Personal Finance

This guy may actually get student loan forgiveness — here's his saga

Key Points
  • The public service loan forgiveness program has been plagued by problems, making people like Kevin Maier a rarity.
  • The Department of Education has notified him that he's made all 120 payments to qualify for debt cancellation.
  • Maier is still in disbelief that he's successfully emerged from the complex, decadelong maze. "It's just been bizarre," he said, during a phone interview this month.
Kevin Maier is one of just 96 people to qualify for public service loan forgiveness

Kevin Maier should not be unusual. Yet he is.

In the spring, he was notified by the Department of Education that he had made all 120 qualifying payments required to be eligible for public service loan forgiveness.

That program, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007, allows certain not-for-profit and government employees to have their federal student loans canceled after 10 years of on-time payments. In 2013, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimated that one-quarter of American workers could be eligible.

However, the program has been plagued by problems, making people like Maier, 43, a rarity. Last year, the bureau reported that student loan servicers are delaying or denying borrowers access to the program. Plenty of people in public service jobs believe that they're paying their way to loan forgiveness only to discover at some point in the process that they don't qualify for one technical reason or another.

Between October 2017, when the Department of Education first began accepting applications for public service loan forgiveness, and the end of March 2018, some 16,000 people applied, an Education Department spokesman told CNBC. Fewer than 1,000 of those people are expected to be eligible.

That ratio is likely even more lopsided, said student loan expert Mark Kantrowitz. He estimates that fewer than 115 people were eligible in the first year. The Education Department spokesman said figures on approvals and denials remain unavailable at this time.

Below is the confirmation Maier received that he had zero payments left to qualify for public service loan forgiveness.

H/O: Fed Loan document

Maier is in disbelief that he's successfully emerged from the complex, decadelong maze.

"It's just been bizarre," he said, during a phone interview last month.

He graduated with his bachelor's degree in English from Western Washington University in Washington state in 1997, debt-free. But then he went on to pursue his Ph.D. in environmental literature at the University of Oregon — a six-year commitment. Although his schooling was fully funded, he had to cover his living expenses for all those years and he ended up taking out around $35,000 in student loans to do so.

Right out of school he landed a job teaching English at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, but money was tight. He made around $40,000 a year; his monthly student loan bill was $350. He and his wife had just had their first child. A few years later, they had another. During the summers, he drove tourists around Juneau in a pedicab. He relied on his credit cards for daily expenses. "You'd make it out of credit card debt by Christmas, and then fly somewhere to visit family and be back in it," Maier said.

Outstanding education debt in the U.S. now exceeds $1.5 trillion, posing a greater burden to Americans than auto or credit card debt. Average debt at graduation is currently around $30,000, up from $13,000 in the late 1990s.

Nothing went smoothly at all.
Kevin Maier
student loan borrower

Maier's interest was piqued around 2007 when he saw a friend's post on Facebook about a new program, called public service loan forgiveness. It seemed simple enough: the government would release public servants from their debt after a decade of payments. He applied.

It was quickly clear that the program was far from simple. "Nothing went smoothly at all," Maier said. "It was very difficult to figure out anything."

He first wondered if his job at a public university would definitely count as public service. His conversations with his student loan servicer left him no wiser. "They never say, 'Yes' or 'No,'" he said. "They say, 'Our processors will evaluate it.'"

Then, in 2012 — five years after the program was signed into law, the Education Department issued a so-called employer certification form, which borrowers fill out each year to confirm that their place of work is qualifying them for the eventual loan cancellation.

Maier's did. Still, he mailed and emailed this form sometimes multiple times a year, to play it safe. Every confirmation he received, he filed away.

These are the public service loan forgiveness requirements. Often, if you don't meet one of them, you can make changes so that you do.

  • Your loans must be federal direct loans.
  • Your employer must be a government organization at any level, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization or some other type of not-for-profit organization that provides public service.
  • By the end, you need to have made 120 qualifying, on-time payments in an income-driven repayment plan or the standard repayment plan.

One year, he received a form that confirmed he'd made 87 payments. A year later, after 12 more payments, he received a form that said he'd only made 83 qualifying payments. "It didn't seem possible," he said. After multiple phone calls to his servicer, the record was finally corrected.

Though, another time, he lost four or five months of payments and wasn't able to get them back. "I never got to the bottom of that one," Maier said. "It just seemed like a program that was poorly managed."

Along the way, he diligently kept up with any news on the program — like the heartbeat-skipping development earlier this year that the budget proposal from President Donald Trump would essentially eliminate the program altogether. He studied legal analyses of it; he scoured the Education Department's websites for details and updates on it, and even printed out the entire law. "It's not an easy program to figure out," Maier said. He's now a tenured professor at the school.

At last, the notice came. Maier had made all 120 qualifying payments and he had zero remaining. Now he's in the process of applying for the forgiveness, and is holding off celebrating until it's official. "I'm superstitious," he said.

Although he knows that to even get this far is a kind of miracle. When he mentioned the news to a colleague, she said she'd never heard of anyone doing so.

"I feel pretty lucky," he said.

If you've made the 120 qualifying payments for public service loan forgiveness, we want to hear from you. Please email: annie.nova@nbcuni.com

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