Will I qualify for PSLF?

After some high profile new stories about the initial 99% rejection rate for PSLF application, I wrote back in 2018 about how using that number as a means of summarizing the PSLF program was essentially clickbait.

I still see the 99% figure used all the time by ill-informed people in arguments about how everyone should abandon all hope and rush to the arms of an immediate private refinance without any consideration of critically important details such as the size of an individual’s crippling debt or how that relates to their current or expected income. Dunning-Kruger in action.

That said, the high rejection rate does illustrate the need for due diligence and careful planning, because what it really signifies is a lot of people’s general lack of attention to detail when it comes to critically important financial matters (e.g. the impact of investment fees on retirement planning):

Wrong loans. Wrong repayment plan. Wrong/unconfirmed number of payments. And (more rarely) wrong job.

A small fraction of that 99% also probably included some people who actually did know better but we’re hoping for a windfall. No harm in asking right?

Current borrower, the program is safe

If you’ve already borrowed loans, you’ll note that the master promissory note you signed includes this:

A Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program is also available. Under this program, we will forgive the remaining balance due on your eligible Direct Loan Program loans after you have made 120 payments on those loans (after October 1, 2007) under certain repayment plans while you are employed full-time in certain public service jobs. The required 120 payments do not have to be consecutive. Qualifying repayment plans include the REPAYE Plan, the PAYE Plan, the IBR Plan, the ICR Plan, and the Standard Repayment Plan with a 10-year repayment period.

The MPN is a binding contract between you and the lender (the federal government). It cannot be legally changed. This is why all new proposals, from the Obama-era PSLF cap to the Trump’s hoped abolition, have always specifically excluded current borrowers. They have to. To change the rules of the game for an old borrower runs afoul of the common law doctrine of estoppel. In layman’s terms, you can’t go back on your word.

I know that sounds good in theory, but everyone who reads internet forums, social media, or the annual PSLF clickbait articles (even from major news outlets) is leery. Thankfully, there’s already some existing case law!

The Department of Education under Trump-appointee Betsy DeVos could at best be charitably described as the perfect example of how cabinet-level executive departments can be politically undermined while being used as political bait for horrible and/or clueless people. Under DeVos, the DOE did try to change the rules after the fact for a tiny number of people with non-501(c)(3) nonprofit jobs that did (and then “did not”) provide qualifying services. These jobs are approved on a case by case basis by FedLoan, and the DOE tried to retroactively undo FedLoan’s approvals.

So how did it turn out? The government basically lost. You can’t do that. I explained the details of the case here (I think they’re interesting).

The PSLF program is an entitlement. Entitlements are hard to change and hard to get rid of, and you can’t simply pull the rug out from under folks who made decisions based on you holding up your end of the bargain.

So, with that long preamble, I’d like to answer the question at the title of this post:

Will I qualify for PSLF?

I’ll answer with another question:

Well, are you doing the things that it says on literally every single document that you need to do?

Then yes!

After a 10+ year boondoggle of administrative suffering, you too can enjoy your free money.

You need:

  • Qualifying loans (Direct, not FFEL)
  • Qualifying repayment plan (REPAYE, PAYE, IBR, ICR, or 10-year Standard)
  • Qualifying full-time employment (Government or 501(c)(3) non-profit are the most straightforward)
  • 120 on-time monthly payments

That’s it.

You don’t need to wonder; you should know at every point during the process. If you have any doubts, keep submitting those employment certification forms to FedLoan. If there’s an unanticipated problem, you can find out within months. Unless you’re trying to get a non-501(c)(3) non-profit job approved (like in that lawsuit), there really shouldn’t be any question.

Yes, FedLoan can be terrible. And yes, sometimes you need to submit a CFPB complaint to get those manual payment recounts done when it seems that basic arithmetic is beyond their reach. No one said the process was pleasant.

But at this point, no one else needs to be surprised after a decade.

