After years of pretty much ignoring emails from her student loan servicer, Meredith Shuman wasn’t expecting much when she saw a new message waiting in her inbox last week. So it came as something of a shock when she realized the latest message actually held life-changing news.
Shuman had fulfilled the requirements for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), the email read. Over $43,000 in federal student loan debt was gone, replaced by zeroes and a smiley face in her MOHELA account.
“I literally cried tears of joy,” Shuman, 35, tells Fortune. “It’s nice seeing all those zeroes.”
Shuman applied for the PSLF temporary waiver—the U.S. Department of Education changed some of the requirements for the program in 2021, which allowed years of Shuman’s monthly payments to count toward the 120 she needed for forgiveness that previously did not.
Courtesy of Meredith Shuman
Under PSLF, student loan borrowers employed as teachers, police officers, social workers, and in other of qualifying government and nonprofit roles can have the remainder of their federal student loans forgiven after 120 on-time payments, or 10 years. There are strict requirements for forgiveness, including working for an approved employer, never missing a monthly payment, certifying employment every year, and being enrolled in an eligible repayment plan, among others.
Many eligible borrowers had trouble meeting the onerous requirements, and when they did follow them their loans were still rarely forgiven. The fact that student loan servicers were found to intentionally mislead borrowers about the requirements didn’t help.
In Oct. 2021, the Biden administration announced a one-time account adjustment. With the waiver, previous partial or late payments, or those made in the wrong repayment track, could be counted toward the 120 total qualifying borrowers need for forgiveness. Originally, borrowers had until Oct. 31, 2022 to apply for it.
“The old rules were very muddled,” says Shuman. “There was always something I was missing, it wasn’t explained well. It was a lot of hoops to jump through. I never thought I’d be eligible.”
Though the waiver was temporary, the Biden administration did announce some permanent changes to PSLF last year. A major one: Starting July 1, 2023, borrowers will receive credit for late and partial payments, and will be allowed to pay in installments. Borrowers will also not lose all of the progress toward the 120 payments they need if they consolidate their loans.
The Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) recently announced that some applicants may have to wait longer than planned to see forgiveness reflected in their student loan accounts. The FSA originally planned for the account adjustments to be reflected in accounts by July 2023. Now, some borrowers won’t see the change until 2024.
Shuman’s advice? “Be patient,” she says. “Just stay on top of it, read as much as you can, and really educate yourself on it.”
In February, Shuman received an email saying that even after the account adjustment, she was still a few payments short of qualifying for forgiveness. Getting the notice a month later that her debt was actually being forgiven was a very welcome surprise.
“Teaching is a thankless job. I love it, but it feels like finally some good has come from my teaching,” she says. “My husband and I only have one child because of how expensive things are. Just knowing that burden is gone, the feeling cannot be described.”
Future of widespread student loan relief still unknown
The Biden administration has made a number of changes to existing student loan forgiveness programs and has made forgiving debt for borrowers who were defrauded or misled by their institutions of higher learning a priority.
The changes to the PSLF program are separate from the Biden administration’s widespread student loan relief effort, which is currently being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Whether most federal borrowers will receive $10,000 to $20,000 in forgiveness depends on the court’s decision, expected to be announced by June.
Borrowers are also waiting on potential changes to the income-driven repayment (IDR) plans. Under the new IDR plan, monthly payments could be essentially halved, the Biden Administration announced last year.
Federal payments are on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They are scheduled to resume later this year following the Supreme Court ruling on the widespread debt forgiveness.