A Teacher’s Long Road to Student Loan Forgiveness (and a $4,500 Surprise)

The pool of potential applicants is enormous: About a quarter of all jobs qualify, and roughly two-thirds of college graduates now borrow to complete their degrees. Still, it took many years before large numbers of people heard about the program and tried to figure out how to sign up.

Over the last year or two, many of the early adopters realized that they were doing it wrong. Some (or all) of their payments had not counted toward that total of 120, and they complained — loudly — to the Education Department, their servicers and their elected representatives. Plenty of them say they took the advice of their loan servicers only to discover, years later, that the advice had been wrong.

When I first encountered Mr. Shafer in October 2017, the longtime teacher (he helped 124 dropouts get their general education diplomas last school year) had discovered that years of payments he had made were ineligible, because he was in what’s known as a “graduated” repayment program. All along, various servicers had told him that he was on track, he said.

By March, things had taken a turn for the better. Since I first wrote about him, the Education Department and his servicer reclassified many of his disputed payments as eligible. Moreover, his story and the tales of others like him had helped inspire Congress to set aside $350 million to help similarly situated borrowers. Since March, that figure has grown; now, depending on the circumstances of the various borrowers, there may be up to $1 billion available — albeit on a first-come, first-served basis.

Not every aggrieved public servant is eligible for the loan relief program’s relief program. If you’ve been in the wrong kind of loan all along — like a Perkins loan or a Federal Family and Education (F.F.E.L.) loan — this new Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (T.E.P.S.L.F.) won’t help you. But if you were in the wrong kind of repayment plan — a graduated one like Mr. Shafer’s or an extended plan — you may be eligible to seek relief.

There’s a catch, though: Your last payment before you put in for the new temporary program and the payment a year before that generally have to have been higher than what they would have been if you had been enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan.

Got all that?

(If you want to know more, please read the various federal websites and my previous columns before emailing me for help. Of course, the lines remain open for tales of triumph and truly hard-luck stories at lieber@nytimes.com. I’ve answered hundreds of questions about the program over the past couple of years and will try to keep doing so when I can. I enjoy helping. Please renew your subscription. Thank you.)

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