October 2017 marks the first month that qualified student loan borrowers should be eligible for Public Service Student Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). Anxiety and anticipation is high as borrowers wait to see who, if anyone, will be successful at having their student loans forgiven. Over the past year, some borrowers received the bad news that the federal Department of Education (DOE) believed that they did not qualify for loan forgiveness. In December, the American Bar Association (ABA) filed a lawsuit against the DOE on behalf of four such attorney borrowers who for almost 10 years have believed they were on course to have their loans forgiven.
In 2007, President George W. Bush signed PSLF into law, which promised student loan borrowers who went into public service fields that their remaining federal student loan debt would be forgiven after 10 years of qualifying payments. At the start of the PSLF program, few debtor payments qualified for eventual forgiveness. The program has very specific rules for which loans and borrowers qualified. Borrowers must:
- Public Service. Work for a not-for-profit 501(c)(3), government organization or other not-for-profit. This does not include labor unions, political partisan organizations or for-profit entities. The employer does not need to be the same employer, and multiple public service employers can be counted towards the 10 years. Borrowers may qualify even if there was a break in public employment.
- Full-Time Employee. Be employed full-time as defined by your employer, but no less than 30 hours per week if your employer defines full time as less than 30 hours per week.
- Direct Student Loans. Have federal student loans under the Federal Direct Loan program only. Private student loans are not included. Worse, federal loans under the popular Perkins loans and pre-2010 program of Federal Family Educational loans do not qualify. If these federal loans were consolidated into a Direct Loan, then payments can begin to qualify.
- Approved Payment Plan. Pay under a qualified payment plan: Any of the income-driven repayment plans or the standard 10-year plan are PSLF-approved plans. This does not include the graduated payment plan, extended repayment plan or any plan that has a specific repayment date beyond 10 years such as the 25-year repayment plan.
- Make payments after October 1, 2007. Any payments made before October 1, 2007, do not qualify.
- On-time payments. Pay no later than the 15th day after payments are due. Payments made while under the grace period, deferment or forbearance do not count (except partial-forbearance if under one of the income-driven repayment plans).
- 120 payments. Make 120 monthly payments coinciding with the requirements listed above. Prepayments are not counted. Multiple months paid at one time count as one payment only, not more.
During the first 5 years of the program there was no mechanism in place to determine if a borrower was on the right track for loan forgiveness. It was not until 2012 that the DOE released an optional form that borrowers could submit to be given an estimate of their qualifying date.
It is through this form that some borrowers, including the plaintiffs in the ABA’s case, received news from the DOE that it did not believe that they qualified for forgiveness. In the ABA case, the plaintiffs were also ABA employees. The ABA is a not-for-profit organization, but it is not a 501(c)(3) or government entity. The DOE decided that the ABA did not qualify as the right kind of public service employer, though previously the DOE had indicated that the ABA was a public service employer. In response to the ABA lawsuit, the DOE held the position that its employment certification form has no legal effect and that borrowers have no assurance whether they are on the right track until they actually apply for forgiveness at the end of the 10-year period.
Further litigation seems inevitable as borrowers receive their rejection letters this month. In the meantime, the ABA lawsuit is still pending, and the DOE has released the form for borrowers to apply for forgiveness.
Written By: April Kusters