After 28 years of payments, high school history teacher Dawn Snowden-Frost had a bleak outlook on her student loan debt, which had ballooned over the decades into six figures.
“I always thought, ‘I’m going to die with these loans’,” says Snowden-Frost, who teaches at Burbank Unified School District in Burbank, California. “I’ll have student loans until I die and I’ll die in my classroom because I’ll never retire.”
But Snowden-Frost’s prediction was wrong. The remainder of her six-figure loan debt was discharged this year through Public Service Loan Forgiveness — specifically through the PSLF waiver that’s currently in effect and counts particular types of past payments that normally aren’t counted.
“It was always there, that big chunk of money that I have to keep paying and it’s never going to get paid off,” says Snowden-Frost. “Without [PSLF], I never would have paid it off; there’s no way to get out from underneath that debt.”
This new feeling? “It’s freedom,” she says.
A fraught program gets temporary improvements
Snowden-Frost is one of the lucky ones: Most who apply for the notoriously difficult-to-get Public Service Loan Forgiveness program are rejected.
Getting full debt discharge requires 120 qualifying payments made while working full time for an eligible employer, such as a public school, public hospital, eligible nonprofit or the government.
Borrowers have been left to their own devices to fight, sometimes for years, for payments to count toward the 120 total needed for forgiveness of their remaining debt.
PSLF has been in place since 2007, but it has failed to deliver: From Nov. 9, 2020, to October 2021, when the waiver was put in place, only 2.4% had been approved among all applications, federal data from the Department of Education show. However, the waiver has allowed approvals to grow: By April 2022, federal data show 10% of applicants had their debt discharged.
As a result of public criticism, the Biden administration sought to make temporary improvements in an effort to rectify some of the flaws in the execution of the original program. Hence, the PSLF waiver: It offers borrowers the opportunity to receive credit for past payments that didn’t meet the program’s stringent rules. It launched in October 2021 and is available for borrowers through Oct. 31, 2022.
Freedom from long-haul debt
“I’ve had these loans forever,” says Snowden-Frost. “I don’t really have a scary, bad story. I was really lucky a friend told me about PSLF. I’d just been plugging away.”
Snowden-Frost’s PSLF application process was more straightforward than that of most borrowers, but her experience paying loans for nearly 30 years was anything but smooth sailing.
Snowden-Frost graduated from UCLA in 1987 with minimal loans and took on most of her $57,000 debt from law school at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles in 1993. She started student loan payments while working as a lawyer and earning a $70,000 salary. But her payment amount was high: $500 each month (equal to roughly $1,000 in today’s dollars).
“It doesn’t sound like much today, but it was a lot,” she says. When she switched professions after five years in law, she had a much harder time making payments.
As a teacher, she wasn’t paid during the summer, so she would often request a forbearance. During these pauses, interest grows and is added to the principal when payments restart.
Snowden-Frost says she struggled to pay for 14 years, which included her loans being transferred in 2010 when the federal government’s system of lending changed; instead of the government guaranteeing her loans, it now owned her debt. She was steered into a forbearance by her student loan servicer shortly thereafter. “I figured I’d be stuck with these loans forever, so I figured what’s another year?” she says.
Over time, her loans tripled. She had a 9% interest rate and the monthly payments she made couldn’t touch her balance. In 2010, a colleague told her about PSLF. She enrolled in income-driven repayment to ensure her payments moving forward would be eligible for future discharge.
“My only concern was that the program wouldn’t be around when I made my last payment,” says Snowden-Frost. She says that worry about PSLF being repealed hung heavy in her mind, but it kept her vigilant about updates to the program.
In fall 2021, she heard about the PSLF waiver. After applying, she waited three months to be told she had 31 payments left. But that count was off, she says. She pushed back and, sure enough, she was a whole lot closer.
“That’s when I called and they said, ‘Your loans are forgiven.’ I was screaming in my room,” says Snowden-Frost. “I didn’t even know what to do. I was thinking, ‘I don’t know how this is possible, but it’s an awesome feeling.’”
Snowden-Frost still didn’t quite believe it until she got her official letter in February, and by early March, her account reflected the discharge. After 28 years of paying off her loans, Snowden-Frost saw $175,749.92 in debt vanish.
“It’s life-altering because I have zero debt. I can think about retirement. I can think about a property investment. I can think about something else to invest my money into,” she says. “I’m 57. It’s not like I’m buying a house on a 30-year mortgage; I’ve never been able to buy a house because my student loan payments were house mortgages.”
WSJ higher-education reporter Melissa Korn breaks down the select groups of borrowers who are currently eligible for student debt relief and what borrowers can expect in 2022. Photo: Getty Images
How to get the PSLF waiver
More than 128,000 borrowers have seen a collective $8 billion in loan debt forgiven through the temporary waiver. If you think you may qualify for PSLF through the waiver, there’s no downside to applying.
The PSLF waiver counts past payments that previously didn’t qualify including:
Payments equaling less than the full amount due.
Payments made on the incorrect repayment plan.
Payments made on loans that previously did not qualify, such as those in the Federal Family Education Loan Program or Perkins loans.
Payments not made during forbearance periods of 12 consecutive months or greater.
Months spent in deferment, other than in-school deferment, before 2013.
Use the PSLF Help Tool to search for a qualifying employer and generate a form. It has been updated to align with the waiver.
To qualify, borrowers must already have direct loans or must consolidate their federal debt into a new direct loan. The consolidation step is critical: Borrowers can submit a combined PSLF/Employer Certification form before consolidating, but they must consolidate to be eligible for forgiveness. To find out if you qualify for additional payments and learn more about the waiver, log in to the federal student aid website.
If you’re hoping to get the waiver, make sure to submit before it expires Oct. 31.
There are also other potential PSLF program fixes in the works. The Education Department recently proposed regulation changes that would automate certain functions of the program and allow more payments to qualify for PSLF, including lump sum, partial payments, late payment and certain types of pauses. In addition, a new bill — the Simplifying and Strengthening PSLF Act, introduced by Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. — would reduce the number of payments needed to qualify, allow any period of repayment to count toward discharge and more.
More From NerdWallet
Anna Helhoski writes for NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @AnnaHelhoski.