Personal Finance

A professor's hard fight for public service loan forgiveness

Key Points
  • Jason Edwards, a communications professor, learned seven years too late that he didn't qualify for public service loan forgiveness.
  • Then a surprise came. Last year, Congress authorized a $350 million "fix" to the public service loan forgiveness program, which gave him another change at applying.
  • More challenges emerged. Then a rare, happy ending. 
Jason Edwards and his wife, Amber, and his son, Robbie
Source: Jason Edwards

Jason Edwards, a communications professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, learned seven years too late that he didn't qualify for public service loan forgiveness. The Providence, Rhode Island, resident had been paying his debt for that long when the dreadful discovery arrived.

Yet Edwards' story holds a rare, happy ending. Stay tuned.

The public service loan forgiveness program, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007, allows 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 up to one-quarter of American workers could be eligible for the relief.

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.

Yet, like tens of thousands of other people who work in public service and carry student debt, Edwards had unwittingly not met one of the technical requirements all those years.

The program's problems are complex. Lenders have failed to provide consumers with full, accurate information about the option. And the student loan system is famously complicated, with some 14 ways to repay your education debt, a web of forgiveness options and a soup of wonky terms such as "forbearance" and "deferment."

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To qualify for public service loan forgiveness, you need to be enrolled in one of a few income-driven repayment plans. Unfortunately, Edwards had been paying his loans back in an extended repayment plan, and, as a result, none of his payments had qualified.

"It's painful," Edwards, 45, said. His monthly bill at the time was $421.

After learning that his payment plan didn't qualify in 2015, he moved into one that did, and restarted his 10-year-journey.

Then came a surprise. Last year, Congress authorized a $350 million "fix" to the public service loan forgiveness program, which offered borrowers who had been enrolled in graduated or extended repayment plans another shot at qualifying.

Hoping to regain credit for those seven lost years, Edwards quickly applied. Since he'd been paying his student loans for another three years on an eligible plan, he figured he was an extra application away from being debt-free.

Then another blow of bad news. Edwards said he was told by FedLoan, the designated company for the public service loan forgiveness program, that he was still short of the 120 qualifying payments needed to be approved for the fix-it fund.

His own math, however, told him he actually had made more than the requisite number of payments. "I had this feeling that I was right on this," Edwards said. "I couldn't understand it."

Even as Congress has poured more money into this fund to help people who've been denied student loan forgiveness simply because they'd been repaying their debt in a "wrong" plan, its reach has proved disappointing. The Education Department has received more than 38,000 requests for the fix-it fund, yet just 262 have been approved. (Although those numbers are an improvement from November, when just 26 had been approved).

Getty Images

Edwards asked FedLoan, as well at the Education Department, to review his case. He also wrote to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), explaining his predicament.

Finally, his mystery was solved: A few years of his payments had fallen through the cracks when his lender changed around 2011.

Recently, on a crisp autumn day, Edwards was on a walk in his Providence neighborhood when he checked his student loan balance — $0.

"I think I yelled, 'Shut up!' and I got so excited," he said. The Education Department had finally cancelled his remaining debt (around $60,000). And he received eight refund payments totaling more than $3,000 for his overpayments.

The program remains a part of Edwards's life. He blogs about public service loan forgiveness, and holds workshops at his university about the option.

"It's surprising," he added, "so many people still don't even know about it."

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