How would you feel if you woke up one morning and your student loan balance had been completely wiped away?
While student loan forgiveness is a dream for many, it became a reality for Nina Pomponio, a student loan borrower who works as deputy legal counsel for the Massachusetts Probation Service. After more than 10 years of public service, Pomponio became one of the first persons to get rid of their entire student loan balance through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program.
Although the path to loan cancellation wasn’t easy, Pomponio stayed the course until she received a complete discharge of her $50,000 in student loan debt. Here’s her story — a rare example of success getting student loans forgiven with the federal PSLF program.
Borrowing almost $100,000 in student loans
Making herself eligible for PSLF
Worrying that loan forgiveness wouldn’t come through
Becoming one of the first people to get loan forgiveness
Advice for other student loan borrowers
Is PSLF right for you?
In 2007, Pomponio graduated from the Boston University School of Law with just under $100,000 in student loans, which she had borrowed for both her undergraduate and graduate education.
This was the same year that Congress passed the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which promises to forgive the remaining balance of federal student loans for public servants after they work for 10 years with an eligible employer.
“I first heard about [PSLF] on the news or through school,” Pomponio told Student Loan Hero. “I didn’t necessarily decide to pursue it. Rather, I followed it through the years in hopes I would qualify.”
Pomponio had always planned to work in public service, but as the years went on, she became committed to qualifying for PSLF and made some career adjustments to ensure that she would be eligible.
“At one point, I was technically working two jobs part time, but I feared not having one full-time job might disqualify me for PSLF,” said Pomponio. “So, I worked out a deal with the employers that I would remain full time at one and volunteer time at the other. It certainly wasn’t easy, but I was too afraid to risk the possibility of loan forgiveness.”
Among other criteria, the PSLF program requires that you work full time for a government organization or a nonprofit.
Along with ensuring she worked full time in a qualifying workplace, Pomponio had to make her student loans eligible for forgiveness. Currently, PSLF applicants need to put their federal loans on one of four income-driven repayment plans to qualify: Income-Based Repayment, Pay As You Earn, Revised Pay As You Earn or Income-Contingent Repayment.
Unfortunately, those payment plans weren’t available when Pomponio graduated.
“There was an income-based plan, but it was not the same as the options that exist now,” said Pomponio. “Over the years I had to recertify my income each year, and at least one time I had to switch payment plants to remain eligible.”
Fortunately, Pomponio’s early plans were grandfathered in, and she was able to stay on track for PSLF.
“There were times just out of law school that my income was so low that my payment was actually $0,” she said. “At the end, my payments were approximately $650 a month.”
Income-driven plans set your monthly student loan payments based on your discretionary income, while extending your term to 20 or 25 years. If you’re going after PSLF, you need to put your loans on income-driven repayment and recertify your income on an annual basis.
Although the first borrowers became eligible for PSLF in 2017, the program has approved only 1% of applicants. At the same time, the current administration has suggested eliminating the program entirely.
Given all the uncertainty, Pomponio says she was “incredibly worried” that loan forgiveness wouldn’t come through.
“Every budget cycle, you’d hear the news about cutting or limiting the program,” said Pomponio. “There was also so little information out there about the program. I never really believed it was real.”
To boost her chances, Pomponio gathered documentation on her loans and employment situation every year.
“The yearly employment certification forms are now how you can tell if you are on track,” she said. “I filed the form yearly to keep on track.”
If you’re pursuing PSLF, you need to submit the Employment Certification Form on an annual basis. Also make sure your loan servicer has approved your form and correctly documented your student loan payments, since you need to make 120 payments to qualify for forgiveness.
As of late December 2018, the PSLF program had provided loan forgiveness to just 262 borrowers out of almost 38,500 applications. Fortunately for Pomponio, she was one among that small, successful group.
“Ultimately, $50,000 was forgiven in June 2018,” said Pomponio. “I first applied in February 2018, after my last payment. It was a long haul of an application process.”
When she signed into her student debt accounts and saw a $0 balance, Pomponio couldn’t believe her eyes.
“At first, I didn’t celebrate,” she said. “I don’t think I could believe it was real. Eventually, I did the responsible things, like put a little extra towards my mortgage and retirement. Finally, I took the money I had saved from February to June (just in case my application was denied, I had socked away my payments in a savings account) and I booked a vacation to celebrate.”
Pomponio was able to get loan forgiveness through PSLF, but she knows the majority of borrowers hasn’t been so lucky.
“I’m truly horrified by how many applications have been denied, but unfortunately, having been through the process, I’m not surprised,” she said. “The requirements were incredibly complicated, and the loan servicers were not educated on those requirements.”
While she hopes that loan servicers are more knowledgeable about the process today, she encourages borrowers to find the necessary information for themselves.
“Educate yourself on the requirements,” Pomponio said. “We all seem to have experiences of receiving bad information from a servicer and having to dispute certain results. If you don’t know the law inside and out, you won’t be successful at such disputes. Be prepared to raise issues immediately and to be persistent.”
She also stresses the importance of submitting the Employer Certification Form every year.
“Submit an employment certification each year, and keep a close eye on the results you get back,” Pomponio said. “The other benefit to submitting the certifications is that you will be assigned a servicer who is supposed to specialize in PSLF.”
While PSLF doesn’t promise loan forgiveness overnight, it could discharge a significant amount of debt. If you’re committed to working in public service or nonprofits, and owe federal student loans, it might be worth pursuing this program.
But, as many borrowers found out the hard way, loan forgiveness isn’t guaranteed, and you might have to jump through a lot of hoops to get it. Learn about all the criteria, and collect documentation every year to prove that you’re on track.
By staying on top of requirements, hopefully you, like Pomponio, will get your student loans forgiven in exchange for all your hard work in the public sector.