Just 96 of 30,000 people who applied for public service loan forgiveness actually got it

Kevin Maier is one of just 96 people to qualify for public service loan forgiveness

Earlier this month, CNBC tracked down one of the first people to qualify for student debt cancellation under the public service loan forgiveness program, which allows certain not-for-profit and government employees to have their federal student loans scrubbed after 10 years of on-time payments.

“I feel pretty lucky,” Kevin Maier, a tenured professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, had said.

He really should.

The Education Department just released data on how many loans it has forgiven under the program. The results are dim.

Just 96 people across the country have been released from their debt, thanks to public service loan forgiveness. Last year was the first year of eligiblity, since the program was signed into law in 2007 and it requires at least 10 years of payments to qualify. Nearly 30,000 borrowers have applied for the forgiveness, according to the Education Department’s data.

That means less than 1 percent of people who’ve applied for public service loan forgiveness actually got it.

One-quarter of American workers were supposed to be eligible, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimated a few years back. But last year the bureau reported that student loan servicers are delaying or denying borrowers access to the program.

Turns out most people in public service jobs believe that they’re paying their way to loan forgiveness only to discover at some point in the process that they don’t qualify for one technical reason or another.

Debbie Baker, a music teacher in Oklahoma’s public schools, paid her student loans off for 10 years, all the while believing she was on her way to debt forgiveness.

“Year after year I would tell them, ‘Now I’m going after public service loan forgiveness,’ and they’d say, ‘Okay. Well you can’t apply until 2017,'” Baker said, about her conversations with Navient, one of the country’s largest student loan servicers.

These are the public service loan forgiveness requirements. Often, if you don’t meet one of them, you can make changes so that you do.

  • Your loans must be federal direct loans.
  • Your employer must be a government organization at any level, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization or some other type of not-for-profit organization that provides public service.
  • By the end, you need to have made 120 qualifying, on-time payments in an income-driven repayment plan or the standard repayment plan.

In July, after she had made 10 years of payments, she tried to certify her forgiveness, but was told that she didn’t qualify because she had the wrong type of federal student loan.

“I almost threw up,” Baker said. “I’ve been teaching 18 years and I still don’t make $40,000 — and now I have to start all over.”

Even consumer advocates with low expectations of the program were surprised by the newly released data.

“I don’t believe there were only 96 people who owe money on their federal loans and were working in public service over the last 10 years,” said Persis Yu, director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“To have a student loan system where to receive the benefits of it you have to be perfect is not a reasonable expectation to set up for 43 million borrowers,” she said.