Hello fellow debt-burdened readers. I assume that you, like me, have student loans. And maybe, like me, you have a reason to believe that you may qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). PSLF is exciting for those of us who take low-paying public service jobs, because with PSLF, our society rewards us by forgiving some of our student loans (if any remain after a certain repayment period – typically 10 years). But…there are many buts, and figuring out if and how you qualify is a thorny vine. I’ll attempt to pull the vine taut so you can identify the thorns and see how to navigate around them, if possible.
There are a couple of really good websites for people like us, but there are also some insidious snares made by predatory loan companies misleading us down a path of no return. It’s scary. In this article, I’ll add links to two of the main useful websites. I wouldn’t trust any others, but a rule of thumb is to look for the stamp of the federal government or the U.S. Department of Education on the site. If it’s not there, don’t trust it.
My own journey toward PSLF isn’t over yet, and it’s been a struggle. I’m an adjunct professor, and it may well be that my journey ends in tears. Perhaps things will go better for you, dear reader. I’m going to break the process down into steps, and for each step, I’ll tell you a little bit about how it went for me.
Before we get started, please do not take this as financial counseling. This article doesn’t take the place of the advice of a qualified loan counselor. I can’t stress this enough, so I’ll use italics and bold text: It’s super important that you work closely with a loan counselor through every step of this process (with the exception of Step 1).
Step 1: Gather your supplies.
Find your promissory note, or notes if you have more than one. It’s also helpful to have any other paperwork regarding your loan(s). You’ll need a phone. Last but not least, get a bottle of wine and a box of tissues. Better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.
The process of applying for Public Service Loan Forgiveness usually stirs up emotions. We’re talking about money, and in some cases, large amounts of it. If you find out you would qualify to have your debt forgiven, but for one missing thing, or that you have qualified for years but can’t benefit from the past because you missed a necessary step… well, it’s an unfortunate fact that if your quest for PSLF doesn’t end in bitter tears, there will be tears along the path.
Step 2: Understand your loans.
Is your loan federal of private?
In order to qualify for public service loans, your loans must be federal loans. This means that some of the loans – even though they were for your education – are private loans and will not qualify.
Take a look at your promissory note. It will list the loan type if it’s a federal loan. Some of the common types of federal loans are Perkins, PLUS, Stafford, FFEL, but there are others, so if you don’t see one of these names here, don’t give up hope just yet. If you do see one of these names on your promissory note, just make sure that – if you have multiple loans – they are all federal loans – you’re ready for the next part of this step.
If you’re still not sure what type of loan you have, you might try calling the customer service number of your lender. If you have a private loan, rather than a federal loan, they will let you know. Have your promissory note or other paperwork from your loan with you when you call, and give the loan officer your account number. They should be able to help you identify the type of loan you have.
The Student Loan Borrower Assistance (SLBA) organization suggests that you visit the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) to verify your loan type. SLBA also suggests calling the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (TDD 1-800-730-8913). If your loans are federal loans, their loan counselors will be able to tell you.
If you have discovered that your loans are private loans, now may be the time to bring out the wine and the tissues.
If you have learned that you have federal loans – Good!. Check the next part of this step (Subsidized or Unsubsidized), and then move on to Step 3.
When I was dealing with this step of the process, I called the loan officer of my lender, and it was fairly simple because all of my loans were federal loans. Some were subsidized and some were unsubsidized, though, so I had to evaluate them to decide whether or not to consolidate.
Subsidized or unsubsidized.
When a federal loan is subsidized, it has government support. Both types are eligible for PSLF, but whether to consolidate your subsidized and unsubsidized loans is a decision you’ll have to make. With unsubsidized loans, you are always on the line for the interest – so if you hit hard times and have to defer your loans for a while; the interest will accrue. With subsidized loans, the government picks up the interest if your loans go into deferment. So if you have a situation where your unsubsidized loans represent a smaller portion of your loans, you might elect to leave them out of the consolidation (see next step) and pay them more quickly. Before you decide, discuss your options with a loan counselor.
When I was at this stage, I consulted with a loan counselor from Direct Loans. Ultimately, I decided to bundle my subsidized and unsubsidized loans. The loan counselor assured me that my payments would go toward the unsubsidized loans first. So far, my payments have been so low that they aren’t touching the principal, though, so my debt burden isn’t going down for either loan type, not as long as I’m living on an adjunct’s wage.
More information about subsidized and unsubsidized federal loans can be found at Federal Student Aid: An Office of the U.S. Department of Education here.
Step 3: Consolidation
Once you’ve determined that your loans are federal loans, and not private loans, your next step is to consolidate them with Federal Direct Loans. Be very careful that you consolidate with the right organization—the Federal Direct Loan Consolidation program. Be careful with this step. If you consolidate with a private lender, you’ll be disqualified for the income-based-repayment program and for PSLF.
