Parent PLUS loans
Many over-50s who have student loan debt borrowed for their kids through Parent PLUS. In addition to having worked in public service, to qualify for PSLF, they have to first consolidate their loans (it’s free, and can be done on the federal student loan website) into an income-contingent repayment plan.
“You need to know about the program, and you need to know that you have to consolidate,” says Winston Berkman-Breen, deputy director of advocacy and policy at the Student Borrower Protection Center. “You have to be in the right repayment plan, have the right loan type and be in qualifying public service work.”
Before October, consolidating a loan would reset the clock on those 120 required repayments; for now, and until October, it won’t. (Even if the consolidated loan is rejected for PSLF, switching to income-contingent repayments can reduce the monthly balance for people with low incomes.)
If all that seems like superfluous paperwork, it pretty much is. That’s because holders of Parent PLUS loans “are one of the most neglected categories of borrowers,” says Whitney Barkley, senior policy counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending. “We don’t even think about them when we talk about things like income-driven loan forgiveness and other ways that other borrowers get help.”
Still not easy
So many changes in the rules have only raised more questions for people such as Merritt, who worked in human resources for local government in New York state but wasn’t sure whether or not he could apply for PSLF as a retiree and if the loans he took out for his son might qualify.
He can (until October), and they might — except he hasn’t yet made the 10 years of payments for the debt he still owes to be canceled. Even if loan holders who might qualify for PSLF haven’t made 120 payments, Berkman-Breen advises, they should consolidate by the October deadline to get credit for as many as they can.
Older Americans also have student loans of their own, taken out to get degrees later in life or for graduate study. If they have or had careers in public service, they, too, could qualify for PSLF — assuming they can navigate the bureaucratic minefield.
Patricia Bradley, now 64, still owes $35,000 of what she borrowed for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. After a lifetime of working for nonprofits, she’s applied for PSLF. But “every time I try, they tell me I’m not eligible.” She’s not clear about why; she thinks it might have to do with her loan being transferred from one servicer to another. “I haven’t been able to get answers,” says Bradley, who lives in Massachusetts and is director of childcare at a YMCA. “All I get is the runaround.”
A long-held plan to buy an RV and travel around the country — she’s already settled on naming it the “Patti Wagon” — is on hold. With rent going up and unable to shake her unrelenting student loan debt, she says, “I’m petrified to retire. It really stinks. I want to cry sometimes. I can get rid of the rent, I can get rid of the rest. The only thing that’s still there is that damned student loan.”
A few hours after sharing her frustration, Bradley gets home to find another letter from her loan servicer telling her that documents were missing from her latest application to qualify for PSLF.
“It’s 10 pages”. I’m going to see if I can figure it out.” She sighs. At this rate, she says, “they’re going to dig me up and take the gold off my body to pay off my student loans when I die.”