I’m one of the nearly 45 million people in this country who owe a tiny piece of the $1.5 trillion student debt burden that’s drowning our country -- young people, retirees, teachers, nurses and public service workers alike. I’ve been making payments on my loans for 15 years. It’s a strain for me on my teaching salary, but I took on the debt with eyes wide open.
My parents were unable to help pay for college, so I took out loans in an era when we were told student loans were “good debt,” an investment in our future. I agreed -- even though in-state tuition at my Minnesota state school jumped 13-16% every year I attended.
I thought I’d be done paying off these loans two years ago because I teach in a public school and am eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a program that allows people who work in certain careers to make 10 years of qualifying repayments and then have their loans forgiven in exchange for their public service. In fact, the government promised me and tens of thousands of others who work in public service just that, when they passed Public Service Loan Forgiveness in 2007 under a Republican administration. But since then, only 1 percent of people eligible for the program have actually discharged their loans.
Now I won’t finish paying until my oldest child is ready to start college, and it’s the direct result of the Department of Education and the for-profit loan servicers it contracts with giving me bad information, keeping me in debt longer and making their profits higher.
So I’m going straight to the top: Along with seven other plaintiffs, I’ve joined the American Federation of Teachers’ lawsuit against Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education for their reckless and deliberate mismanagement of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
When I first learned about Public Service Loan Forgiveness in 2008, I called up my servicer to enroll. They told me I was a perfect fit for the program and, every time I checked in, assured me I was on track. But eight years later, my loans were transferred to another servicer, who, after many months of silence, told me none of the payments I’d been making for eight solid years were “qualifying” PSLF payments. If I wanted to enroll, I’d have to start from scratch. I felt incredibly frustrated, but also betrayed and worried for the future: If this government-run system could fail, could the same thing happen when it comes time for me to take Social Security?
I’m a plaintiff in the suit against Betsy DeVos because I did my part, and her agency didn’t. I’m suing because it turns out I’m not an outlier -- I’m the norm. I teach math, so I know that if less than 1 percent of the applicants have been accepted, something is very wrong with the program.
In fact, there are tens of thousands of stories like mine, and it’s time DeVos and her department fix this program and actually look out for the regular people it promised to help, not the for-profit loan servicers making money off us.
Wall Street got bailed out when the market crashed in 2008 -- what about the teachers and nurses who’ve been following the rules now? When everyone is talking about a student loan debt crisis, DeVos is worrying about corporate profits. I’m proud of my union standing up for tens of thousands of people like me.
I don’t owe nearly as much as others whose lives have been destroyed by their debt, but the effects haunt my family too: I was counting on being debt-free 10 years after I started, so I could break the cycle of student loan debt in our family. I planned to increase savings for my children and their education, but that’s hard to do while still paying for my own. In fact, at times, my husband -- who served in the military -- and I had student loan payments that exceeded our mortgage. We’ve fought hard to make sure we don’t pass this burden onto our three kids. After careers devoted to serving our community and our country, we’d have hoped our government might have fought a little harder for us.
Menzel is a math teacher at Brainerd High School