Village Voice 04.19.2017 : Page 25

CLASS ACTION 25 April 19 April 25, 2017 UNFORGIVEN VILLAGE As more than a million public-service workers prepare to apply for student loan forgiveness, some fear that time could be running out A Haylee Adamson at her home in Arlington, VA: “No one ever helped me understand the amount of money I was taking out, and what that would do for the rest of my life.” BY NEIL DEMAUSE PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRISTOPHER MYERS The sales pitch for public-service loan forgiveness, or PSLF, sounds simple and sweet for anyone looking to take on an ex-pensive degree without having to scram-ble for a high-paying job to work it off: Take out federal student loans, make ten years of minimum payments, and then, so long as your employment is approved as “public service” by the Department of Education, the government will rip up your IOU. In the past ive years, more than 1.2 million borrowers have sought certi i-cation from the DOE that they’re eligible for public-service loan forgiveness. The irst warning signs came last win-ter, when the American Bar Association iled suit, charging that several lawyers had had their jobs certi ied as public ser-vice, only to have the DOE later rescind that approval. The suit was launched af-ter the ABA discovered that it had been removed from the approved public-service list because it’s not entirely not-for-pro it — a move the association said made it hard to retain employees. “It does seem like they’ve been chang-ing what quali ied and does not qualify,” says Natalia Abrams, executive director of Student Debt Crisis, a loan reform group founded in 2012. “I’ve spoken with law en-forcement, government workers, nonprof-its who work for a [501(c)(3)] — people who clearly should qualify, and then they ight it, and they get back onto the program.” What’s ensnared even more govern-ment and nonpro it workers, though, is another provision of PSLF that many bor-rowers aren’t even aware of. The program is limited to students who took on a par-ticular type of debt, federal direct student loans, introduced in 1992 but only later expanded to be the sole government-backed student loan program; the mil-lions of borrowers who used the Federal Family Education Loan Program, one of the most popular forms of student loan prior to 2007, were ineligible. The good news was the government offered a workaround: You could consoli-date your debt as direct loans and regain your eligibility. But as debtors soon found out, there was a catch. Since PSLF re-quired you to show ten years of payments on an eligible loan, this meant that once you consolidated your debt, your public-service clock started over. Haylee Adamson, a probation of icer in Arlington, Virginia, thought she’d found the perfect way to help pay off more than $65,000 in debt she’d accumulated while earning a master’s in forensic psychology in 2011. After getting a job with Fairfax County — for which she was paid $42,000 a year — she dutifully iled certi ication forms every year, and was told she would qualify for debt forgiveness. The irst warning sign came in Decem-ber 2014, when she received an email cross the nation, an assort-ment of thirtysomething doctors, lawyers, and other young professionals are panicking. Since 2007, a federal program has promised that college graduates would be able to have their remaining stu-dent loan debt, no matter how great, forgiven after a decade of working in public-service careers. Though little known when President George W. Bush signed it into law, public-service debt forgiveness — along with other debt relief provisions of the sweep-ing College Cost Reduction and Access Act —soon became a lifeline to college graduates seeking to manage their stag-gering debt load. But with the irst cohort of student debtors about to hit the ten-year mark, there’s growing fear that the government won’t keep its promise. In recent months, reports have surfaced that some students had seen their certi ication requests re-jected after initially being told that their jobs quali ied them for debt relief — and many more had learned they’d have to keep making payments years after their expected end date. To top it all off, Repub-licans in D.C. have made noise about re-scinding or limiting the program as a cost-cutting measure — three years after President Obama suggested capping the amount the feds would repay. “I wasted ten years of my life making payments for absolutely nothing,” says Horacio Danovich, a civil engineer for Pompano Beach, Florida, who recently found out none of his payments since en-tering government service in 2003 quali-ied him for debt forgiveness. “The amount of money that I owe, I will never be able to repay.” ‘I FEEL LIKE LOAN COMPANIES GET AWAY WITH WHATEVER BECAUSE NO ONE REALLY OVERSEES THEM’ from her loan servicer, FedLoan, asking if she wanted to consolidate her loans so she could be eligible for debt forgiveness. Adamson was dumbfounded: “I thought I was in this program for almost two years!” She immediately consolidated her loans, only to discover that by includ-ing loans that would have quali ied, she had inadvertently reset her clock to zero, meaning she wouldn’t be eligible for any forgiveness until 2025. “I don’t think it’s fair that you’re going to take three years of payments from me,

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