10.19.21

Senator Whitehouse led the charge to fix this ‘unusually badly managed’ student loan relief program. It’s going to help a lot of Rhode Islanders

Somehow, the awful hold music —the too-cheap-to-buy-the-rights-to-an-actual-Hootie-and-the-Blowfish-song-so-we-went-with-the-generic-melody —was the only thing Jesse Ray could reliably count on during his years-long saga to have his student loans partially forgiven.

The 42-year-old estimates that he spent more than 100 hours on the phone between 2018 and this summer, trying to navigate the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, and he often found himself talking with operators who sounded even more confused than he was.

And soon he’d be back to listening to those thoroughly unsoothing sounds of ‘90s rock while he waited to talk to next person from the servicing center FedLoan, who probably wasn’t going to be able to help him, either.

“It felt like being at the worst concert of all time,” Ray, the co-executive director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island, joked when we spoke this week.

You can laugh, you can cry, or you can just so happen to have US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse representing you in Congress.

Whitehouse’s staff has been on a mission for several years now to help more teachers, police officers, or in Ray’s case, nonprofit workers seeking to improve Rhode Islanders’ access to locally grown foods, qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which will forgive student loans after 120 on-time payments are made.

The US Department of Education announced earlier this month that it would overhaul the program, potentially helping 550,000 public service workers move closer to having their loans forgiven. The department even created a waiver that allows non-direct loan recipients to qualify for relief until Oct. 31, 2022.

It’s a massive win for borrowers interested in some form of public service, but getting there was a nightmare.

The program won bipartisan approval in Congress in 2007, and it was designed to help those who work in government or the nonprofit sector for at least 10 years pay off their student loans. The goal was to do right by the do-gooders, but it mostly lead to headaches.

Some found the entire process to be confusing. Others spent years believing they would qualify only to find out that they weren’t eligible in the first place. Even uncommonly diligent people like Ray, who remembers learning about the program as a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University and tracking every penny he spent on loans over a decade, wound up with more questions with more questions than answers.

Whitehouse first tried to address the problems in 2018 when he championed the creation of the Temporary Expanded PSLF, which allowed more borrowers to qualify for loan forgiveness. But even that was a disaster. One report from the Government Accountability Office found that 99 percent of requests for loan relief through the program were denied.

But Whitehouse kept pushing, in part because his staff was getting calls from constituents – including Ray – who were running into obstacles Whitehouse recalls an 80-year-old woman who realized she was no longer eligible for the program because she had retired – even though she had made her payments.

“It was really apparent that this was an unusually badly managed program,” Whitehouse told me in an interview on Monday.

Whitehouse also signed on to two letters asking the Trump administration to support changes to the program, but there was no response. Luckily, reforming the program became something of a passion project for Nick Vincelette, a longtime staffer Whitehouse’s Providence office.

Vincelette was assigned to call Ray, and he soon began sitting on those hour-long hold sessions, trying to help. The two would call FedLoan together, and they’d get transferred from operator to operator. You think trying to cancel a newspaper subscription is difficult? This was next-level.

But Vincelette kept at it, and Ray started to see light at the end of the tunnel. At one point over the summer, he said that he started to believe that he was actually going to have his loans forgiven. There wasn’t a single glitch in the system or a technicality for him to get past. But having a Senate staffer on his side made all the difference.

Ray kept waiting. And just as he and his wife were preparing to leave for a Labor Day weekend trip, an e-mail popped into his inbox. Since nothing can be easy, he accidentally locked himself out of his loan account trying to open the secured message.

And then he read the words he thought he might never see.

Ray’s loan balance of $33,046.42 had been forgiven. He still doesn’t quite believe it, so he keeps all of his paperwork in his room. Just in case. Even though he’d rather not.

“I just want to burn all of it,” he said.

The loan forgiveness program might sound like the best-kept secret in America, but it’s not supposed to be this way. Members of Congress should be taking victory laps over how successful the program is. Poor implantation sidetracked everything.

Now, Whitehouse said, the revised process announced by the Department of Education should streamline things so that borrowers don’t have to listen to that daunting hold music for as long as Ray did. It’s unclear how many Rhode Islanders are eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, but Whitehouse said he believes the number is in the thousands. There’s a broader conversation about student loans that needs to happen in this country. The average debt for graduates of Rhode Island colleges and universities was $37,614 for the 2018-2019 school year, according to Institute for College Access & Success. That’s fourth-highest in the country. And the numbers are only going to grow. But sometimes it’s nice to hear a real-life success story – especially when it might help others. And Ray was happy to share his tale. “I wouldn’t have my loans forgiven right now if it wasn’t for Nick in the senator’s office,” Ray said. That’s music to everyone’s ears.


By:  Dan McGowan
Source: Boston Globe