Search the internet for “student debt stories,” and you’ll easily find dozens of anxiety-ridden tales of student loan borrowers struggling to keep up with enormous debt balances that have swelled out of control due to compounding interest.
Very few of those stories, however, end in total debt forgiveness. But that’s exactly what happened with Kristin Eliason, legal director at Network for Victim Recovery of D.C., or NVRDC, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit; she saw her $413,000 in student loan debt disappear overnight.
Eliason had her debt discharged through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, or PSLF. The federal program has a waiver in effect that counts previously ineligible past payments.
The original amount she borrowed for public undergraduate school and private law school was around $180,000, and the interest grew too quickly to pay down any of her principal over the years, she says.
Eliason describes watching her debt balloon without any certainty it would ever be forgiven as a “mental burden.” That weight was lifted when her application was approved under the waiver.
“Once the shock wore off of not believing this was real, it was such a huge relief that I truly never thought it was going to happen,” she says.
A forgiveness program that rarely pays off
The waiver worked out for Eliason, but as for the program itself, she describes it as “a benefit on paper — not a benefit in practice.”
Most borrowers who apply to Public Service Loan Forgiveness are rejected. The approval rate since the program’s inception in 2007 hovered around 2.4%, according to an analysis of federal data.
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.
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. Since the waiver was put in place in October 2021, federal data show approvals through June 2022 have climbed to 10%.
What’s a couple extra thousand when you’re in a six-figure hole?
Eliason took out less than $15,000 in federal student loans to attend as an undergrad at the University of Virginia. She went on to study law at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law, where she says taking out large loans was common practice.
She finished law school in 2009 with $180,000 in debt. She then took out an additional private loan to help pay for her expenses while she studied for the bar exam.
Eliason made most of her payments on an income-driven repayment plan — it’s the only plan that usually qualifies for PSLF. The repayment plan kept her payments lower than they would have been on a standard 10-year repayment plan, but those lower payments allowed interest to keep accumulating.
After passing the bar, she participated in a postgraduate fellowship, a clerkship, and then experienced six months of unemployment.
“There were a few periods of forbearance where I wasn’t making monthly payments because I couldn’t afford to make monthly payments and eat,” says Eliason.
In September 2012, she began working as a legal services attorney earning $43,000 each year. Her payments were $600 a month. “It was unmanageable in the D.C. area,” she says.
When she started working at NVRDC in 2013, Eliason was able to qualify for D.C.’s loan repayment assistance program, which helps pay for the student loans of lawyers at 37 nonprofit employers. But in order to receive the tax-free benefit, her income had to stay at or below $90,000. In D.C., the current median household income as of 2020 was $90,842, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Eliason says as she inched closer to PSLF discharge, she started submitting employment certification. But her servicer miscalculated the number of payments that she believes should have counted. “They said I only made 90 payments, but I had been working at nonprofit organizations for eight years,” she says. “I knew that didn’t translate.”
She continued submitting her employment certification, and by March 2022, Eliason was notified she had reached 119 payments, but she had to submit additional forms to certify employment. In April, she was told she had made 124 qualifying payments — four more than needed — and she was now owed money. Soon thereafter, her servicer account showed a $0 balance, and she received a letter notifying her of the full discharge.
Eliason says loan forgiveness will make a big difference in her life. She won’t need the loan repayment assistance program anymore, which means no more income cap.
“It means I can get a pay raise at my job. It means if I want to do extra contract work I can do that to supplement my income. It means if work gave me a bonus it wouldn’t impact my ability to get repayment assistance,” says Eliason.
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 an incorrect repayment plan.
Payments made on loans that previously did not qualify, such as Federal Family Education Loans, or FFEL, and 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.
Anna Helhoski writes for NerdWallet. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @AnnaHelhoski.