Showing posts with label PSLF. Show all posts
Showing posts with label PSLF. Show all posts

Friday, April 12, 2019

Democrats are "woke" about Public Service Loan Forgiveness: Senators Kaine and Gillibrand file legislation to overhaul PSLF

The Trump Administration hates the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF). Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007, PSLF allows student-loan debtors who work in public-service jobs to have their student loans forgiven if they make 120 student-loan payments in a qualified repayment plan.

The first PSLF participants to have accumulated 120 student-loan payments became eligible for debt relief in 2017--10 years after the program was introduced. As has been widely reported, the Department of Education approved less than 1 percent of the applications for PSLF forgiveness that it had processed as of  September 2018.  In fact, DOE said 70 percent of the applicants were not eligible for PSLF participation.

So far, over one million student-loan borrowers have applied to DOE to have their employment certified as PSLF eligible, and millions more are counting on PSLF for debt relief but haven't applied yet. It's a mess.

And it is especially a mess for people who borrowed $100,000 or more to get a law degree or other graduate degree. According to the American Bar Association, the average debt load for people who attended a private law school is $122,000. For many of the people who accumulated six-figure student-loan debt to finance their graduate studies, PSLF is the only viable option for debt relief.

Betsy DeVos, Trump's Secretary of Education, apparently does not care that her agency has frightened or angered millions of people who are counting on PSLF to manage their student loans. According to a news report, a senior DOE official said that DOE does not support PSLF and would not implement it if it were not legally obligated to do so.

But the Democrats are "woke" about this problem. This week, Senators Tim Kaine and Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a bill to overhaul the PSLF program. Thirteen Democratic senators signed on as co-sponsors, including all the U.S. Senators running for President (Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker).

The Kaine-Gillibrand proposal defines eligible public-service organizations broadly to include all federal, state, and local government agencies and all charitable organizations that qualify  for tax-exempt status under 501(c)(3) of the tax code. As Jason Delisle pointed out in a 2016 analysis of PSLF, that definition applies to one quarter of the American workforce.

In fact, the bill's definition of public service differs markedly from the one developed by DeVos's DOE. DOE defines a public service organization as one that is primarily involved in public service,thus excluding organizations like the American Bar Association, which is primarily devoted to serving the legal profession, although it engages in some public service work.

The Kaine-Gillibrand bill also specifies that all student-loan debtors qualify for PSLF, regardless of the federal loan program or repayment plan they are in. This provision also expands eligibility for PSLF participation far beyond what the DeVos DOE permits.

I support passage of the Kaine-Gillibrand bill, and I hope it is enacted by Congress. But we should not deceive ourselves about the cost of PSLF. Thousands of people seeking debt relief under PSLF owe $100,000 or more. Most of these people are making income-based monthly payments on their loans that are not large enough to cover accruing interest. Their debt load is increasing month by month as accrued interest gets capitalized and added to their loan balances. If these people's student-loan debts are forgiven after 10 years, the government will essentially be forgiving the entire amount that was borrowed plus a lot more due to the accrued interest that will also be forgiven.

Remember Josh Mitchell's story in Wall Street Journal about Mike Meru, who borrowed $400,000 to go to dental school? Dr. Meru is making payments of about $2,000 a month in an income-based repayment plan, but his debt has grown to $1 million due to accrued interest. If Meru gets a qualified public-service job and holds it for ten years, DOE will forgive the entire $1 million plus additional interest!

This is a huge problem, and the Kaine-Gillibrand bill won't solve it. Under the GRAD Plus program, graduate students can borrow the total cost of their graduate education--tuition, books, and living expenses--no matter what the cost. It is not surprising then that graduate-school tuition prices went up dramatically after the GRAD Plus program was enacted.

If the bill becomes law, the Kaine-Gillibrand proposal will give relief to millions of student-loan borrowers. But the bill is just a stop-gap measure. As I have said, the only solution to the student-loan crisis is bankruptcy relief for honest debtors who can't pay back their student loans.  More than 45 million Americans have outstanding student loans. I think most of them would vote for a presidential candidate who endorses bankruptcy relief for distressed student-loan debtors.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is a "disaster" according to DOE official: A hurricane is coming to PSLF

In a recent speech, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called the federal student loan program "a thunderstorm loom[ing] on the horizon." Only 20 percent of borrowers are paying down the principal and interest on their loans, DeVos said, even as students borrow more and more money to finance their higher education.

Comparing the student loan program to a thunderstorm may be an understatement. It might be more accurate to compare the program to a hurricane bearing down on the Gulf Coast at 150 miles an hour. And--extending my hurricane analogy a bit further, we might say the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) is the "dirty side of the storm."  In fact, Diane Jones, a senior DOE official, called PSLF a "disaster" earlier this week. Jones said the Department of Education does not support PSLF, although it will meet its legal obligations to administer the program.

But DOE is not administering the PSLF program, or--to be more accurate--DOE is not administering the program competently.  As has been widely reported, DOE had processed 28,000 PSLF loan forgiveness applications by late September and only approved 96! What's going on?

Personally, I think DOE number crunchers looked at PSLF and realized that the program will be extremely expensive if it is administered correctly--shockingly expensive. DeVos and her senior minions know the program will cost taxpayers billions of dollars if DOE processes loan-forgiveness applications in accordance with PSLF participants' reasonable expectations.

As Jason Delisle said in a 2016 paper for the Brookings Institute, by at least one interpretation, PSLF's definition of eligible participants is quite broad. Delisle estimates that one quarter of the entire American workplace is a public service worker and all these people are eligble to participate in PSLF if they have student loans.

