New Temporary Changes to Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program Could Impact Librarians with Student Loans

In the beginning of October, the Department of Education announced temporary changes to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) that are projected to help 22,000 borrowers with consolidated loans without further action, and another 27,000 may be able to qualify with additional certification. The DOE expects the changes will help over 555,000 borrowers who previously consolidated their loans and may get an additional two years of qualifying payments. The new program stands to help out librarians in particular.

U.S. Department of Education logoIn the beginning of October, the Department of Education announced temporary changes to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) that are projected to help 22,000 borrowers with consolidated loans without further action, and another 27,000 may be able to qualify with additional certification. The DOE expects the changes will help over 555,000 borrowers who previously consolidated their loans and may get an additional two years of qualifying payments.

The updated program will allow borrowers to count all their payments towards the PSLF requirement no matter what qualifying loan program or payment plan they are in (previously, the rules were specific about what loan program or payment plans qualified). Other changes include reviewing the applications of borrowers who had been previously denied for errors. Borrowers have until October 31, 2022 to apply.

In 2007, the federal government created PSLF to incentivize the service of people working in public service, including librarians, military service members, and teachers. Pat Scott, financial aid consultant for Strata Information Group, said, “PSLF starts as a simple enough idea: work the right kind of job, make payments while you’re there, and then whatever is left over will be picked up by Uncle Sam.” Borrowers are expected to make 120 on-time payments over 10 years.

The new program stands to help out librarians in particular. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the average loan balance for master’s degrees, not including degrees in business, science, or education, was $75,100 for 2015–16. Compare that with Library Journal’s most recent 2018 salary survey data, which reported that full-time salaried library employees earned $55,357. Hourly wages for full-time workers clock in even lower, at $41,000.

In practice, however, some feel that the PSLF did not live up to its promise, and have found the process labyrinthine and seemingly daunting to qualify for. The program has been amended several times since 2007 but as of June, only about 5 percent of borrowers who applied have successfully qualified, with an average outstanding balance of $99,700. Pat Scott calls that a huge communication error on the part of the Department of Education.



That’s been part of the experiences that librarians Kyra Hahn and Maija Meadows Hasegawa have faced. Meadows Hasegawa, interim branch librarian at the North End Branch Library for the Boston Public Library, explained in a 2019 NBC article that she had heard of the program initially. When she tried to enroll, her application was repeatedly rejected because she did not have the right loan type and was not enrolled in a qualifying income-based repayment plan. She also needed to prove that Boston Public Library was an eligible employer.

When her application was finally approved, her PSLF was restarted under the current loan structure for 2018, over 10 years since she had graduated, even though she had paid her loans consistently.

Meadows Hasegawa is also hopeful that PSLF can help her. She has benefited greatly from COVID-19 Emergency Relief and Federal Student Aid, but is concerned about resuming deferred payments in January 2022 since they still pose a financial burden on her and her husband. “I’m worried that I’ll fall through the cracks” with the new 2021 changes, she said. “I’m just worried that even though I’ve made timely payments I will not be able to complete it. That is my main concern about it, that I’ve misread it somehow or somehow I’m not qualified.”

Hahn, public librarian for Dodge City Public Library, KS, and an advocate for public service loan forgiveness, faced similar issues; she was in the wrong repayment plan to qualify. When she switched, she found her monthly loan amount went up past the point of affordability. She theorized that filing jointly with her spouse may have been the root cause of the increase. But getting answers to her repayment questions was practically impossible; she wrote in 2017 of her experience for Public Libraries Online, “Each time I would call FedLoans, I would get different answers from customer service representatives regarding qualifying for PSLF.”

Right now, Hahn is feeling “cautiously optimistic” about the new temporary changes. “I think it’s great that they are going to extend borrower forgiveness to borrowers who were in the incorrect repayment plans who did not have the correct loan types, because oftentimes, those were things that were beyond their control,” she said.

Hahn is thrilled for people who have already gotten their approvals or have successfully navigated PSLF the system, but she’s waiting to hear about her own situation. This summer, she received notice that she was eligible to apply under the latest changes to PSFL, made in 2018, and applied before these 2021 changes were announced. She wonders how people like her who applied recently for updates to their PSFL before the 2021 update will be impacted by the new changes Her account on the PSLF Help Tool, a 2018 tool implemented to help make it easier for borrowers, is still frozen.



Linda Scott, interim executive associate dean of the School of Information Sciences at University of Illinois, Urbana- Champaign, professor emeritus, and member of the American Library Association, said, speaking for herself, that she has “hope that the spirit of the original loan forgiveness program is actually realized, with these reaching more people who can benefit from the changes.”

Pat Scott is less optimistic about the 2021 changes. “The window of time is so short that I have a hard time seeing how it can provide much in the way of compensation for making life choices based on a promise that the federal government has broken,” he said. Even administrators who work with students are finding PSLF “very frustrating” to navigate.

Jennie Rose Halperin, executive director of nonprofit content access advocacy organization Library Futures, thinks PSLF is a good idea, noting “the more flexibility that we can provide to people, the better.” She studied the impact that loan burdens have had on librarians and other library professionals in 2017, writing “I learned that nearly no one has escaped the graduate degree unscathed by debt. Nearly half of all participants who took out more than $25,000 in debt graduated in the last five years.”

However, she added, “This program, which attempts to ameliorate some of the worst excesses and issues within the student debt crisis…is fundamentally not going to change this situation significantly.” Halperin questions why MLIS programs are so expensive in the first place, as well as the assumption that people in these positions—librarians, social workers, and others in public service—should be paid significantly less than people in private industry.

Halperin would like to see the library field step up to discuss the state of the profession as well as how to provide better education and counseling about financing options for students.

Meadows Hasegawa agreed, suggesting that discussions about financing education should even start as early as high school. When she served in a front-facing role at Boston Public Library, she would talk to students who came into her branch about loans, recommending they look into options for college and beyond and not just sign up for loans off the bat.

Reducing the loan burden would have significant benefits for people in the field. “It can create a path for people going forward,” Meadows Hasegawa said, offering an important resource for librarians who reflect the communities where they serve: “They can be in the fields where they want to be.” She also hopes that PSLF changes could help paraprofessionals find a path to librarianship.

When asked for advice to those who are considering applying for the loan forgiveness program, Pat Scott said, “Mind your Ps and Qs in the paperwork. Make sure everything is correct and perfect—give no reason for something to be rejected out of hand.” But he also cautioned that not to rely on loan forgiveness, and to have an alternative plan.

Advocating for better conditions is also integral, Scott concluded. “Put pressure on elected officials to simplify the student loan programs on a permanent basis. Pay it forward by supporting universal education initiatives.”

It’s too soon to tell how the new changes will impact borrowers, and there are many outstanding questions. The Washington Post reported on October 28 that “the contractors charged with guiding borrowers are still awaiting guidance themselves.” The article went on to note, “Any misstep can add years to the process, and borrowers have complained that poor advice from loan servicers led them to believe they were making qualifying payments when they were not. Those revelations have led to other temporary fixes that created new problems, making borrowers even more skeptical about the program.”

Hahn also pointed out that two federal loan servicers’ contracts will end in December, which might create even greater problems with loan forgiveness eligibility.

Hopefully, further guidance will be given so that more borrowers can take advantage of these new changes to PSLF. The program, if successfully implemented, would be life-changing for borrowers. Meadows Hasegawa noted that if she gets loan forgiveness, she plans to go back to school someday to get her Ph.D.

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