9 things I learned when I signed up for public service loan forgiveness

As someone who graduated from medical school with six-figure student loan debt, I’ve looked into several different loan forgiveness programs that will help repay what I owe. One of the most popular loan forgiveness programs is Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). Through PSLF doctors can get hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans forgiven, tax-free. Although this seems great, when I attempted to enroll in the program last year, there were several shocking truths I became aware of quite quickly. Here are some things I learned after enrolling in PSLF:

1. Not everyone who works for a nonprofit is eligible. In order to qualify for PSLF, you must work for a 501(c) nonprofit or government institution. Ironically, even if you do work for a nonprofit, you still may not qualify. It all depends on your employment classification. If you are classified as an “independent contractor” at an academic institution who only has “hospital privileges” or gets 1099-income instead of W-2 income, then you are technically not an “employee” by that hospital. Thus, you likely don’t qualify for PSLF. If you’re unsure which category you fall in, check how you get paid.

2. You may have to bypass the grace period to start your qualifying payments. When you first graduate, you will be automatically placed in a six-month “grace period.” The good thing about being in this grace period is that you are not required to pay back your loans. The bad thing about the grace period is that this time does not qualify as one of the 120 monthly payments needed to get your loans forgiven. To my surprise, you can’t just waive this grace period to start your qualifying payments. When I contacted the Department of Education, I was told that the only way to bypass the grace period is to consolidate your loans. The consolidation can be done online, but it often takes weeks to process.

3. No digital signatures are allowed; you must sign the form by hand. As a millennial who doesn’t own a printer, I attempted to complete the PSLF employment certification form online and submit it with my digital signature. My application was rejected. In fact, I got a notice from FedLoans a few weeks later stating that my enrollment into the PSLF program was denied because I didn’t provide a “hand signature.” I’m not joking. I literally had to find a printer, fill out the form a second time, sign it by hand, then ask my boss to scan and fax it to them. A few weeks later, they told me the application was approved.

4. The certification form takes weeks to process, so upload a copy to your online account. When I finally did get my loans consolidated and resubmit the form with my hand signature, it still took weeks to process. I called FedLoans to see how to expedite the process and was advised to upload the employment certification form to my online FedLoans account. As one can imagine, it takes days, if not weeks, for them to catch up on all the faxes they receive. Uploading the form directly to your account speeds up the process, and they can make a decision faster than if you just fax in the form.

5. The “end date” on the form isn’t really an “end date.” Once I was accepted into PSLF, I received a notice indicating that I was only enrolled in the program for one month. The form showed a start date of 07/2019 and an end date of 08/2019. I was confused and frustrated, to say the least, and promptly called FedLoans for an explanation. The representative assured me that I was still enrolled in the program. Apparently, the FedLoans employees need a way to process the form and then “close out the task.” The “end date” listed on the form isn’t an actual “end date.” It’s the date that your employer signed the form. Why they don’t simply call it a “processing date” or “employer verification date” is odd, but nevertheless, that’s what it says.

6. The payments they calculate may not be correct. A few weeks after notifying me that I was enrolled in the program, FedLoans sent me another notice estimating how many qualifying payments I had. The form listed zero. That wasn’t correct. Although I had just started residency six weeks ago, they should have at least recorded one payment, especially since I went through the process of consolidating my loans and waiving the grace period. When I called FedLoans to inquire about this issue, the representative said there was an error in updating my loan status from the consolidation but that it would be fixed soon. Ladies and gentlemen, double-check your payments and count them yourself.

7. Your number of qualifying payments will not be updated in real-time. FedLoans does not track your qualifying payments month to month. Instead, they check the number of payments you’ve made once a year when you resubmit the employment certification form. They then send you another notice with an arbitrary “end date” and update your account with the number of qualifying payments you’ve made up until that date.  Ironically enough, the PSLF program does not require you to resubmit the certification form each year, but doing so is the only way to make sure Fedloans is keeping track of your qualifying payments.

8. You must submit another certification form when you change employers. In order for FedLoans to ensure that you continue to qualify for the PSLF program, you must show proof. I highly recommended that you submit the enrollment certification form each year so they can better track your payments, but it is required that you submit this form each time you switch employers. You have to notify them about the change in your employment status so they can update things in their system and verify that you still qualify.

9. It could take another six months for your loans to be forgiven after all 120 payments are made. Yep, you read that right, six months. Once you make the 120 monthly payments, you have to submit a different form called the “PSLF loan forgiveness form.” Unfortunately, it can take another six months after submitting the form before a person is notified that their loans have been forgiven or not. Because of this delay, you have the option to stop paying towards the balance of your student loans and go into “forbearance” while you wait to hear back on the status of your forgiveness. You can also just keep sending extra payments and hope for a refund at the end.

To be brutally honest, PSLF has a lot of inefficiencies. I’ve been enrolled in the program for a little over a year and have already had to call FedLoans half a dozen times. To say it’s a hassle is an understatement. Hopefully, it won’t be like this going forward. When all federal student loans were placed into forbearance during COVID, it took them a few months to catch up with processing but eventually, they got my payments right without me having to call them every other day. Learning the ins and outs of this program and dealing with its quirks is a bit cumbersome, but the opportunity to get hundreds of thousands of student loans forgiven tax-free is too good of a deal to pass up. Keep track of your payments, and may the odds be ever in our favor.

Altelisha Taylor is a family medicine resident and can be reached at Career Money Moves

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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