Too good to be true? When student debt disappears
Kevin Maier can’t believe how lucky he is. “I always thought this would never really happen,” he says. After 10 years of payments and employment in public service, his student loans were forgiven. No more monthly payments. No more interest.
When the government’s public service loan forgiveness program works, it feels like a miracle. It’s a great idea: If you work in the public sector, for the public good, and you make regular loan payments for 10 years, the government will forgive the rest of your federal student loan debt. But here’s the thing — the program is failing.
Maier is a rarity; he’s one of only 96 people who have made it to public service loan forgiveness, out of 28,000 who applied.
Maier, an English professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, is a rarity; he’s one of only 96 people who have made it to public service loan forgiveness, out of 28,000 who applied. That’s a 98 percent rejection rate.
His trajectory was nothing out of the ordinary: He attended undergrad at Western Washington University and graduated debt-free in 1997. He took out $35,000 in student loans during his six-year Ph.D. program at the University of Oregon, to cover living expenses. In 2009 he learned about public service loan forgiveness and discovered he qualified to enroll.
But with the program’s dismal track record, Maier wonders whether he should even tell his own students about it. “Most of my students work, most of them are taking on significant debt loads and a lot of them will take on public service jobs,” he says. “It would be awesome to tell them about this great program — to say, even though we’ve chosen as a society not to fund higher education, we’re funding it in this backhanded way.”
But even his own PSLF success was hard-won. Getting information about payments was difficult, at best. Although he’d consolidated his loans, correspondence persistently referred to three separate loans and paperwork came in triplicate, often several times a month. One year, the loan servicer, Federal Loan Servicing, reported that he’d made fewer payments over the life of the loan than it had reported the previous year, essentially ignoring more than a year’s worth of monthly payments in its calculations. “It’s too poorly managed, and no one could ever tell me what was going on,” says Maier. “It just felt sketchy.”
So what does he tell his students? “I’m just really upfront with them, reminding them that the debt is real. You could be paying this for the rest of your life, and it’s not insignificant, especially for activists and people in public service jobs.”
Working for the public good used to have other incentives, but those are disappearing as well. “Historically, we’ve eroded the union movement so benefits like pensions and healthcare, which made public service jobs worth taking even when salaries were low, aren’t always there anymore.”
‘I remind my students that the debt is real. You could be paying this for the rest of your life.’
There’s also the irony of loan forgiveness 10 years after you need it most. “It would have been way more beneficial 10 years ago, when I was barely making it,” he says. And the fact remains that he paid off two-thirds of the loan over those 10 years: “There’s no free lunch here.”
Maier also wishes PSLF were more accessible to the people most in need. “I’m super lucky and least deserving,” says Maier, who carried $35,000 in debt — far less than many — and had parents who could help him when things got tight. And as a graduate student at the University of Oregon, he had an AFT-affiliated union that ensured he had good pay and benefits during that time.
It is worth noting that $35,000 in student debt is now considered modest, especially for graduate school. Plenty of people have six figures in student debt and no end in sight.
In addition to a better system for PSLF, Maier is interested in affordability and even free college. “When Bernie Sanders talks about radically rethinking higher ed, I’m interested,” he says. “This [PSLF] is a Band-Aid fix.”
And for most people, it is no fix at all.