Talking Student Loans with SLP

I was on the Student Loan Planner podcast with Travis Hornsby this week dispelling myths and getting into the weeds on student loan loopholes. Good times, and we discuss some really good tips. Check it out.

In related news, I made my usual periodic updates to my definitive, comprehensive, and completely free student loan books as well, so now’s a great time to get a Hanukkah present from me and get up to speed on taking care of that brain mortgage.

I’m obviously a firm believer that people should self-educate about this stuff (and all personal finance), even if they plan to hire a professional. And I think anyone can do it themselves if they put some time in. I don’t do “recommended advisor” pages around here, but I do send folks who need or want professional help to Travis, because we’ve been internet friends for years and he’s one of the few people in the industry that consistently knows his stuff (and he gives my readers an extra 6 months of follow-up questions when they hire him).

If you’re getting free advice about loans over a steak dinner, that advice is almost certainly wrong.

Thought Experiment: Borrow a Direct Loan as soon as possible in order to secure the possibility of PSLF

Back when the Republicans held the Presidency, Senate, and the House, there was constant bellyaching about when the government would shutter the PSLF program. As we’ve discussed previously, despite various proposals, any practical discussion that suggested an imminent demise was either unfounded, misguided, and/or primarily promoted by news organizations who need advertising eyeballs or by those who profit from private student loan refinancing.

If you’ve been reading before, you’ll know that any upcoming changes won’t affect old/current borrowers, who will be grandfathered. PSLF is in your master promissory note.

That said, a program cancellation would change things for those who would be considered new borrowers after its implementation. For example, a high school student planning on one day being a doctor could find their future plans derailed, as might a college student whose parents have generously funded their education.

With Democrats controlling the House and most Democrat contenders for presidency supporting drastically expanded loan forgiveness, it would seem the odds of a program cancellation in the short term are lower than many would have anticipated even just a year ago.

But let’s do a thought experiment:

If someone wants to guarantee the ability to be eligible for the PSLF program, they should take out a student loan of some kind as early as possible.

Why? Because changes only affect new borrowers, and anyone with a current loan is automatically an old/current borrower. Someone who has already borrowed money with the expectation that it can be forgiven and holding onto a master promissory note stating the same should be safe from any future changes.

So a freshman in college who doesn’t really need a loan but qualifies for financial aid could take out even a token loan just to open that eligibility door. If you want to go to graduate school, perhaps one should fill out the FAFSA no matter what, even if your parents were planning on taking care of college for you.

Caveat 1: I’m not really recommending anyone do anything. It’s just an illustration of the world we live in and the system we work with.

Caveat 2: There’s no guarantee it would work that way fully. In the event of a PSLF-closure, a borrower’s outstanding/current loans would certainly qualify, and past proposals would also nearly guarantee that the loans required to finish their current course of study would also qualify. But the loans required for a future graduate degree? That wouldn’t necessarily have to make it in. The goal of taking an early token loan would be to give yourself the best chance of locking in forgiveness while not costing anything meaningful from accruing interest.

Caveat 3: Sometimes being an old borrower isn’t so great. PAYE was an improved income-driven repayment plan compared with IBR and was specifically not made available to old borrowers when it was released. Taking out a loan earlier than you need might keep the PSLF doors open, but it could close others, especially since the PSLF doors don’t seem to be closing yet. Given how long it takes Congress to do anything, one can easily see a scenario where imminent program changes are telegraphed way in advance.

Caveat 4: With regards to the Caveat 3, I personally think it is unlikely given the optics of recent PSLF denials and how loan politics have changed for any good new programs to be withheld from old borrowers in the future.

Guesting about PSLF on the Financial Residency Podcast

Listen to me and Ryan Inman of the excellent Financial Residency podcast nerd out about PSLF and why you should 1) be diligent and 2) ignore the clickbait/majority of what you read online.

Check it out.