Delisle cited a 2015 General Accountability Office report in support of  his conclusion. On page 10, footnote 19, GAO said borrowers are eligible for loan forgiveness under PSLF if they are "employed full time by a public service organization or serving in a full-time Americorps or Peace Corps position."

What is a "public service organization? This is what GAO said:
Qualified public service organizations include those in federal, state, local government; 501(C) nonprofits; and other nonprofit organizations providing a variety of public services. 
That definition is a lot broader than the common perception that PSLF is open primarily to nurses, police officers, and first responders. I know for a fact that many student borrowers who work at public universities and community colleges believe they are eligible for loan forgiveness through PSLF.

We will get some guidance about who is eligible for PSLF when the American Bar Association's lawsuit against DOE is decided. ABA sued DOE in 2016 when it denied PSLF eligibility to public-service lawyers working under ABA's auspices. ABA wants a federal court to rule that its employees are eligible for PSLF; and ABA and DOE have both filed motions for summary judgment.

If a federal court declares ABA to be a public service organization whose employees are eligible for PSLF student-loan forgiveness that will be an indication that DOE's narrow interpretation of a public service organization is far too narrow and legally incorrect.

In the meantime, almost a million people have applied to have their student loans certified as eligible for PSLF.  Of the 28,000 people who filed for loan forgiveness  since last September, DOE granted forgiveness to less than 1 percent. DOE declared that seventy percent of the applicants were ineligible.

Millions of people working in the public sector took out student loans in the reasonable belief they are eligible for loan forgiveness after ten years of public service.

DOE has taken the position that most of these student-loan borrowers are wrong. No wonder DOE Undersecretary Diane Jones calls PSLF a "disaster."

PSLF is a "disaster" according to DOE official


American Bar Association v. U.S. Department of Education, Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief, Case No. 1:16-cv-02476-RDM (D.D.C. Dec. 20, 2016).

Stacy Cowley. 28,000 Public Servants Sought Student Loan Forgiveness. 96 Got ItNew York Times, September 27, 2018.

Stacy Cowley. Student Loan Forgiveness Program Approval Letters May Be InvalidNew York Times, March 30, 2017. 

 Jason Delisle. The coming Public Service Loan Forgiveness bonanzaBrookings Institution Report, Vol 2(2), September 22, 2016.

Betsy DeVos. Prepared Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to Federal Student Aid's Training Conference. November 27, 2018.

Casey Quinlan. Education Department official slams Public Service Loan Forgiveness program as 'disaster.', December 4, 2018.

Jordan Weissmann. Betsy DeVos Wants to Kill a Major Student Loan Forgiveness ProgramSlate, May 17, 2017.

U.S. Government Accountability Office. Federal Student Loans: Education Could Do More to Help Ensure Borrowers are Aware of Repayment and Forgiveness Options. GAO-15-663 (August 2016). 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

FedLoan Servicing is accused of fraud. What did the Department of Education know about how FedLoan treated student debtors in the PSLF program?

As Alan White reported in Credit Slip yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education assigned the complex task of monitoring the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program to its worst-performing student-loan servicer--FedLoan Servicing (Fedloan).  In 2017, DOE ranked FedLoan last among 9 student-loan servicers "based on delinquency rates and customer satisfaction survey results."

PSLF, created by Congress in 2007, is a federal program designed to make it easier for student-loan borrowers in public service jobs to pay off their loans. And it is a very big program. Almost 1.2 million people have applied to have their student loans certified for PSLF participation; and 890,000 borrowers have been approved so far.

PSLF borrowers are entitled to have their student loans forgiven after 120 on-time loan payments. The first PSLF participants became eligible for debt relief in September of last year. As of last month, 28,000 borrowers had applied for debt relief, but DOE had approved less than 100.

What's going on?

According to a federal lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania earlier this year, FedLoan has fraudulently administered the PSLF program to enrich itself at the expense of student borrowers (paragraphs 80-91). Plaintiffs in the suit claim FedLoan penalized borrowers who made extra payments by posting all subsequent payments as being paid late. Since late payments don't qualify toward the 120 on-time payments, student debtors who made extra payments in good faith actually increased the number of months they would have to make loan payments. Since FedLoan gets a service fee for managing student loans, the longer a borrower makes payments, the more money FedLoan earns in fees.

In addition, FedLoan reputedly made bookkeeping errors while administering the PSLF program; and when borrowers tried to straighten out these mistakes, FedLoan put their loans into forbearance. Student debtors whose loans are in forbearance do not get credit for loan payments they make, and this practice also extended the time borrowers are obligated to make student-loan payments.

Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit allege FedLoan engaged in these activities to increase its revenues. And indeed, FedLoan is making a bundle of money in the debt collection business. According to the plaintiffs' complaint (paragraph 33), FedLoan earned net revenues of more than $220 million in 2014 and owns assets worth $700 million!

But here is a question the Pennsylvania plaintiffs did not ask: Why did DOE permit FedLoan to allegedly defraud student debtors?

After all, DOE must have known something was wrong based on the sheer volume of complaints that student borrowers were filing against FedLoan. All DOE would had to have done to bring FedLoan into line was write a letter telling it not to interpret the PSLF program in a way that harms PSLF participants.

I think DOE intentionally allowed FedLoan to operate the PSLF program so unfairly because DOE knows the PSLF program will cost the government billions if every PSLF applicant gets the debt relief the program promises. In other words, DOE knew exactly how FedLoan would behave if it got the PSLF servicing project, and that's why DOE chose FedLoan.

I hope a federal court ultimately finds FedLoan liable for defrauding PSLF participants. And if it does, then DOE should be named as a co-conspirator in a scandalous fraud.


Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. Watchdog agency blasts government contractor for mishandling student loan forgiveness program. Washington Post, June 27, 2017.