Why Public Service Loan Forgiveness Is So Unforgiving

“The story below speaks of the conscience of one man who felt strongly enough about his obligation to the people he serves(Our children) that he was willing to giving up his livelihood that cause his two daughters two not have a safety net of his income.

Seth Frotman, former student loan ombudsman at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, poses at NPR headquarters in September. Frotman and his team reviewed thousands of complaints about the questionable practices of student loan companies. On the morning of Monday, Aug. 27, Seth Frotman told his two young daughters that he would likely be home early that day and could take them to the playground. They cheered.

He did not tell them why their dad, who often worked long hours as the student loan watchdog at the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, would be free for an afternoon play date.

Frotman assumed that after walking into his office and, at precisely 9:30 a.m., hitting “send” on an incendiary resignation letter to lawmakers accusing the Trump administration of betraying student borrowers, he would promptly be walked out with his things, and his career, in a cardboard box.

“Unfortunately, under your leadership,” Frotman wrote to his boss, Mick Mulvaney, “the Bureau has abandoned the very consumers it is tasked by Congress with protecting. Instead, you have used the Bureau to serve the wishes of the most powerful financial companies in America.”

Frotman arrived at this conclusion, in part, after he and his team reviewed thousands of borrower complaints the previous summer. One program kept coming up, hurting and infuriating the very people it was meant to help: the U.S. government’s effort to reward student borrowers for public service — for being nurses, teachers and first responders.

This is the story of Seth Frotman, the mangling of the program known as Public Service Loan Forgiveness, and what it says about America’s student loan industry.


The middlemen

Congress created Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) in 2007, in the waning days of the Bush administration. The pitch to borrowers was simple:

Spend 10 years teaching, nursing, policing or otherwise working for a qualified nonprofit while also making 120 monthly payments against your student loans, and the government would forgive whatever’s left. As a thank you.

But recent data from the Department of Education show that 99 percent of applications for loan forgiveness have been denied.

The pitch may have been simple, but the execution was anything but.

Today, the U.S. Department of Education is, essentially, a trillion-dollar bank, serving more than 40 million student borrowers. While the government writes these student loans, it simply cannot run the call centers or handle the paperwork for so many borrowers. It needs help. So it pays companies — the department has contracts with nine of them — to handle customer service. These servicers, as they’re known, are glorified record-keepers and debt collectors. But they’re also powerful gatekeepers.

And these servicers, Frotman found, with a big assist from the Education Department, were wreaking havoc with the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.


Staying on track while giving back

In Greek mythology, Cassandra is the daughter of King Priam of Troy and is both blessed and cursed.

Her blessing: She can see into the future and knows, beyond a doubt, that her city’s undoing awaits inside a wooden horse.

Her curse: No one believes her.

Frotman served three years as the CFPB’s student loan ombudsman and head of its Office for Students and Young Consumers. A fierce watchdog for student borrowers, Frotman and his team reviewed thousands of complaints about the questionable practices of student loan companies.

Since 2011, the CFPB has handled more than 60,000 student loan complaints and, through its investigations and enforcement actions, returned more than $750 million to aggrieved borrowers.

In the spring of 2017, Frotman and his team investigated thousands of complaints about a range of issues and found a disturbing pattern with PSLF:

Borrowers would notify their loan servicers of their intent to enroll in the program, then make it years into the repayment process before being told they didn’t yet qualify — because they had the wrong loan, the wrong repayment plan or the wrong employer.

Sometimes servicers would be aware of a borrower’s status as a public servant — active-duty military, for example — but not tell the borrower about the possibility of PSLF. For borrowers who needed to consolidate their loans to qualify for forgiveness, Frotman found, a process that should have taken 30 days often took much longer. Servicer employees appeared undertrained, uninformed and prone to a litany of paperwork mistakes.

“I thought, ‘Oh great, I must qualify for this program,’ ” says Sarah Krainin, who used loans to pay for college and a master’s degree and now teaches at a nonprofit, public university in California. “And I asked my servicer at the time, ‘Am I gonna qualify for [PSLF]?’ And they said, ‘Yes, you have federal loans. You qualify.’ ”

Krainin says she made life choices that were informed, at least in part, by that promise. But after making six years of payments, she recently checked in with the Education Department and was told she did not qualify, yet.

Krainin was told she could consolidate her loans and qualify for PSLF, but doing so would reset her countdown to loan forgiveness from four years back to 10.

“I’ve spent six years thinking one thing, and now it’s another,” Krainin says.

She was devastated and pleaded for leniency with a series of call-center representatives, but got nowhere.

At last, with one call-center agent, Krainin says, “I kinda let my guard down and said, ‘This kinda sucks.’ And [the representative] said, ‘Yeah, it really sucks.’ Just hearing her say that was a relief. It wasn’t six-years-worth-of-work relief, but it was a little bit of confirmation that this is not really the way things are supposed to be.”

In June 2017, Frotman published the results of his CFPB investigation, titled “Staying On Track While Giving Back,” and he recommended that policymakers consider immediate changes, including raising standards for servicers and giving more flexibility to borrowers who have been misled by their servicers.

Frotman was not the first Cassandra to warn the Education Department and lawmakers about the program, but his voice may have been the loudest and his case the most thorough. Still, his recommendations fell largely on deaf ears.


The lucky 1 percent

Later that year, in October 2017, after a host of warnings and red flags, the floodgates opened, and the first generation of borrowers to complete 10 years of public service began applying for loan forgiveness. Thousands of them.

It has now been a year, and one thing is clear: Frotman was right.

The Department of Education and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have both released reviews of PSLF that back up Frotman’s CFPB findings.

The department’s recent report card for PSLF, the program’s first, was a revelation, describing a scale of dysfunction that surprised many in the loan industry. It found that, over the past year, nearly 29,000 applications for Public Service Loan Forgiveness were submitted and processed. Of those, 99 percent were denied, the vast majority for “not meeting program requirements.”

Ninety-nine percent.

Just days after the Education Department released its data, the federal government’s independent watchdog weighed in with the results of its own investigation. Investigators from the GAO found that, more than a decade into the program, many borrowers and servicers still appear confused about basic requirements.

Like Frotman’s team, GAO found evidence of student borrowers thinking they were on the path to loan forgiveness, only to “find out months and potentially years later that [they] don’t qualify and that [they’re] not actually eligible for forgiveness,” says GAO’s Melissa Emrey-Arras, who led the investigation.

Some borrowers had the wrong loans or employers that didn’t qualify. Others were in the wrong repayment plan. In fact, more than half of borrowers who asked to have their loans and employment double-checked, to be sure they qualified for PSLF, “either did not meet basic eligibility requirements or had yet to make any qualifying loan payments,” according to the report.

These are our children that are being robbed by new era Robber Barons. Where are our citizenry that allow those thieves to steal from our children?? Are you deaf, dumb or just don’t care who rapes and pillage your offspring.

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