. It makes financial sense. Plus, I think I was able to consolidate some of my outstanding undergrad loans too. I went for it. But this is fantastic, right? It wasn't until years later, after, I believe 10 years passed, and I thought that I had made the requisite period of time to be able to qualify, because by the late '90s, the student loan forgiveness program was out. Some of my other friends were doing this. And so I had a series of extremely unpleasant conversations with the student loan servicer counselor, who was telling me that there was no way that I would be able to apply for student loan forgiveness, because the spousal consolidation loans cannot be eligible for forgiveness. I thought that was crazy. And there's no way the government was going to talk me into doing a consolidation that they now don't accept as qualifying towards forgiveness. I thought that was crazy. After the initial period of shock wore off, I let it go. 

In 2011, I got divorced. This is where the just you know, buyer's remorse, anger and regret set in because, even in divorce, this loan cannot be undone. Now, once again, I thought whoever was telling me this, they don't know their job, because there's nothing in America that I'm aware of, that you can not separate and divorce. But there is: the Department of Education's spousal joint consolidation loan that I have from 2003 could not be separated. My ex-husband filed for bankruptcy. And guess what? This loan survives bankruptcy. And I had been paying this joint consolidation loan – essentially paying off my ex-husband's student loans and mine ever since. I have been paying for this. There is no program, there's no option and I found out in December of 2021, when I try to apply for the student loan forgiveness, that because if you have an FFELP loan, you have to consolidate that into a direct student loan first in order to be eligible for loan forgiveness. You cannot consolidate a spousal joint consolidation loan into a direct loan. Therefore, you cannot participate in the student loan forgiveness program. If you are one of the 750ish people left that are paying on these loans like I am. I actually was so outraged that I searched online and did research. Because I could not believe that this was legal. And I found a group of people who have formed a group. They have a Facebook page, they have a Google Meet group and having engaged for years and strenuous advocacy to allow people that have these spousal joint consolidation loans to at least separate them, so that divorced people don't have to pay their ex's loans. There's people who might be victims of domestic abuse that are left with these loans. There's married couples that can't do anything about it. It's just crazy.

Where are you now? Did any of your loans get forgiven? How much?

No, zero. Actually, I got a rejection letter when I tried to apply for the direct loan programs so that I could separate these loans or reconsolidate, or something. I was just on a call with the spousal consolidation group last night. And the topic of conversation among the group is pending legislation that, you know, everyone in the group is kind of hanging their future on. That's the joint consolidation, loan separation act. And we're all just, you know, every day, including it in our prayers, that separation act is actually asking that people who have these joint loans be allowed to separate them. If I could do that, if I can just undo this, and my ex-husband could do whatever with his portion, I would be able to then apply for the direct loan, and I would be able to apply for loan forgiveness. It's been -- in 2023 -- it would have been 20 years since I did this joint consolidation.

I will be eligible for retirement from the federal government in 2025, so I will have worked my entire federal career without being eligible for a student loan forgiveness, if this law is not passed, or if the federal administration, you know, what I hope and pray for all the time is for the administration to recognize that it is such a small group of people that are left, apparently, around, over 26,000 of these joint consolidation loans were made between the late '90s and mid 2000s, to about 15,000 people. My understanding is there's less than 1,000 people like me stuck with these who haven't already gone into default. The rest of these loans are already messed up and defaulted. For 1,000 people, I feel like the administration could force the Department of Education to just forgive these outright, just breaking them apart is wonderful, but you know what? At this point, people have paid I've paid for almost 20 years for a loan, that the due date of when I be finished is 2034. So I would have worked my entire federal career retired and still be paying for this loan.

Do you think that because it's such a small number of people that the issue has become out of sight, out of mind?

I do. I think that because it is such a small number of groups, number of people, I actually do think because it doesn't make sense to me that this joint consolidation loan, I believe was they stopped making these loans in 2006. And left everybody who had these loans hanging, not being able to separate them and not be able to participate in loan forgiveness. If you were to hear the horror stories that I have heard from the interest rates on these loans are through the roof. Couples who can't afford to pay a $2,000 a month loan payment, single parents that are forced to choose between ruining their credit for the rest of their lives, or paying their mortgage. I think that even though it's a small amount of people, if the administration could hear some of the stories that I have heard on this group of how it has devastated and obliterated the opportunities and credit history. Parents who don't trust the student loan program to the point where they will not allow their own children to take out a student loan from the government, the damage that is doing to people is what I believe the administration needs to think about. Yes, I do think it's because it's such a small group of people that we don't have the ability or the power. Right. And it's a niche problem. I do think it's out of sight, out of mind. And I really do hope and pray every day that I will see an email that says spousal joint consolidation loans are being forgiven as a category. The same way people who went to these fly-by-night schools, I've been watching the emails, right, if you are a person who went to a particular school, because the school, you know, was a farce, right, took advantage of students and took their money. Spousal joint consolidation was a farce of just admitting that we got jacked into doing these loans and tucked into it by student loan servicers. And so the government just needs to acknowledge and recognize that and forgive this debt.

Read more from our Public Service Loan Forgiveness series.