(NerdWallet) – The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is sometimes criticized for providing debt relief to borrowers working in public service who took on high loan amounts and earn enough income to repay their debt.
One of the borrowers who benefitted from PSLF is Dr. Casey Glass, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. After graduating from medical school, Glass has spent his entire career at a nonprofit employer. He had six-figure debt but wasn’t struggling to repay it.
“I’m probably the kind of person who people would say, ‘why should [his] loans be forgiven?'” says Glass. But he points out that medical professionals who work in public service must bear the cost of their education while knowingly entering a field where they will have lower pay during critical earning years.
“I have a significant pay cut compared with peers working in the private marketplace in the same kind of a job,” says Glass. “If you work for a nonprofit and are paying back into the community in that way, [PSLF] is something you’re eligible for.”
He eventually received forgiveness of his remaining $108,000 in federal student loans through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. But this was only made possible by a temporary waiver set to expire at the end of October.
Despite working for a nonprofit employer rather than a private hospital where he could have earned a much higher income, Glass spent most of his time repaying the wrong type of loans to qualify for forgiveness.
A debt discharge program with a dismal success rate
For years, most borrowers who applied for Public Service Loan Forgiveness were rejected. The approval rate since the program’s inception in 2007 hovered around 2.4%.
Full debt discharge requires 120 qualifying payments made while working full time for an eligible employer such as a public school, public hospital, qualified nonprofit or the government. But most borrowers had floundered, sometimes for years, in their attempts to advocate for payments to be counted toward forgiveness.
As a result of public criticism, the Biden administration made temporary changes to rectify some of the flaws in the program’s execution. Hence, the PSLF waiver. It offers borrowers the opportunity to receive credit for past payments that didn’t meet the program’s stringent rules. Since the waiver was implemented in October 2021, federal data shows PSLF approvals through June 2022 have climbed to nearly 10%.
‘My servicer said I couldn’t’
Glass attended medical school at Penn State College of Medicine and graduated in 2004 with $192,000 in student debt.
The PSLF Program was established in 2007. Glass says once he finished his training and went into repayment, he asked his student loan servicer how he could get on track for PSLF.
“My servicer said I couldn’t because my loans weren’t the right kind,” says Glass.
Glass had Family Federal Education Loan Program, or FFELP, loans, a loan program available to borrowers later replaced by federal direct loans. FFELP loans are ineligible for loan forgiveness unless a borrower consolidates into a direct student loan.
Glass didn’t consolidate at the time because he already had low interest rates on his loans — 2.8% and 3% — and consolidating government loans with the government doesn’t lead to a lower interest rate. But consolidation would have had a different utility.
“What my servicer didn’t tell me is I could have consolidated into the right kind of loan and get on a repayment plan that would make me eligible,” says Glass.
In October 2021, when the PSLF waiver debuted, Glass knew he would likely qualify; he had government loans on which he had been dutifully making payments while employed for a nonprofit the entire time. He turned to a Reddit community for details on the waiver and realized he needed to consolidate to qualify for forgiveness.
“It was a little nerve wracking,” says Glass. “I had to make sure I wasn’t going to lose my good interest rate. Other than that, it wasn’t really hard to do.”
He applied for consolidation and submitted the PSLF waiver by the end of November 2021. His consolidation was complete by December 2021. In the new year, he was notified that his application was received and his employment was verified. However, he received a denial letter in March, which he was expecting. The letter informed him that he had made zero qualifying payments. Nevertheless, Glass believed it was only a matter of time before he was approved.
“I knew it was pretty likely in the next few months that I would hear something and it would be something good,” says Glass.
He was right. On April 16, he received a letter confirming he was approved for PSLF and his balance dropped to zero.
Glass says not having the burden of debt hanging over him is a relief and he hopes it will clear the way to consider other career opportunities in the future.
“This job is very challenging and I’d like to use a medical degree to do other sorts of things and not have to worry about required student debt payments,” says Glass. He also has four children headed for college and would like to help minimize their debts.
“It’s nice to have it out of the way,” says Glass.
How to get the PSLF waiver
More than 146,000 borrowers have seen a collective $9 billion in loan debt forgiven through the temporary waiver, federal data from June shows. The average balance discharged through the waiver is $61,408. If your employer qualifies you for PSLF, you should apply even if past payments have been denied.
But time is running out; the waiver will expire at the end of October.
The PSLF waiver counts past payments that previously didn’t qualify, including:
- Late payments.
- Payments equaling less than the full amount due.
- Payments made on the incorrect repayment plan.
- Payments made on loans that previously did not qualify, such as FFEL loans or Perkins loans.
- Payments not made during forbearance periods of 12 consecutive months or greater.
- Months spent in deferment, other than in-school deferment, before 2013.
Use the PSLF Help Tool to search for a qualifying employer and generate a form. It has been updated to align with the waiver.
To qualify, borrowers must already have direct loans or consolidate their federal debt into a new direct loan. The consolidation step is critical: Borrowers can submit a combined PSLF/Employer Certification form before consolidating, but they must consolidate to be eligible for forgiveness.
To find out if you qualify for additional payments and learn more about the waiver, log in to the federal student aid website. Then, make sure to apply before the waiver expires on Oct. 31.