Guild Member Jessica Saint-Paul Advocates for Loan Forgiveness Overhaul
By Robert Fulton
In 2018, Guild Faculty Guild member Dr. Jessica Saint-Paul (pictured at right) attended a benefits conference hosted by AFT 1521. One of the topics covered, with help from National AFT, was Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). Founded in 2007, the federal PSLF program promised that if you worked full-time in public service or at a nonprofit and made student loan payments for 10 years, your remaining balance would be forgiven.
Entering her tenth year of payments, Saint-Paul was confident that she had navigated the PSLF program successfully and was looking forward to having the weight of her student loan debt lifted off her shoulders.
That is, until AFT presenters at the benefits conference reviewed her student loan payments and discovered she had not accurately applied for PSLF and would have to start the countdown to forgiveness from scratch.
“That’s when I knew I was in trouble,” said Saint-Paul, who teaches public health and health occupation courses at Southwest and Trade Tech colleges and holds a doctorate in medical science. “I was completely embarrassed.”
Fortunately for Saint-Paul and thousands of public service and non-profit employees like her, relief was on the way. That’s because In 2018, National AFT initiated a survey and learned that tens of thousands of members who thought they were on track for forgiveness were misled by their loan servicer. So in July of 2019, the National AFT sued then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for mismanaging the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
Then, on Oct. 12 of this year, National AFT and the Department of Education (DOE) reached a settlement in Weingarten v. DeVos in which the DOE will work to ensure relief for borrowers who relied on the promise of Public Service Loan Forgiveness. A week prior to the settlement, the DOE announced changes to the PSLF program that will make it easier to qualify and easier for loan forgiveness, including a waiver available through Oct. 31, 2022 to count previous payments that were previously ineligible because of loan types or repayment plans.
AFT, with 1.7 million members, played an instrumental role in reforming the PSLF system. More than 42 million Americans owe approximately $1.7 trillion in student debt. These changes will affect more than 550,000 borrowers.
“What this means is that every borrower who applied for PSLF or temporary PSLF and were denied … if they believe the denial was wrong, they're going to have a process for it to be reviewed,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten.
Since the introduction of the PSLF program, approximately 98% of applicants have been denied. The PSLF application process - described as “Kafka-esque” by Weingarten - was challenging, restrictive and confusing, and many borrowers did not realize they had incorrectly applied until after many years of payments, much like Saint-Paul.
“This allows for us to open up the opportunity for everyone to be able to have a review of their debt, to have the opportunity to be forgiven,” said Saint-Paul. “This is money coming directly back into our members’ pockets. This is major.”
“My union has always done what’s right,” added Saint-Paul, who chairs the Guild’s Adjunct Faculty Issues Committee (AFIC).“We need to really talk about student loan debt, think about these long-term ramifications of holding onto student loan debt and what it does to borrowers. We have challenges still.”
Implementation of the PSLF reforms is the next step, and AFT has multiple resources to help members through the process, including a partnership with public benefit corporation Summer, an online platform dealing with current student loans.
For more information, visit: www.aft.org/joinsummer and www.meetsummer.org/pslf.