Teacher left with $80,000 in debt after getting rejected from loan forgiveness program

Loan forgiveness program rejects 99% applicants

Last Updated May 2, 2019 10:04 PM EDT

In 2007, the federal government launched a debt forgiveness program for public servants. But it's been widely criticized as confusing, and even called a misleading failure.

"I love to teach. I went back to school mostly for what my students could get out of it. Touch their lives," said Debbie Baker.

Baker is a 56-year-old mother of two and a career choir teacher. She directs the education program at a musical non-profit called Sweet Adelines International in Tulsa. She graduated from the University of Tulsa in 1999 and has faced a 20 year struggle to pay off her student loans.

With deferments and interest, Baker now owes $80,000, more than double her original loan amount.

"I got in there and one day it said, 'Your loans will be forgiven if you die.' Yeah, that's nice," Baker said.

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Debbie Baker CBS News

In 2007, Congress passed the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Public servants making 10 years of qualifying payments would have their loan balance wiped clean. Baker said she was convinced she was qualified. "We planned our whole lives around it," she said.

Baker never missed a payment for 10 years. She said Navient, her loan servicer, repeatedly told her she was on track. In 2017, she applied for forgiveness and was rejected.

"My payment plan was correct. My employment was correct. They just had issued it with the wrong pot of money and nobody told me," Baker said.

She had made zero payments to qualify.

"I felt very guilty because of what I'd done to my family. They don't deserve that," she said. "It's wrong on so many levels."

At last count, the Department of Education had rejected more than 75,000 applications for forgiveness. Only 864 people successfully applied, a rejection rate of 99 percent.

"Through rampant mismanagement at the Department of Education and rampant illegal practices at the student loan companies, it's become a broken promise for millions of Americans," said Seth Frotman, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center.

Baker, frustrated, began recording calls with Navient, her loan servicer. "I now have to start all over so you can understand my frustration and disappointment and anger that's going through my mind right now," she said.

A Navient representative told her that's "very common."

"They lie. They talk in circles. They tell you one thing and then you find out it's another," Baker said.

In a statement to CBS News, Navient blamed "a complex federal loan program, which is why we consistently advocate for policy reforms to simplify the system."

Baker restructured her loan and started over. She has eight and a half more years of payments to forgiveness. "It's set up so that you're never paid off," she said.

America's second largest teachers union has joined a suit alleging Navient misled borrowers. Both Navient and the Department of Education blame Congress for creating a complex, restrictive program.

How can families tackle student loan debt?
  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.