Senator Whitehouse led the charge to correct this “exceptionally poorly managed” student loan relief program. It’ll help a lot of Rhode Islanders


“I felt like I was at the worst gig ever,” joked Ray, the co-executive director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island, when we spoke this week.

You can laugh, you can cry, or you can just have US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse represent you in Congress.

Whitehouse staff have been on mission for several years now to help more teachers, police, or in Ray’s case, nonprofit workers looking to improve Rhode Islanders’ access to locally grown food, qualify for the public service loan forgiveness program, which will forgive student loans after 120 on-time payments are made.

The US Department of Education announced earlier this month that it would revise the program, potentially helping 550,000 public service workers move closer to canceling their loans. The ministry even created a waiver that allows recipients of non-direct loans to benefit from relief until October 31, 2022.

It’s a massive victory for borrowers interested in some form of public service, but achieving it was a nightmare.

The program gained bipartisan congressional approval in 2007, and it was designed to help those who work in government or in the nonprofit sector for at least 10 years to repay their student loans. The aim was to do good by benefactors, but this mostly led to headaches.

Some found the whole process confusing. Others believed for years that they would qualify only to find out they did not qualify in the first place. Even exceptionally diligent people like Ray, who remembers learning about the program as a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University and tracking every penny he spent on loans over a decade, found themselves with more questions with more questions than answers.

Whitehouse first attempted to resolve the issues in 2018 when he championed the creation of the expanded temporary PSLF, which allowed more borrowers to benefit from loan forgiveness. But even that was a disaster. A report by the Government Accountability Office found that 99 percent of requests for loan relief under the program were refused.

But Whitehouse kept pushing, in part because his staff were getting calls from voters – including Ray – who were running into obstacles. Whitehouse recalls an 80-year-old woman who realized she was no longer eligible for the program because she had retired – even though she had made her payments.

“It was really obvious that this was an unusually mismanaged program,” Whitehouse told me in an interview on Monday.

Whitehouse also signed two letters asking the Trump administration to support the changes to the program, but there has been no response. Fortunately, curriculum reform has become an exciting project for Nick Vincelette, a longtime member of Whitehouse’s Providence office.

Vincelette was instructed to call Ray, and he quickly began to sit on those hour-long wait sessions, trying to help. The two would call FedLoan together, and they would be transferred from operator to operator. Think it’s hard to try to cancel a newspaper subscription? It was the upper level.

But Vincelette held on and Ray began to see the light at the end of the tunnel. At some point over the summer he said he started to believe he was actually going to have his loans canceled. There wasn’t a single problem with the system or a technicality to overcome. But having a member of the Senate by his side made all the difference.

Ray couldn’t stop waiting. And just as he and his wife were getting ready to leave for a Labor Day weekend, an email popped into his inbox. Since nothing can be easy, he accidentally got locked out of his loan account while trying to open the secure message.

And then he read the words he thought he would never see.

Ray’s loan balance of $ 33,046.42 had been written off. He still doesn’t believe it, so he keeps all his papers in his room. In case. Even if he prefers not to.

“I just want to burn it all down,” he said.

The loan forgiveness program may seem like America’s best-kept secret, but it’s not meant to be. Members of Congress are expected to do victory rounds on the success of the program. A bad location has hijacked everything.

Now, Whitehouse said, the revised process announced by the Education Department should streamline things so borrowers don’t have to listen to that intimidating hold music for as long as Ray did.

It is not known how many Rhode Islanders are eligible for the public service loan forgiveness program, but Whitehouse said he believed the number to number in the thousands.

There is a larger debate over student loans that needs to take place in this country. The average debt of Rhode Island college and university graduates was $ 37,614 for the 2018-19 school year, according to the Institute for College Access & Success. It is the fourth largest in the country. And the numbers will only increase.

But sometimes it’s nice to hear a real success story, especially when it can help others. And Ray was happy to share his story.

“I wouldn’t have my loans canceled right now if it weren’t for Nick in the senator’s office,” Ray said.

It’s music to all ears.

You can reach Dan McGowan at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.


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