By Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor
At one time several years ago MEA members Nikoji Smith and Erika Carpenter feared to call the federal office that manages student loans, despite the fact that both carried student loan debt they’d heard might eventually qualify for forgiveness.
Avoidance seemed easier — their high debt amounts felt stressful, they didn’t know how to proceed or apply, and they weren’t sure the program was real. Finally Smith took the plunge and called at the urging of her husband’s co‑worker — a corrections officer — then encouraged her longtime friend to do the same.
“I told Erika, ‘It’s legit, it’s legit. And it was easy — they were really nice,’” said Smith, a Title I teacher at MacArthur K‑8 University Academy in Southfield Public Schools.
Once enrolled in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF), the two were on track to have their loans forgiven by 2028. However, they received the shock of their lives in January when both got notice that all of their debts had been forgiven.
Carpenter — who teaches fifth grade at MacArthur — saw it first and called her friend to check her information even though it was late at night. Smith got out of bed to look it up on her laptop. Sure enough: she had the same “paid in full” note on her account.
For Smith that amounted to $260,338.16, and Carpenter, $249,012.18. Between them more than half a million dollars in student debt disappeared, amounts built up pursuing bachelor and master degrees, student teaching without pay, and continuing education for recertification every five years — plus interest.
“I was like, ‘I’m screen‑shotting everything because this has got to be a mistake!’” Carpenter said.
“Me too — I needed proof I wasn’t dreaming!” agreed Smith.
It was no dream or mistake.
Thanks to lobbying by tens of thousands of NEA members, last fall the Biden administration announced a temporary waiver to some rules barring certain types of federal loans and payment plans from qualifying for PSLF. The waiver period ends on Oct. 31, 2022.
For many — like Smith and Carpenter — the changes sped up forgiveness by months or years. For others, who had been previously turned down or who had never applied because they were in the “wrong” type of loan or repayment plan, the one‑year window has been a total game‑changer.
“The waiver is causing the program to do what it originally was promised to do,” said MEA UniServ Director Jon Toppen, who leads trainings on PSLF for MEA members. “It was set up to give people forgiveness for federal student loan debt, and now people are actually getting it.”
For applicants who sought PSLF under previous U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the denial rate was as high as 98%. Congress enacted the program in 2007, so 2017 was the first year that people became eligible after working 10 years in public service while making student loan payments.
Under DeVos the department refused to change rules for forgiveness which required borrowers to fit through a very narrow set of hoops. Now the program will accept more kinds of payments, including late payments and COVID‑19 forbearance; additional repayment plans; and more types of loans.
Before U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona announced the temporary changes last October, fewer than 7,000 people had received loan forgiveness through PSLF. As of early June, that number had grown to 145,000, which includes people in service roles beyond education, according to the Federal Student Aid Office (FSA).
More than 1.3 million borrowers nationwide stand eligible to receive forgiveness under PSLF totaling $133 billion, according to FSA. The average outstanding balance of those borrowers is $99,500.
“We’re doing lots of webinars, and they’re tremendously popular, but I’m concerned too many people still don’t understand what’s happening and not enough are taking advantage of this window of opportunity through Oct. 31 of this year,” said MEA UniServ Director Christine Anderson, who also runs trainings on how to apply.
In Michigan, as of early June, 5,430 borrowers have had debts discharged under the waiver, totaling more than $290 million. Anderson’s best advice: educators with federal loan debt should apply for PSLF now — even if they don’t have 10 years of service — to get inside of the waiver’s window.
Applying is not too complicated, trainings are available through MEA and NEA, and union members receive a free one‑year subscription to the NEA Student Debt Navigator by Savi, a premium online help service which includes access to student loan experts if one‑on‑one assistance is needed.
“The big mistake that people are making right now is filing all of their paperwork with their loan provider, where it could get stuck in a pile under someone’s desk,” Anderson said. “Either go to the federal government directly, or use your union‑provided Savi navigator to make sure everything gets to the right place.”
MEA member Sara Badiner worked with Anderson to apply for PSLF for a third time after getting denied twice before the changes were announced last October. The first time she was denied because of her type of loan, the second time for her payment plan.
“The third time was a charm for me, and this time around it was way easier,” said Badiner, a mid‑career computer science and English language arts teacher in Otsego.
Not only did the remaining $10,000 of student loan debt get forgiven after 15 years of making payments, but Badiner suddenly received 24 small deposits to her bank account — each one an over‑payment being refunded — totaling $7,000 in rebates.
“We were able to help get my son a car — he just turned 18,” she said. “It was amazing.”
Research conducted by NEA in 2021 showed increasing effects of a growing student debt crisis among educators, including delaying major purchases, putting off starting families, and leaving the profession or not considering it in the first place.
The 2020 NEA survey of educators working in PK-12 and higher education institutions found nearly half have taken out loans to fund their own education at an average amount of $55,800. More than half of those carry a balance, and 14% struggle under the weight of more than $100,000 in student loan debt.
Younger educators and educators of color carry more student debt and are disproportionately impacted by it. In particular, Black educators take out more loans – often at less favorable rates – and end up earning less than white counterparts, which drives many away from the profession.
Indeed, back in Southfield, Erika Carpenter reported after getting her student loan debt wiped away she was able to secure a mortgage to buy a condo.
“My credit was fine; it was just the student loans that were in the way of me living where I wanted to live, and that’s not right,” she said. “Teachers should not have all of these student loans, especially when we don’t get the income we deserve. We teach the world.”
Her colleague, Nikoji Smith, agreed: “It all starts here in this classroom.”
That’s why the two friends have been sharing the news that Public Service Loan Forgiveness is finally real.
“We’ve had many conversations with others in our building,” Smith said. “Our colleagues are beginning to have their loans forgiven now. It feels like winning the lottery, but this is truly a blessing.”
Check out these answers to Frequently Asked Questions. For more information, go to www.mea.org/studentdebt — and don’t miss the Oct. 31 deadline!