Courtesy: Karen Tongson
Karen Tongson couldn’t have imagined a moment when she wouldn’t pay back her student loans.
As a professor at the University of Southern California, the Los Angeles resident qualified for the government loan forgiveness program, but had heard too many stories of borrowers failing to keep the government’s debt relief promise to believe that she would ever do it.
“Nobody had any belief,” said 48-year-old Tongson. “When I told friends and fellow coworkers that I signed up for this cause, they said, ‘This will never happen.'”
It seemed like they were right: after 16 years of paying more than $ 90,000 in student loan payments, she had heard nothing of forgiveness.
The Public Service Loan Waiver, signed by then President George W. Bush in 2007, allows nonprofit and state employees to have their federal student loans canceled after 10 years or 120 payments. Problems have plagued the program, however, so people who actually get relief are a rarity.
According to university expert Mark Kantrowitz, as of June 2021, almost 8,300 people had their loans waived under the program. More than 400,000 have applied.
Often times, government borrowers believe they will pay their way to loan termination only to find at some point in the process that they do not qualify, usually for technical and confusing reasons. Lenders have been held responsible for misleading borrowers and botching their schedules.
“I noticed that a lot of my payments weren’t counted,” said Tongson. “And I never understood why.”
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To get an apprenticeship, Tongson had no choice but to borrow. “I don’t come from a very well-endowed family,” she said.
At the age of 10, she moved to the United States from the Philippines with her mother Maria Katindig Dykes and stepfather Jimmie Dykes.
Her parents were musicians, but when they settled in Riverside, California, they got other jobs to help pay the bills. Her mother worked at K-Mart and Sears.
Although her parents were unable to save up for their college years, they made it clear that they wanted her to visit and achieve things they couldn’t. “They emphasized education as a route to social and class mobility,” she said.
After several years at a community college, Tongson was accepted at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studied English and graduated with Summa Cum Laude. She then did her PhD in Berkeley.
During these years, Tongson worked in several jobs, including a local video store. She also received scholarships, but they did not exceed $ 12,000 per year.
“Imagine trying so much money to pay the rent in the Bay Area,” she said. “I lived from hand to mouth.
“There was a time in school where I just lived on the same frozen bag of Costco chicken,” added Tongson. “I ate it every day, it felt like a month.”
To make ends meet, she said, she had to borrow around $ 70,000 in student loans. “It made it possible for me to keep up with my peers in terms of education,” she said.
This school education has brought her a long way.
She is now a professor at the University of Southern California teaching courses on British and American literature, race and food cultures in Los Angeles. She is the Chair of Gender and Sexuality Studies at USC and has published several books.
Even so, she still lived from paycheck to paycheck, she said, because of her student loan payments that ranged from hundreds of dollars a month to thousands. Her wife Sarah Kessler, with whom she shares a house in Los Angeles, may never have taken out a student loan and has savings, but she didn’t even have an emergency fund herself.
“It felt really unsettling fighting so much,” said Tongson. But that should change.
Last month, Tongson found that her student loan balance had dropped to $ 0.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Education reimbursed her years of overpayment, suddenly leaving her with around $ 20,000 in her bank account. “It was pure, pure relief,” she said.
Tongson’s surprise came as a result of reforms the Biden administration made to the public service loan-forgetting program. It has reevaluated borrowers’ applications and recounted their payments, and estimates that more than 500,000 people could be closer to forgiveness as a result. Many others are likely to require refunds as well.
Tongson and her wife didn’t throw a party or even go out to a fancy dinner to celebrate. Instead, she deposited the $ 20,000 in her savings account. “This is the first time I’ve really had savings,” she said.
She hopes future program borrowers can expect the promised forgiveness.
“I hope it doesn’t feel like winning the lottery,” she said.
It felt just like that to her.