For Kristi Cruz, a legal aid attorney in Seattle, checking her federal student aid account to see if her debt would be discharged through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program became a compulsion.
Every day she logged in, hoping to see her balance fall to $0, to no avail. She described it as a drain on her mental health.
“It was frustrating, and it feels like you’re being tormented,” says Cruz. She had been battling her student loan servicer for two years after her first application for forgiveness was denied, citing insufficient payments.
A fraught program gets temporary improvements
Cruz wasn’t alone. Most who apply for the notoriously difficult-to-get Public Service Loan Forgiveness program are rejected.
Getting 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.
Borrowers like Cruz have been left to their own devices to fight, sometimes for years, for payments to count toward the total needed for the forgiveness of their remaining debt.
As a result of public criticism, the Biden administration sought to make temporary improvements to rectify some of the flaws in the execution of the original program. Hence, the PSLF waiver. It offers borrowers the opportunity to receive credit for past payments that didn’t meet the program’s stringent rules. It launched in October 2021 and is available for borrowers through Oct. 31, 2022.
The road to discharge is bumpy
“The only way to explain it is it feels like you’re being gaslighted,” says Cruz of her experience with years of applying for forgiveness through PSLF.
PSLF has been in place since 2007 but has failed to deliver: From Nov. 9, 2020, to October 2021, when the waiver was put in place, only 2.4% had been approved among all applications, federal data from the Education Department show. However, the waiver has allowed approvals to grow: By April 2022, federal data show that 10% of applicants had their debt discharged.
Cruz first heard about PSLF while attending Seattle University School of Law. She completed her degree in 2008 with approximately $55,000 in federal student loans. Over the next decade, she made 120 payments in between occasional forbearances.
She intended to pursue PSLF right away, but the hiccups quickly began. First, her payments were more than she could afford on an entry-level public defender’s salary.
“It’s embarrassing to say, ‘I’m an attorney and I can’t afford this.’ It was not talked about,” says Cruz. She should have been directed to an income-driven repayment plan, which would have lowered her monthly payment and put her on track toward PSLF — before the waiver, it was the only qualifying payment type.
She was on the wrong repayment plan for five years before enrolling in income-driven repayment. By then, her salary had increased and she had gotten married, which meant her husband’s income was also factored into her monthly payment amount.
“I get that my household income changed, but my income didn’t change,” says Cruz. “It’s my debt, not my spouse’s debt.” She stayed on the plan anyway so she could continue working toward PSLF.
Cruz says her payments ranged from $475 and $700 a month, depending on the year. Along the way, her husband was laid off, which meant she needed to lower her payment, which led to back-and-forth difficulties dealing with her servicer. That led to forbearances while the mess was sorted out.
By March 2020, she had been working for 10 years. She believed she was eligible for Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness — the Education Department’s first piecemeal effort to fix inadequacies in the PSLF process — and applied. Instead, Cruz ended up with several denials without any explanations.
When the temporary waiver was announced last October, Cruz jumped on submitting another application.
A month later, she logged into her account and saw the first $10,000 of a $43,000 total was forgiven. She was confused. She had seen on social media that other borrowers were seeing complete cancellation while she was still seemingly stuck in limbo.
“I love following stories on Twitter
and seeing other people’s zero balances, and I cheered them all on,” says Cruz. “But I felt like it happened in this more painful slow process for me.”
Communication through the forgiveness process was sporadic. Her Federal Student Aid account was missing two years of payment history. “It was as if I was in forbearance and I was not,” she said. So she submitted her payment history. More waiting.
The rest of her debt was forgiven in dribs and drabs until April 15, when she logged into her account and finally saw the zero balance she had been waiting for.
“It felt wonderful,” says Cruz. “I don’t have to keep logging in and refreshing.”
How to get the PSLF waiver
Cruz is one of more than 113,000 borrowers who have seen their loan debt forgiven under the temporary waiver. There’s no downside to applying if you think you may qualify for PSLF through the waiver.
The PSLF waiver counts past payments and repayment periods that previously didn’t meet the standard for qualifying payments, including:
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 Federal Family Education (FFEL) Program loans or Perkins loans.
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. Log in to the Federal Student Aid website to determine if you qualify for additional payments and learn more about the waiver.
If you’re hoping to get the waiver before it expires, make sure to submit it by Oct. 31.
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Anna Helhoski writes for NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @AnnaHelhoski.