When Leigh McIlvaine first learned that her student loan debt could be forgiven, she was thrilled. In 2008, at age 27, she’d earned a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota. She’d accrued just under $70,000 in debt, though she wasn’t too worried—that’s what it took to invest in her future. But graduating at the height of the recession, she found that the kind of decent-paying public-sector job she’d anticipated pursuing was suddenly closed off by budget and hiring freezes. She landed a gig at a nonprofit in Washington, DC, earning a $46,000 salary. Still, she was happy to live on that amount if it was the cost of doing the work she believed in.
At the time, she paid about $350 each month to stay in a decrepit house with several roommates, more than $100 for utilities, and $60 for her cellphone bill. On top of that, her loan bill averaged about $850 per month. “Rent was hard enough to come up with,” she recalled. Then one day while researching her options, she read about something called the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) plan. At the time, Congress had just come up with a couple of options for borrowers with federal loans. They could get on an income-based repayment plan and have their student loans expunged after 25 years. Or, for borrowers working public service jobs—as social workers, nurses, nonprofit employees—there was another possibility: They could have their debt forgiven after making 10 years’ worth of on-time payments.