7 Tips for Submitting a Strong PSLF Waiver Application
Some borrowers could get a significant reduction or forgiveness of their eligible student loans through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program—but first, they have to apply before the deadline.
The promise of the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is simple: Work in public service for 10 years and make payments on your eligible student loans, and your remaining balance will be waived.
But in execution, PSLF has been complex, said Kat Welbeck (Houston ’09), director of advocacy and civil rights counsel at the Student Borrower Protection Center.
In fact, the majority of teachers and other public service workers who previously applied to PSLF missed out on potential debt forgiveness. Many of their applications were rejected over minor paperwork errors. Others were misled by their student loan servicer.
So few eligible borrowers actually qualified for the PSLF Program since it began in 2007 that it has been an “empty promise” for public sector employees, said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in August.
Borrowers have until Oct. 31 to apply for a time-limited waiver that was announced as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s overhaul of the PSLF Program. The waiver enables current and former public sector workers to receive retroactive credit for past periods of student loan repayment that would otherwise not qualify for forgiveness. The PSLF waiver is just one part of the student debt relief plan that the Education Department is implementing to address the student debt crisis. The plan also includes one-time relief of up to $20,000 in student loan cancellation for low- and middle-income borrowers.
Welbeck shared the most common pitfalls that borrowers encounter when applying for the waiver—and tips to avoid them.
1. Start the application process as soon as possible.
Procrastination is a common mistake that borrowers make. The application process can be time-consuming, Welbeck said, and it’s important to make ample time to complete each step. For example, all applicants will need to submit paperwork proving they worked for qualifying public service employers. Some applicants may need to take the additional step of consolidating their loans. “Please act now,” Welbeck said. “It's really important for the Education Department to know that you're engaging with this process.”
2. Apply for the PSLF waiver even if you need to consolidate student loans first.
To qualify for the PSLF waiver, borrowers must have a direct loan from the Education Department. People who borrowed Perkins loans or Federal Family Education Loans, also known as FFEL, must consolidate that debt into a direct loan to qualify for the PSLF waiver. However, those borrowers should not wait until their consolidation application is complete before they submit PSLF forms, according to the Student Borrower Protection Center.
Consolidating loans can take an average of four to six weeks, which means the process will likely not be complete before the PSLF waiver deadline. What’s most important, Welbeck said, is to demonstrate to the Education Department that you started the loan consolidation process before the deadline elapses.
It’s also important to note that borrowers with commercially-held Perkins loans and FFEL had to apply for consolidation before Sept. 29 to be eligible for President Joe Biden's student debt relief plan of up to $20,000, according to the Education Department. However, those borrowers may still take steps to consolidate loans to apply for the PSLF waiver.
3. If necessary, submit an application multiple times through different methods.
In addition to submitting a PSLF waiver online, borrowers can also fax or mail the forms to the Education Department. In fact, Welbeck said, for those who have newly consolidated their loan, it might take a while to receive the credentials to log and upload forms to MOHELA, the student loan servicer for the PSLF Program. Welbeck also recommended that borrowers fax and mail forms to ensure they have applied for a waiver before the Oct. 31 deadline. “It's okay to submit them more than once,” she said.
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4. Apply even if your employer is not listed as “eligible” in the PSLF Help Tool.
To qualify for PSLF, a borrower has to prove they have worked full time for a federal, state, local, tribal government, or nonprofit organization. But not all qualifying employers are listed as “eligible” on the Education Department’s online PSLF Help Tool. Don’t panic or give up if your employer isn’t listed, Welbeck said.
“If no one else at your employer has ever certified their employment with the Education Department, then they just may not be on the list,” Welbeck said. In some cases, qualifying employers could even be designated as ineligible in error. In those scenarios, she said, “print out that form, fill it in, and try to get that employer to sign it as soon as possible. Then submit that form via fax, mail, or upload it to the MOHELA website. But don't fret, because both of these scenarios happen.”
“Please act now. It's really important for the Education Department to know that you're engaging with this process.”
5. Don’t panic if you don’t get an immediate response from the Education Department.
The Education Department is processing a higher volume of paperwork than usual in the weeks leading up to the PSLF waiver deadline. “You might not automatically get a communication,” Welbeck said. It could take at least 90 days or more for the PSLF servicer to process applications.
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6. Apply even if you no longer work in public service.
A common misconception is that the PSLF waiver is only available to borrowers currently employed by a qualifying public sector employer. Under the old rules, a borrower had to be employed by a qualified employer when they reached the 120 payment mark to get cancellation, Welbeck said. But that’s not the case with the new waiver. People who have left public service work or retired should still apply, she said. After Oct. 31, the regular program rules will go back into effect.
7. Apply even if you have not yet made 120 payments on your loans.
Borrowers must make 120 payments, or about 10 years of payments, to receive student loan debt forgiveness under PSLF. Those who have not made 120 payments could still apply for the PSLF waiver and get credit for their years of public service work, Welbeck said. Any credits borrowers obtain through the waiver will count toward debt forgiveness, and borrowers can continue to accrue credit under the regular PSLF Program rules after the October deadline.
If a borrower has worked in public service at any point since the program began in 2007, they should “just go ahead and apply,” Welbeck said. “Get the credit while you can.”