Mother Jones, The Incredible, Rage-Inducing Inside Story of America’s Student Debt Machine:
Why is the nation’s flagship loan forgiveness program failing the people it’s supposed to help? ...
BRANDON ISAACS: Gettysburg College (bachelor’s, 2005); University of Detroit Mercy (JD, 2009); $139,000owed at graduation; $58,000 paid back so far; $640 paid per month, on average; 7-8 months of delayed forgiveness because of FedLoan errors; $161,000 still owed today.
Isaacs lives in a Philadelphia suburb and works as a lawyer for a government agency, writing decisions for judges in response to requests for benefits. Before this, he worked for six years as a claims processor at the Labor Department. He graduated from the University of Detroit Mercy in 2009, when, on the slow upswing out of the recession, there were few private-sector options. He had federal loans, about $139,000 worth, consolidated into an income-based plan, and he knew he would want to take advantage of PSLF. ...
For Isaacs, the general lack of transparency has caused constant uncertainty. His payment count seems to fluctuate illogically with every employment recertification, and representatives have occasionally delivered wildly disparate information about his account. During one phone call, Isaacs says a representative underreported the number of payments he’d made by nearly 50. Isaacs panicked: That would mean FedLoan was delaying his forgiveness by more than four years, and if it could make a mistake like this, even over the phone, how could he trust anything the company told him?
Others describe even worse experiences of confusion and betrayal. ...
MICHELLE QUINTERO-MILLAN: University of Utah (bachelor’s, 2004); University of Denver (JD, 2012); $341,000owed at graduation; $35,000 paid back so far; $530 paid per month, on average; 30 months of delayed forgiveness because of FedLoan errors; $410,000 still owed today.
Not long after graduating from law school in Colorado, Michelle Quintero-Millan moved to South Texas, bought a car, and began working as a children’s staff attorney at the American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR). She would drive through the desert, visiting unaccompanied minors picked up by Border Patrol and held at federal migrant shelters, explaining what was going to happen to them and occasionally representing them in court.
Throughout her three years at ProBAR, Quintero-Millan had no reason to doubt her work there qualified for PSLF. “It’s pro bono work, representing individuals who are very vulnerable, in high need,” she told me. “It’s a pro bono salary. It’s a nonprofit organization.” Although the American Bar Association is in a different class of nonprofits than a regular 501(c)(3) and judged for PSLF on a case-by-case basis, many of Quintero-Millan’s colleagues had gotten letters from FedLoan that said their work qualified. After Quintero-Millan left ProBAR, she sent in records of all her post-law-school employment. Her later work as an immigration attorney at Catholic Charities USA and a refugee officer at US Citizenship and Immigration Services was quickly certified, but eventually she received a letter from FedLoan informing her that every month she’d worked at ProBAR had been disqualified: The Education Department had changed its mind about the organization, and borrowers were just out of luck. (FedLoan says her work at ProBAR never qualified.) Quintero-Millan couldn’t believe it. She’d just effectively lost three years of work—she loved the job, but she could have chosen any number of other immigration nonprofits that did virtually the same thing and did qualify. “It still to this day baffles me,” she said. “There’s no way that it doesn’t qualify. This is the type of work that was envisioned for this program.”
In December 2016, the American Bar Association sued the government, naming Quintero-Millan and another employee as plaintiffs, along with two staffers of other organizations that had been disqualified. In one of its letters to the plaintiffs, FedLoan offered an “apology for any inconvenience this may cause” and explained that in order to qualify as a public-interest legal service, the organization would need to be “funded in whole or in part by a government entity.”