As the costs for pursuing a degree in higher education have skyrocketed, more and more educators and public employees enter their professions buried in student loan debt. The burden of debt is enough to prevent countless young people from entering careers in public education and service, and drives far too many out of the profession.

For Tamara Waters-Wheeler, a school psychologist for Mandan Public Schools and Morton County’s two special education units, her student loan debt was not as bad as it is for most, but it was substantial.

“When I got my master’s for my education specialist, that was when I really got dinged,” she said. “It was almost $49,000. … Tuition alone was about $10,000 per year. I worked, but I also had my first daughter during that time, so then I had to pay a little bit for daycare and things like that, too. So, I took out, not the max amount, but a lot.”

The PSLF program dates back to an act of Congress in 2007 and was intended to allow public service workers to have their student loans forgiven after they’d made 10 years of payments, or 120 qualifying monthly payments. Too many hurdles were drawn into the plan from the start, and 98% of applicants were denied in the program’s history.

Evan James, a seventh-grade life science teacher at Carl Ben Eielson Middle School in Fargo, had already applied for and received $17,500 in loan forgiveness from the Federal Teacher Cancellation Low Income (TCLI) program. Entering his ninth year of teaching, he was especially tuned into the PSLF program and was preparing to apply, knowing how ineffective the program has been.

“What I didn’t realize at the time,” James said, “was the way the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program was designed, almost to the point where if you taught for ten years or you work for ten years in the public service industry … there’s a lot of intricacies tied up into that, that basically if you make your ten years or 120 payments, you kind of almost have paid off your loans anyway. So, there’s actually very little forgiveness that the federal government gives you.”

In October of 2021, the U.S. Department of Education announced major changes to PSLF, including a limited-time waiver to apply forgiveness eligibility to Federal Family Education Loan program or Perkins Loans.

That means applicants need to consolidate their loans into the Direct Loan program and submit a PSLF form by Oct. 31, 2022.

“You can easily do that if you call the Bank of North Dakota … or whoever you have your loan with, and you switch it over and then you can apply,” Waters-Wheeler said. “It was about three to four months, the whole process, but when I saw that money was gone, I couldn’t believe it. To be honest, I didn’t think it would ever happen just because I’d been denied already. So, I literally was so shocked at first, I didn’t believe it. … I called my husband, and I called my parents. I called my brother, too. I only had $16 grand left, but that’s a lot of money.”

James said he had been following the PSLF program closely, especially after the announcement last year of the waiver and increased eligibility, and that he had hired a financial consultant to help him through the process of re-applying for loan forgiveness. He’s still waiting on the official confirmation but expects to receive just over $50,000 in loan forgiveness after he completes his tenth year of payments.

Members of North Dakota United also have access to tools and resources that will help make the process of applying for forgiveness easier, through our affiliation with the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers.

AFT offers free access to a tool called Summer, which is an online platform that will assist you in applying for and completing the PSLF process. More information on Summer is available online at www.aft.org/benefits/summer. Additionally, NEA is offering a full year of access to their Student Debt Navigator tool, powered by Savi, at no cost to members. Check out their website at www.nea.org/studentdebt-support for more information, and click on the Navigate Your Student Debt tab to learn how to sign up for personalized advice from experts on student debt and access to Savi’s e-filing function.

When James heard about the AFT Summer program from a message sent out by NDU, he looked into the service and felt encouraged that the platform agreed with his adviser’s consult. “I had already hired a consultant, and the service through NDU is free,” James said. “For people who have not been following the whole process and aren’t super familiar with loan forgiveness, that service that NDU offers its members would be a huge benefit, I feel, if you’re carrying a pretty significant amount of student loan debt that you want to have forgiven, it’s a nice way to kind of ensure that.”