The Power and Peril of PSLF

Kelsey Zimmerman
Jan 24 · 6 min read
Photo by author: a view of the University of Michigan campus from a parking garage on Thompson St.

After I graduated from college, it took me nearly two years, 74 job applications, and about in the ballpark of 10 interviews — including two where I was one of two final applicants — before I landed my first PSLF-eligible position. I’d actually already been rejected from the position a week earlier. But late one weekday afternoon in the spring of 2015, that harbinger of a number, (734) 647–0000 (thanks for asking, but hell no I did not have to look this up), which masks most outgoing calls from the University of Michigan, lit up my cell again. I put on my best Please, I Need To Make More Than $11.50/hr While Data Entering Orders for Southwest Mississippi Community College-Branded Water Bottles Because My Student Loan Payments Are $700/mo Voice, and there it was — my new boss telling me they actually needed two people to fill an entry-level HR clerk role I’d interviewed for instead of just the one they’d already selected.

Now, there probably is something ironic about spending so much effort to get hired at your alma mater/place where you took out all your student loans, but it’s not a competitive place to work for no reason. It offers the prestige of working at a world-class university along with excellent benefits, a mostly unheard-of 2:1 401k savings match, the mythos of being recession-proof (and, as a person who decided to become an English major during the Great Recession, it’s hard to overstate how much that mythos meant, even if it was ultimately disproven by COVID-19 — I imagined myself to be a pragmatic person at heart, and still do, and job stability meant more to me proportionally), and that wily enigma: Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF).

Photo by author: Bucky the Badger guards the shore of Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin, at sunrise.

PSLF was signed into law by Bush in 2007. It promises that after 120 payments of federal direct student loans while employed at a qualified non-profit 501c(3) institution — local governments, schools, and charities/foundations are among the most common qualifying employers — a borrower will have the remaining balance on their loans forgiven. It works in concert with Income-Based Repayment (IBR): you must be enrolled in an IBR plan, which typically caps the amount you pay at 10% of your discretionary income. You must have a certain type of loan, be on a certain type of IBR, work for a certain type of employer. There are more rules and regulations that can easily derail PSLF progress than minor characters who end up with their own film in the MCU. 99% of borrowers who think they’ve completed the requirements are found to be ineligible.

And yet: in theory, it means freedom from the noose of student loans after 10 years instead of 20, 25 or more. Well: freedom from federal student loans. I say this frequently, and now I get to say it again! There is no loan forgiveness or cancellation program that is complete without massive federal buy-up of private student loans.

Photo by author: The author attends a photography workshop on the U-M Diag during the summer of 2019

Still, IBR (specifically: I am on the Pay As You Earn plan) is great and I’m wildly thankful for it. Between 2013–2015, I made under $30k, and my payments were $0. Even as my salary grew as high as $50,000 over the next five years, my monthly payments never crested $150. Hey! That’s manageable! Thanks, federal government! Combined, IBR + PSLF is an extremely powerful mechanism for getting a hell of a lot of your loans forgiven (given you aren’t victim to common clerical errors or any of the other roadblocks I’ve already outlined above).

But.

But but but but but but but but but.

I still ended up walking away.

Photo by author: Lonely figures walk down State Street during the early days of the pandemic in Madison, Wisconsin

After all, what does it mean when, as a society, we so collectively under-value those who serve the public that measures such as PSLF are enacted? Why, when talking about raising the federal minimum wage up to $15/hr, do some people cry out and say, “Hey, this would mean hall monitors and teachers would be making the same amount of money, that’s whack”?

The problem is that any teacher is making in the ballpark of $15/hr.

State legislatures have gutted education funding over the past fifty years. Republicans have governed under a state of perpetual austerity, slashing slashing slashing, ramming through so-called “right-to-work” union-weakening legislation in states like Michigan, robbing public workers from their right to unionize altogether in Wisconsin.

I loved working in academia. Now I love being a graduate student. I love all that institutes of higher learning stand for. Still I think of my shock, my apoplectic rage, when I received tone-deaf merit increase letters that assured me, we know you work here because you’re passionate about research and learning, and not for the money. Actually, you know, I have this thing called my rent, it’s due every month, you see? My car loan, my student loans, groceries, auto insurance, cat litter, my electric bill, ya know?

I think of no one in HR ever knowing quite what to make of my PSLF forms, jumping through hoops to get them on the right desks for the right signatures and then to my loan servicer.

Photo by author: An empty courtyard on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

I think of how, as I realized in recent years how much I wanted to go to graduate school, of how much I wanted to leave my hometown, PSLF began very much to feel like a vise, a barrier, leaving me stuck in a sector that underpays in relation to its industry peers, stuck with only a fraction of job openings I was qualified for in any given city, unable to pursue a graduate degree full-time without also putting myself at least 2–3 years behind on track to complete PSLF and all the while just hoping PSLF would continue to exist.

I think of how despite that I knew exactly how much PSLF would save me eventually, I couldn’t help but wonder if I wouldn’t ultimately be better off making more cash in the private sector, because half my student loans are private, ineligible for PSLF.

When I left my last PSLF job, I had about four and half years left until my federal loans were forgiven, which I may or may not try to finish after I complete grad school in 2022. I’m hopeful a Democratic administration will either forgive or massively overhaul the current student loans system. I’m hopeful that as a society we’ll eventually realize how important the public sector, and the people who work in it, are to our country and democracy. In the meantime, my loans are on educational deferment because I simply realized ten years is too long to put your life on hold — and the world already feels so much bigger, so full of impossible things and places that now don’t seem so impossible at all.