I would normally give the disclaimer that I had a cold, but I have a four-year-old and now an infant in daycare, so I’m always either sick, recently sick, or about to be sick. Clearly my verbal tick of the day was “at the end of the day,” so mentally subtract that from your listening and it’s a great episode!

Budget and law proposals don’t matter: PSLF will work for people who already have loans

If you took out federal student loans after 2007, the master promissory note—the legal contract between you and the US government—had this buried in it:

A Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program is also available. Under this program, we will forgive the remaining balance due on your eligible Direct Loan Program loans after you have made 120 payments on those loans (after October 1, 2007) under certain repayment plans while you are employed full-time in certain public service jobs. The required 120 payments do not have to be consecutive. Qualifying repayment plans include the REPAYE Plan, the PAYE Plan, the IBR Plan, the ICR Plan, and the Standard Repayment Plan with a 10-year repayment period.

That’s the part that makes your loan eligible for PSLF if you meet the requirements. You’ll notice there are no loan amount caps, needs testing, or other caveats. The program is in the fine print.

And this is precisely why every budget proposal from Obama (who wanted to cap the forgiven amount) and Trump (who wants to cancel the program) has specified that any change would affect new borrowers. (This is not to mention the variety of recent Democratic presidential candidate proposals to dramatically expand student loan forgiveness).

Who is a “new” borrower? Basically someone who borrows money after the law is created and doesn’t already have older loans. To illustrate how the feds have used this term in the past, look no further than the language in the MPN regarding the Pay As You Earn (PAYE) repayment plan.

The PAYE Plan is available only to new borrowers. You are a new borrower for the PAYE Plan if:

*(1)* You had no outstanding balance on a Direct Loan or a FFEL Program loan as of October 1, 2007, or you have no outstanding balance on a Direct Loan or a FFEL Program loan when you obtain a new loan on or after October 1, 2007, and

*(2)* You receive a disbursement of a Direct Subsidized Loan, Direct Unsubsidized Loan, or student Direct PLUS Loan (a Direct PLUS Loan made to a graduate or professional student) on or after October 1, 2011, or you receive a Direct Consolidation Loan based on an application received on or after October 1, 2011. However, you are not considered to be a new borrower for the PAYE Plan if the Direct Consolidation Loan you receive repays loans that would make you ineligible under part *(1)* of this definition.

Now, even the legal nuances may all be moot for at least the short term, because democrats have been more interested in expanding loan forgiveness than canceling it, and most of the gazillion of the current presidential candidates have been trying to promote free college. With Democrats controlling the house, the chances of PSLF being destroyed in the short term are pretty low. Congress couldn’t even get this done with republican majorities in the house, senate, and a sitting president.

Now, in a couple more years in when the forgiven amounts balloon, the issue may come to a more heated debate no matter who is in charge. Because the overall student loan situation, PSLF or not, is untenable, unsustainable, and rapidly robbing young Americans (and thus the future of our country) of their chance at economic prosperity. Something has got to give.

But to give you an idea of how not imminent this is, keep in mind the Republican congress passed a temporary expansion of the existing program to help people who didn’t read the fine print.

However, the long-term health of the program is irrelevant if you’re already in school. Because the changes, whenever they come, should not affect you.

Websites and news outlets love to play up PSLF-doom-stories because they make for great clickbait (and also encourage private refinancing referrals from which many of them profit). But the clear take-home message from both the MPN and political proposals is that it does not matter what happens to the program if you’ve already made the decision to borrow money for school based on the program’s existence. When people rely on a program, you can’t pull the rug out from underneath them (not just because it’s unfair, it’s actually illegal).

And, for the hyper-cynical among you, when Trump’s Department of Education tried to do so in a very limited fashion recently (by retroactively denying some lawyers who fell into a gray zone of non-501(c)(3) nonprofits that must be approved on a case-by-case basis), the courts shut them down pretty robustly. You can’t change the rules of the game if people are already playing.