Editor’s note: This article was written by Dr. Norma Jimenez Hernandez, Executive Director for the Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation. Dr. Hernandez shares her story with student debt and provides step-by-step instructions and resources for applying for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and the one-time student loan debt relief.
I have been an educator for over 20 years.
I am a first-generation college graduate who had almost all of my undergraduate costs covered.
Graduate school, however, was another ball of wax.
Even though I received a lot of tuition assistance in the form of scholarships/fellowships, my housing and food expenses were not covered. No matter how many hours I worked (35-50 hours per week as a full-time graduate student), I did not earn enough to cover my food and housing expenses in the Boston and Berkeley areas. I had to take out loans to make up the difference. For as much as my parents wanted to help me, they were not in a financial position to do so.
I counted on earning enough as a professor after completing my doctoral program to pay back the loans that I had taken out as a graduate student. Unfortunately, assistant professors did not earn as much as I had hoped. The initial offer that I received for my first full-time position as an assistant professor in 2002 was $32,000. In 2010, I applied for and landed a full-time position at a large state university in the southwest when we moved to Arizona because we were unable to afford a home in southern California. We were simply outpriced. The large, public research-intensive institution offered me $36,000 and I would be teaching 5 courses each semester. We had two small children at the time (3 and 5 years old) and another one on the way. I opted to take 18 months to spend with my children given that the cost of childcare for all three kids would outweigh any net earnings I would have from my assistant professor job.
My approximately $60,000 student loan balance that I graduated with in 2002 had ballooned to close to $100,000 in 2010 despite making payments when I was employed. We lost our home in 2010 and felt the shame of asking for public assistance despite having three graduate degrees. Meanwhile, the student loans kept increasing with no relief in sight. One of the topics that I study in my research is students’ basic needs. My interest in this topic was not only motivated by the experiences of my students when I taught at a community college, but also from my own experiences navigating a family with three small children.
When I first heard about the Public Serivce Loan Forgiveness Program, I did not think that I would qualify because I was teaching at a private institution. Then when I had to stop working to care for my three children, I definitely thought that I wouldn’t qualify because the plan initially stipulated that you had to be employed every day for 10 years, even if you switched employers. I’ll never be done, I thought. Even if they forgave $10,000 of my student loan, of which I would be extremely grateful for, I still had slightly over $100,000 to pay back.
Then the relief came…this year – 2022! I heard about the special waiver for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program in October 2021 and I started attending webinars. The first one was sponsored by U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego where I heard Mike Pierce from the Student Borrower Protection Center discuss the special waiver. Then U.S. Senator Bob Casey’s office collaborated with The Institute of Student Loan Advisors (TISLA) giving me hope that there might be light at the end of the tunnel.
I applied for loan consolidation and then began the process to document my years of employment in public service under the special waiver for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. I feared that my years in forbearance would not count towards the 120 payments necessary for public service loan forgiveness. I later learned that my student loan servicer, Navient, had misled borrowers like myself and pushed me into forbearance rather than working with me to have a lower (even $0) monthly loan payment that would count towards the required 120 loan payments for debt forgiveness.
How serious was Navient’s abuse of borrower’s trust? So much so that there was even a lawsuit. You can read about it here.
I have had 98 of the necessary 120 loan payments needed for loan forgiveness documented and applied by my new service loan provider, MOEHLA who will be servicing those of us under the PSLF. I have an additional 40 payments that were overlooked. I am expecting to have all of my student loans forgiven under the special waiver.
I encourage you to apply for student loan relief if you are in public service. There are also other relief programs for student debt even if you’re not in public service or if you’re still enrolled in school. This includes refunds for payments made on your student loans since March 2020, or the start of COVID. Student loan payments were on hold during the COVID-pandemic although some service providers (e.g., Navient) were still requesting payments during this time and threatening default if you did not comply. However, these same service providers were happy to offer forbearance which allowed me to pause my student loan payments but the interest kept accruing. This is why my initial $60,000 student loan debt was now at $120,000! I just kept thinking about my 15-year-old son and had no idea how we would help him get through college.
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness special waiver expires on October 31, 2022. This means that you need to have all of your paperwork in to MOEHLA by that date to have your employment certified and count towards your 120 months. Even if you were in forbearance or did not make your complete payment during those months, the special waiver will count those months of employment. And, if you were in default, you can consolidate your student loans to get out of default, as long as the loans are U.S. Department of Education loans.
What if I don’t know what type of student loans I have? Good question! You can check here with the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrowers Assistance project.
I have compiled a list of resources and even step-by-step instructions on:
- how to ask for a refund if you made payments on your student loans during the pandemic
- learn about and apply for the special waiver for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program
- learn about the one-time cancellation of $10,000 ($20,000 for Pell grant recipients) for those that make under $125,000 per year for individuals or $250,000 for married couples filing taxes jointly and the link to sign up for announcements
- learn about relief for those that attended for-profit institutions, even if you didn’t graduate from those for-profit institutions.
My personal goal for the next few months is to help as many people as possible receive student loan forgiveness. I have helped family members, friends, colleagues, former students, etc., to apply for student loan relief.
I have shared tears with individuals who have told me, “I didn’t really think there was a way out of my $220,000 student debt. Now I have some hope of being able to afford a home for my family.” This was from a former student who taught at parochial schools and filed for bankruptcy a few years ago only to find out that student loans could not be forgiven. She has a spouse who is unable to work due to a head injury and a 6-year-old daughter. Others are 20-year classroom teachers who had given up on any type of assistance. Some are close to retirement or have children that will soon be going to college.
Almost everyone that I have reached out to that still owe student loans have been first-generation college students with almost no history of intergenerational wealth. Most importantly, they have been public servants in K-12 and higher education settings or non-proft settings working to make the world a better place.
My 11-year-old son tells me that I sound like a telemarketer because I get so excited telling others about the relief programs for student loan indebtedness. I tell him that I’m not selling anything. Instead, I’m giving something away. I’m giving away hope – hope to those that had been hopeless for so long.
If you still have questions, feel free to contact Norma at [email protected].