Student loan debt trap entangles higher ed graduates
Kiyauna Williams shuffles through paperwork at her desk, tucked away in an office down a hall at Parkrose Middle School.
On the other side of the wall, the sounds of children in PE class cuts through the silence.
Williams is a SUN site coordinator for the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization. She oversees athletic activities at Parkrose.
It's one of the four jobs she maintains to support herself and her two children, ages 9 and 16. She also picks up work doing data entry for Multnomah County, and on weekends, she works customer service for a car rental agency in addition to a gig at Nike. When those don't bring in enough, she picks up shifts doing Postmates deliveries.
Williams, 34, is a single mom who's spent nearly her whole professional life in nonprofit and social service-oriented work. Born and raised in Portland, she graduated from Warner Pacific University in 2011 with a bachelor's degree in social work and half a master's degree. She is now left with nearly $99,000 in student loan debt.
Williams is one of thousands who, because of her career in public service, should qualify for the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, but has been rejected and is caught up in a system of seemingly arbitrary rules and regulations that change depending on who picks up the phone at the U.S. Department of Education's loan servicing center.
A 2018 Department of Ed report on the status of the loan program revealed that "of the approximately 29,000 applications that have been processed, more than 70% of them have been denied."
Today, despite efforts to fix the program, that denial rate is even higher.
Fifty-five more years of payments
"I was a teen mom," Williams said. "When I graduated high school, I really didn't know what I wanted to do, but I got connected with Portland Community College."
While there, she earned all the credits she could at PCC before transferring to Warner Pacific University to earn a bachelor of arts degree.
She's been on an income-based repayment plan, also known as an IBR. Income-driven repayment plans are required for most loan forgiveness programs, as well as the requirement that borrowers make 10 years of consecutive, on-time payments on their loans.
At her current rate, it will take another 55 years for her to finish paying off her student loans.
Despite being under the impression she had been enrolled in the loan forgiveness program years ago, she was informed she needed to apply for it. Over the past year, Williams said she's been rejected from the loan program for things like not including a cover sheet in correspondence, or not following strict formatting.
"I started the process with the fed loan and turned in the paperwork, then they sent me a letter back and said they denied me because I wrote in my Social Security number and my date of birth is off by 1,000 years," Williams said.
On another occasion, she said her application was denied because one of the organizations she previously worked for is no longer in service.
"They told me that because I didn't get a signature from that place, they wouldn't accept it," Williams recalled.
Her situation isn't unique.
Kristy Fouts, an elementary school teacher in Beaverton, didn't get answers until she got lawmakers and the Department of Education's own ombudsman involved.
When trying to submit paperwork for the loan program, she ended spending more than a year trying to resolve faulty government record keeping and misinformation.
"Nobody should have to go through what I went through," Fouts said, sharing her experience during a roundtable discussion hosted by U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Beaverton.
At one point, Fouts was informed that loan payments she made years ago were never recorded with her current loan servicer — a hiccup that occurred when her student loan debt was sold to a different company.
"I've been in a massive fight over every single detail. ... I started noticing a pattern of getting different information every time I talked to a different person," Fouts said.
Other teachers have struggled to navigate the loan program, as well.
Emily Ruggles, a teacher at Westview High School in Beaverton, said based on the type of student loans she had, and where she taught, she was eligible to have a portion of her debt forgiven. Several phone calls and road blocks later, she gave up.
"They told me they needed a school seal and my school didn't have one," Ruggles said. "We needed to submit paperwork and it needed to be stamped (with the seal)."
Ruggles said, with her low-interest loan and reasonable monthly payments, she's lucky. But for many teachers who graduate with more than $100,000 in student loan debt, the loan program is their only chance at true financial stability. She pointed to some of her colleagues, who, like Williams, pick up extra work on the weekends or during summer months to make ends meet.
"The system is so difficult to navigate," Ruggles said. "Union workshops are full on this topic because people don't understand the system."
Many borrowers said they were told to consolidate their loans in order to qualify, only to learn they lost credit for payments made prior to consolidation.
Supposed 'fix' by Congress
When it came time for the loan program to start taking effect a decade after it was initiated in 2007, auditors found significant problems and high rejection rates. In response, federal lawmakers established the Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
Still, a Government Accountability Office found that almost 99% of the applications for loan forgiveness were still being rejected after this new program.
Bonamici — whose congressional district includes parts of Portland, Washington County, Clatsop, Yamhill, Tillamook and Columbia Counties — sits on the federal Committee on Education and Labor. A few months ago, her office began circulating a survey, seeking input from college grads with concerns about the loan program.
To date, her office has gotten more than 600 responses. Bonamici took the feedback of public servants like Fouts and Williams back to Washington, D.C.
"We need people who dedicate their careers to public service — including teachers, health care workers, and nonprofit leaders — for our communities to thrive," Bonamici said. "People across Oregon and our country took jobs in public service and planned their lives around the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, only to discover it was an empty promise."
Williams said she isn't sure if she'll see her loan debt forgiven in two years, when she reaches the 10-year repayment mark, or ever.
With her punishing, seven-day work schedule and heavy debt burden, she's trying to set her children up for success, but admits her own experience gives her pause.
"My kids are the reason why I have debt," she said. "I wanted to give them a better life and also I wanted them to know that education is the way to go. My son is a junior now. We're looking at colleges. I'm asking him questions now, like 'Do you really want to go to college?'"
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