There are requirements for consolidating your loans. You need to be up-to-date on your loan payments unless you’re still in a grace period. If you don’t meet these qualifications, there may be a path to resolve your accounts and become eligible to consolidate (catching up on payments, for example). The U.S. Department of Education’s Student Aid Website has a list of guidelines for how to consolidate and the requirements for doing so. There is also a section that goes over benefits and drawbacks to consolidating. You should review all of this information carefully before moving forward. But for our purposes here, the assumption is that you want PSLF, and to get this, you must consolidate your loans through the Federal Direct Loans. To consolidate your loans, go to Studentloans.gov. I recommend calling their customer service number and working with a loan counselor to guide you through the application, but it can be done online.
The good thing about consolidation – you now have only one loan to pay, and only one lender. A drawback – the interest is averaged for all of your loans. Another drawback: your subsidized and unsubsidized loans are now lumped together, and it’s hard – if even possible – to figure out which is which anymore.
Another good thing: you are now eligible to apply for an income-driven repayment plan. (Note that some loan types are eligible for income-driven repayment without consolidating. This is why I urge you to call a loan counselor to go over the specifics of your situation.)
Step 4: Apply for Income-Drive Repayment
If you’ve gotten this far, the good news is that you will likely benefit from this step, even if you are not ultimately eligible for PSLF. There are several income-driven repayment options, and choosing the best one for you is going to be personal and dependent on your income situation.
For me, because my income is very low, Income-based repayment (IBR) was the right choice. I’m an adjunct professor with a very low income. Sometimes my payments are $0 per month. Sometimes, during a good semester when I have four or five classes at my various colleges, my payments go up a little high for me, but never too high. You are supposed to report any changes to your income, and for adjuncts it can be particularly challenging to stay current with the IBR because our income is in a state of flux. Typically, unless I have a drastic change, I report yearly based on the previous year’s tax return.
A friend of mine who’s also an adjunct struggled with this step. He wanted to use his current year’s income, so he sent in three paystubs. The problem is that adjuncts’ paystubs are often inconsistent, and the lenders don’t know what to do with them. To make matters even more frustrating, the lenders told him his ducks were in a row and he had nothing else to worry about. But six months later, when his loans still had not been placed in the IBR plan, he called again. This time, the representative that answered his call told him that his application wasn’t getting through because one paystub reflected a large monthly payment, and another reflected almost nothing. They couldn’t figure out how much he made. He resolved it by sending in his income tax return for that year, but 6 months had passed that he could have been paying the income-adjusted rate.
When I applied, I used my tax return from the previous year, even though my income had changed during the year I applied. The reality was that I had no way of knowing what my income would be that year, but I knew it would be slightly less than it had been the previous year, because I’d had fewer classes scheduled. I recommend that adjuncts use their previous Income tax return, and once the income-driven plan is approved, notify your lender of any changes in your income. (You should always notify the lenders when your income changes anyway.)
There are several types of repayment plans, each with their own sets of pros and cons. Choose carefully. Choose wisely. Choose for yourself.
To review the different income-driven repayment options, choose the one that’s best for you, and sign up, go to the U.S. Department of Education’s Student Aid site, here.
Step 5: Making Sure Your Job Qualifies
Do you work for a non-profit organization that has 501(c3) status? Or is your job with the state or a federal institution? These employers fall under the requirements for PSLF. But in order for you to qualify, you must work 30 hours or more.
What if you have two part-time jobs? If 1) both organizations qualify according to the criteria in the previous paragraph and 2) the combined hours between these two organizations adds up to 30 or more, then you should qualify.
If you have a full-time job or a job that will report 30 hours of work time for you in Section 3 of the PSLF application, then the next step should be fairly easy for you.
If you don’t work 30 hours a week at a qualified organization, then your journey ends here…for now. If your situation changes where your hours are increased, then you’re already set up to apply for PSLF when the time comes.
If you’re an adjunct, reach for your tissues and that bottle of wine.
When I began this process, I was teaching 7 classes. At both of the colleges that employ me consider 5 classes per semester to be a full-time teaching load, I was certain that with my 7 classes per semester that I’d at least meet the minimum hourly standard of 30 hours/week. Right? Wrong. Because most community colleges simply plug in the credit hours, or the hours spent in the classroom, the number of hours for teaching 7 classes was 21. Not enough to qualify for PSLF.
But, if you’re an adjunct, don’t give up yet. Some institutions report hours more fairly, so contact HR to find out exactly how they figure work hours for adjuncts. Be specific, though. Several institutions will use different numbers depending on the reason for reporting your hours, giving one figure to the Affordable Care Act and another to PSLF. For example, one of the colleges that employs me gives me credit for 2 work hours for every credit hour when they submit my hours to the ACA, but they’ve recently decided to give me credit for 2.58 work hours per credit hour on the PSLF form.
