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Thousands ofÂ U.S. student loan borrowers who work as teachers, police officers,Â nurses, or in other public service jobs may soon benefit from aÂ $350 million one-time expansion of a federal program that could forgive their remaining debt.
A compromise in the $3.1 trillion federal spending bill signed Friday by President Trump includes a one-timeÂ reprieve for borrowers who fearedÂ they’d missed the chance to get out from under often-crippling student loan debt that makes it hard to buy a home, start a family, or pay day-to-dayÂ bills.
“I’m very glad that, for the first time, we got some money to help public servants unfairly trapped under a mountain of debt,”Â said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who fought for the reprieve. But she stressed that fight for a “permanent fix” to the estimated $1.4 trillion in U.S. student loan debt goes on.
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Created in 2007, the program was designed to help student loan borrowers in public service jobs get their remaining debt forgiven if they made 120 repayments, roughly 10 year’s worth, under a qualifying repayment plan. Each repayment must be madeÂ in full and on time.
The borrowers must work full-time for a qualifyingÂ employer, such as a federal or local government agency, or an eligible non-profit organization.Â
The program is limited to student borrowers who took out direct loans from the federal government. Private loans and non-direct government loans don’t qualify. However, borrowers mayÂ qualifyÂ if they consolidate their existing debtÂ into direct loans. Their repayment clocks startÂ when they do.
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Borrowers must be enrolled in a qualifying repayment program. There are nine student loan repayment options. Some qualify; others don’t.
The first potential qualifiers began filing applications for loan forgiveness in October 2017. As of Feb. 28,Â slightly fewer than 13,000 unique applications had been received, the U.S. Department of Education said this week.
Approval and denial statistics aren’tÂ yetÂ available,Â due to “the long period of time it takes to verify 10 years of a borrowerâ€™s employment and payment histories,” theÂ agency said.
Millions of student loan borrowers took out non-qualifying loans to pay for their studies. Tens of thousands are believed to have mistakenly enrolled in the wrong repayment programs.
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Why? A Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report issued in June cited the complex loan process, as well as complaints from borrowers who said they were misled by loan servicers the federal government chose to handleÂ student loan repayments.
“I have been paying for 4 years and was misled by this company completely,” the report quoted one borrower as complaining. “Now I have consolidated my loans [into a] direct loan, and have ONE payment toward my 10 years.”
Starbucks, Verizon and Disney are just a few of the companies that give employees money for college.
The budget deal includes $350 million “to remain until expended” on a first-come, first-serve basis to help student loan borrowers who discovered they are ineligible for debt forgiveness.
The Department of Education must compare a borrower’s most recent monthly repayment with the payment for the same month in the prior year. Those who were paying less than they would have in a qualified repayment program aren’t eligible for loan forgiveness.
The compromise also earmarks $2.3 million for outreach efforts to borrowers who would have qualified for loan forgiveness but mistakenly chose or were misled into incorrect options.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Kevin McCoy on Twitter: @kmccoynyc