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Opinion Just like that, my student-loan debt disappeared

Protesters thank President Biden for extending the pause on student loan repayments and ask that he cancel student debt outside The White House on Jan. 13. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images)
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Samuel A. Autman is an associate professor of English at DePauw University.

I was enrolled in Columbia University’s creative-writing graduate program in 2007 when the George W. Bush administration rolled out the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The offer was tantalizing: If you worked in a public service job for 10 years, making 120 federal student loan repayments, your unpaid balance, no matter how big, would be erased.

By then I was in my early 40s and had opted out of a career in daily journalism. I hoped to become a memoirist but recognized that teaching would offer a practical option for making a living. Teaching qualified as a public service job under the loan forgiveness program, and I already had classroom experience, thanks to a former newspaper colleague at a Midwestern liberal arts college, where I had taught for three years as a visiting instructor in journalism.

I borrowed $126,000 in federal student loans so I could continue to pursue my dream of writing long-form nonfiction and personal essays. If I produced a successful manuscript, maybe I’d have the pleasure of paying off the loan in one swoop, but if I worked as a teacher and stayed on the repayment schedule for 10 years, whatever remained of the debt would be forgiven.

After graduate school in 2008, I returned to DePauw University in Indiana, the Midwestern college where I had worked before, to become an assistant professor of English. I drove an old car and lived in a tiny apartment and started making payments in 2009. Six years into the 10-year repayment agreement, I contacted my loan provider to make sure I was on track.

In a stunning exchange that I suspect was encountered by tens of thousands of others with public service student loans, I was told that none of the money I had sent over the previous half-dozen years fell into the category of “qualifying payments.” Those checks were simply not counted toward the 120 payments and had barely touched the principal debt; I was just getting started.

Call me naive — and if I was naive at 40, consider the millions of students taking out loans when they’re barely out of high school — but a technicality was buried in the loan language: Participation in the loan-forgiveness program was not automatic. Borrowers have to indicate they wanted to be in the program, otherwise the lending agencies presumed they would pay the full amount. Had I known this, I would have signed up immediately. Now the soonest I would see the debt forgiven would be 2025. I’d be nearly 60.

Like countless teachers, members of the military, law enforcement officers, social workers and others employed at 501(c)(3) organizations, I had ordered my life around the loan repayments and assumptions about when I would be free of them. By 2018, the loan forgiveness program was drawing wide criticism for having misled and misinformed borrowers. It turned out that 98 percent of applicants for relief had been denied.

Editorial Board

counterpointBiden should resist canceling student debt. Here’s a better policy.

Rather than fixing the program, the Trump administration tried to kill it outright. Only lawsuits stopped the move.

Joe Biden campaigned on sweeping student-loan forgiveness. That hasn’t happened yet, but among other administration steps to help student borrowers, the Education Department in October announced changes to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program to try to make it “live up to its promise.”

More than 20,000 borrowers would have their loans forgiven outright, the department promised, and more than half a million would be moved closer to forgiveness: Payments previously deemed ineligible would be designated as qualifying.

I logged on to my student-loan portal to see if anything had changed. I still owed $105,662. But my number of eligible payments shot from 59 to 113 of the 120 necessary for release.

This was exciting, but I couldn’t get clear answers about what was going on. My lender, FedLoan, had always treated me as though I were a felon on the run, haranguing me to update my salary and contact information every time I called. When I asked about my loan forgiveness status, the representative said I needed to call the Education Department, but the department pointed me back to FedLoan.

So I just kept periodically checking the portal. Then it happened. I logged on and saw my balance: zero. I called FedLoan to verify it. It said — did I detect a note of regret? — that my loan had indeed been forgiven and I’d soon have a confirmation letter.

I still can hardly believe it. I thought I might die with these debts.

There has been plenty of talk lately about President Biden’s terrible first year in office. But it took his hand, the hand of a lifelong public servant, to force this change through, releasing thousands of Americans working in public service from the burden of student debt.

Depending on who’s in the White House in 2024, the entire idea of student-loan forgiveness could be either wiped out or expanded. For now, hundreds of thousands of public service student loan recipients have until Oct. 31 to apply for relief. I hope they get it.