Brace yourself, though. Even if your institution has a fairer formula, my experience with the HR departments is that they really don’t know how to deal with adjuncts. The HR rep that filled out my form had no knowledge of the formula for adjuncts, and she ended up using her own math. And the reality remains that many institutions report 3 hours for a 3 credit-hour class, meaning that most of us would have to teach 10 (standard 3 credit-hour) classes a semester to achieve the magical number of 30 hours/per week.
I did not know this when I applied last year, so I, in all my naivety, proceeded to Step 6.
If you find out that you don’t qualify for PSLF, there’s still light at the end of the tunnel. It’s just a very long tunnel, 20 – 25 years. But once you’re in an income-driven repayment program, if you haven’t repaid your loans by the end of the 20 or 25 years (depending on your particular situation), the remaining debt will be forgiven.
Step 6: The PSLF Application (or, if you’re an adjunct, hand over any illusions you might have that the system is just so that they may be shattered)
This can be a grueling process if you’re an adjunct professor, like me. The easiest part is getting the application, which you can access online here.
Fill it out carefully. If you have multiple employers, you’ll need to submit multiple copies of page 2, Section 3 – one for each employer. Fill out the paperwork, include any necessary additional materials, sign and seal, and deliver. Then wait.
If you don’t hear anything after a month or two, call in and follow up.
If you’re an adjunct, your employers probably will put down that you only work part-time. For number of hours worked, they probably will put down the credit hours, not including hours you spend preparing for class, grading assignments, or holding your office hours. If you’re an adjunct, you’ve learned this during the previous step, and hopefully the wine has numbed you against the pain of this moment.
I didn’t have the benefit of foreknowledge when I got to this step. I went to HR with the optimism of a teacher who teaches 14 classes a year.
I cried in an elevator that day.
I had personally stopped by the HR office to get my form filled out. When I got it back with “9 hours” written in the space for hours worked, I was in shock. I’d just spent 18 hours during the previous week – a week between semesters – doing unpaid work trying to secure a grant for the school. I worked 18 hours even when I wasn’t working, so how could they possibly say I worked only 9 hours? I argued and complained.
“You have to at least put down my office hours,” I said.
The response: “You’re a part-time, salaried, contract worker. I don’t have to put down anything. If it takes you more than 3 hours a week to teach a class, that’s your problem.”
I held it together until I was alone in the elevator. I cried all the way down to the ground floor.
When I got home, I printed off every memo that I could find from both of the colleges that employed me: memos that outlined the formula used for translating credit hours to work hours for the Texas Teacher Retirement plan, memos that provided the formula for determining adjuncts’ eligibility for health care benefits. I wrote a letter explaining that credit hours were not work hours, and that the memos attached suggested appropriate conversions. I bundled it up with my PSLF application, sent it in, and waited.
My application was denied. If I work more than 9 hours a week, the administrators of the PSLF wrote, my employer would need to report that fact. (Note that there were two employers, two forms, both reporting 9 or 9-12 hours/week for teaching 3, or 3-4 classes.)
So this is the step in the process for getting PSLF where I got stuck. At this time, I’m still trying to figure out how to get my employers to accurately report my work hours on the form.
Meanwhile, my loans are now being managed by the PSLF department, and if anything changes, they will apply those changes pretty quickly (I hope). Whether or not your application is approved, once you apply, your loans will be managed by FedLoan Servicing.
Step 7: Manage your account and payments diligently.
If you made it this far and you still have the wine and tissues, you might want to donate them to a friend who is just beginning Step 1 of this process. Yay! Your loans will be forgiven! If…
In order for your loans to be forgiven, you must meet the requirements of the program. You must continue your employment in a qualified non-profit or state institution working 30 or more hours a week for 10 years. You must not miss a payment, and payments must be on time. This is important. Be diligent about payments.
If your employment situation changes in any way – a raise, a demotion, a new job…anything at all, you must report it. The sooner the better. You can manage your account online, and you can also find the details of the requirements at FedLoan Servicing’s website.
This is an important program, and I appreciate that our government has made it available. It can provide some much needed debt relief for many noble citizens who dedicate their lives to public service. I applaud the federal government for this effort.
Still, you can tell from my personal experience that some of us fall through the cracks. In order to teach college, you must have a graduate degree. For most of us, this means significant debt. Most colleges employ professors on a part-time basis with no job security and little pay. They obfuscate the reporting our work hours (to avoid having to give us benefits, I suspect). This creates a very difficult situation for a subset of public service workers who are deserving and in need of this relief.
I hope that change will come for adjuncts. There’s good reason to be hopeful. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois has been pushing forth a plan to include adjuncts in the loan forgiveness program. It’s an excellent start, but the bill needs to get through Congress to make a real difference.
I’m telling my story in hopes that it will raise awareness and bring about change. Thank you for listening.