Personal Finance

Advice from some of the first public servants to have their student loans forgiven

Key Points
  • Less than 1 percent of people who applied to have their student debt canceled under the popular public service loan forgiveness program were actually approved.
  • CNBC spoke to some of the few people who successfully navigated the program. Here are their tips.
Matt Tremel is now debt free, thanks to public service loan forgiveness.
Source: Matt Tremel

Matt Tremel is one of 96 people to have his student debt canceled through the public service loan forgiveness program.

Happy endings like his were not supposed to be so rare.

One-quarter of American workers were expected to be eligible for the program, which allows certain not-for-profit and government employees to have their federal student loans forgiven after 10 years.

But the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has found student loan servicers are delaying or denying borrowers access to the consumer protection.

The government may forgive your student loans

Tens of thousands of people in public service jobs believe they're paying their way to loan forgiveness only to discover at some point in the process for one technical reason or another.

As a result, fewer than 1 percent of the nearly 30,000 borrowers who have applied under the program have been approved, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

CNBC spoke to some of the few people who have successfully navigated the process and are now debt-free. Here are their tips.

Matt Tremel
Source: Matt Tremel

Matt Tremel

Saxophonist, U.S. Navy

The Education Department forgave Tremel's $14,000 in student debt earlier this year. "I was ecstatic," he said.

His advice might sound a little cynical. "You can't trust anybody who tells you something," he said.

For example, Tremel verified, via the Education Department's website, all of the information he received from his lender. He says you should do the same.

The public service loan forgiveness requirements:

  • 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.

Trevor Milliron

Professor, Lee University

Getting his more than $135,000 in student debt forgiven this year felt as good as getting his Ph.D. two decades ago, Milliron said. "My wife and I cried," he said.

Milliron recommends being as "proactive as you possibly can." The first time you make sure you're eligible for the forgiveness, he said, shouldn't be when you apply for it after 10 years.

"There are too many things that can go wrong," he said. "You need to stay on top of it."

Read and reread the program's requirements, he added. He picked up a lot of information from non-profits trying to help borrowers. (The Institute of Student Loan Advisors is an organization, for example, that helps student loan borrowers with free advice).

Kevin Maier is one of just 96 people to qualify for public service loan forgiveness

Kevin Maier

Professor, University of Alaska Southeast

In the spring, Maier was notified by the Education Department that he had made all 120 qualifying payments required to be eligible for public service loan forgiveness. His nearly $10,000 loan balance flipped to $0.

"I feel pretty lucky," he said.

He said people should submit their employer certification form as often as possible.That document confirms and updates the number of qualifying payments you've made.

He mailed and emailed this form sometimes multiple times a year, to play it safe. Every confirmation he received, he filed away.

Nina Pomponio is one of the first few people to qualify for loan forgiveness.  
Source: Nina Pomponio

Nina Pomponio

Lawyer, Massachusetts Probation Service

Pomponio realized just how few public servants had crossed the finish line during a recent phone conversation with a representative at FedLoan, the servicer for public service loan forgiveness.

"The guy was so excited," she said. "He was like, 'Oh, my god. You're the first one we've seen.' I was like, 'Just me?'"

Pomponio, a lawyer at the Massachusetts Probation Service, received the notice in June that her $50,000 in student debt was cancelled.

Her advice? Document everything.

During her communications with her lender, she took "copious notes including names and reference numbers."

For more serious issues, she relied on email so that she'd have a paper trail. At one point, FedLoan's count of her qualifying payments was lower than hers. She went back through her notes, and asked the servicer to explain the discrepancy.

"It was detective work," she said.

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