On Friday, President Donald Trump signed an omnibus spending bill into law. Among the provisions in the $3.1 trillion bill — which passed Congress with bipartisan support — is one aimed at bolstering the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program to the tune of $350 million.
According to USA Today, tens of thousands of student loan borrowers are thought to have enrolled in the wrong repayment plan, thus making them ineligible for PSLF. However, the new bill provides an opportunity for some of these borrowers to get a measure of relief from crippling debt.
“While it’s a good step, the reality is that the scope of this plan is fairly limited,” said Mark Kantrowitz, a student loan and education policy expert. “As with so many of these types of bills, some will benefit and some won’t.”
Here’s what you need to know about this one-time PSLF expansion.
PSLF help for borrowers in the wrong plan
“Some borrowers said they were misled into choosing a graduated or extended payment plan when, really, they should have been in one of the income-driven repayment plans,” said Kantrowitz.
“If you can show that you’ve been paying more each month than you should be under income-driven repayment, you are likely to qualify for a share of the $350 million.”
Here’s how it works:
- Verify that you are in a graduated or extended repayment plan by contacting your loan servicer.
- Take a look at your monthly payment from a year ago.
- Estimate how much your monthly payment would be under an eligible income-driven repayment plan. (This calculator can help.)
- If your current payment is more than what it would be under one of the four income-driven repayment plans, you might qualify for additional help.
Kantrowitz pointed out that borrowers will have to apply for PSLF using the application on the Department of Education website, but he hopes the process will be somewhat streamlined for borrowers who might be eligible for a portion of this $350 million.
“It’s described in a very complicated manner in the legislation and there are a lot of hoops to jump through,” said Kantrowitz. “The Department of Education will need to find a way to incorporate this reality into its process of awarding PSLF.”
How will the money be distributed?
The legislation allows for the $350 million to be awarded on a first come, first serve basis. Borrowers who can show that they are in the wrong plan and file for PSLF quickly are more likely to succeed in their efforts to have some of their student debt forgiven.
For borrowers who might benefit from this new bill, Kantrowitz recommended getting into an income-driven repayment plan as quickly as possible.
“Then, when you meet all the other requirements for PSLF, you can submit your application,” he said. “The Department of Education will have sort out which of your payments under graduated or extended plans qualify. And, if there’s money left, you’ll get some forgiveness.”
FFEL student loan borrowers still left out of PSLF
Like Kantrowitz, student loan lawyer and consumer advocate Jay Fleischman believes the PSLF expansion in the omnibus bill will have limited impact on student loan borrowers.
“It’s a nice publicity stunt to say you’re giving the popular PSLF program a boost of $350 million to help struggling borrowers,” said Fleischman. “But the real people bearing the brunt of this problem are those in an old federal loan program that doesn’t qualify for PSLF.”
Fleischman is referring to the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program, which was discontinued in 2010. Under FFEL, private lenders made federal student loans. However, it was phased out and completely replaced by the Direct Loan program — and only Direct Loans qualify for PSLF.
“A large number of FFEL borrowers have been negatively impacted,” Fleischman continued. “Many servicers have either misled them or their representatives just haven’t understood what’s required of the program. These are folks who need the help more than anyone.”
The lack of information has impacted borrowers like Ingrid Haftel, who thought she was on track for PSLF before finding out differently by watching coverage.
“I just found out my loans don’t qualify [for PSLF], even though my servicer told me they did,” said Haftel. “It’s critical that folks understand this, so they don’t end up in my situation.”
Fleischman added, “If we’re really going to provide a permanent solution to the looming student debt crisis, especially among our public servants and nonprofit workers, we need to address the FFEL part of the PSLF equation.”
What to do next
If you hope to receive PSLF, now is a good time to verify that you’re on track. Here are some things you can do to increase your chances of qualifying:
- Go to the National Student Loan Data System and find out which loan program your debt is in.
- Verify that your loans are in the Direct Loan program.
- Find out if you are enrolled in an income-driven repayment program that is eligible for PSLF.
- Each year, fill out your employment certification form to help the Department of Education keep track of your qualifying payments.
- If you are on a graduated or extended repayment plan, but you qualify for income-driven repayment and your employment qualifies you for PSLF, contact your student loan servicer to discuss switching plans.
Lastly, realize that PSLF might be in danger going forward. Budget proposals from the Trump administration, as well as the PROSPER Act in Congress, propose getting rid of PSLF entirely. If you disagree, contact your legislators to let them know how you feel about student loan forgiveness.
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