Courtesy of: Karen Tongson
Karen Tongson never imagined a time when she wouldn’t pay off her student loans.
As a professor at the University of Southern California, the Los Angeles resident qualified for the civil service loan cancellation program, but had heard too many stories of borrowers failing to get the promise of canceling the government’s debt to believe it would one day.
“No one had faith,” said Tongson, 48. “When I told friends and other coworkers that I signed up for this thing, they were like, ‘That will never happen.'”
It seemed they were right: after 16 years of student loan repayments, which totaled over $ 90,000, she had never heard of forgiveness.
The cancellation of public service loans, enacted by then President George W. Bush in 2007, allows nonprofit and government employees to cancel their federal student loans after 10 years, or 120 payments. However, the program has been plagued with problems, which makes people who actually get relief a rarity.
According to higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz, around 8,300 people had their loans canceled under the program in June 2021. More than 400,000 applied.
Borrowers in public service jobs often think they are paying for loan cancellation only to find out at some point in the process that they do not qualify, usually for technical and confusing reasons. Lenders have been blamed for misleading borrowers and botching their deadlines.
“I noticed a lot of the payments I made weren’t counted,” Tongson said. “And I never understood why.”
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To educate herself, Tongson felt she had no choice but to borrow. “I don’t come from a very resourceful family,” she said.
She moved with her mother, Maria Katindig Dykes, and stepfather, Jimmie Dykes, to the United States from the Philippines at the age of 10.
Her parents were musicians, but when they moved to Riverside, California, they found other jobs to pay the bills. Her mother worked at K-Mart and Sears.
While her parents couldn’t save for her college years, they made it clear that they wanted her to attend and achieve things they couldn’t. “They emphasized education as a means of social and class mobility,” she said.
After a few years in community college, Tongson was accepted to the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studied English and eventually graduated Summa Cum Laude. She then obtained her doctorate at Berkeley.
Throughout these years Tongson has held several jobs including at a local video store. She also received scholarships, but they totaled a maximum of $ 12,000 per year.
“Imagine trying to pay rent in the Bay Area with so much money,” she said. “I was living so much from day to day.
“There was a time in senior school where I lived off the same frozen bag of Costco chicken,” Tongson added. “I ate it every day, for what felt like a month.”
To get by, she said, she had to borrow about $ 70,000 in student loans. “It allowed me to keep up with my peers educationally,” she said.
This education has taken her far.
Today, she is a professor at the University of Southern California, where she teaches courses in British and American literature, race and the culinary cultures of Los Angeles. She is the chair of the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at USC and has published several books.
Even so, she was still living paycheck to paycheck, she said, due to her student loan payments, which ranged from hundreds of dollars a month to thousands of dollars. Although his wife, Sarah Kessler, with whom she shares a home in Los Angeles, never took out student loans and had savings, she herself didn’t even have emergency funds.
“It was really confusing to struggle so much,” Tongson said. But that was about to change.
Last month Tongson discovered that his student loan balance had fallen to $ 0.
Plus, the US Department of Education reimbursed her for years of overpayment, meaning she suddenly had about $ 20,000 in her bank account. “It was pure relief,” she said.
Tongson’s surprise is the result of the reforms the Biden administration has made to the civil service loan cancellation program. He reassessed borrowers’ demands and recounted their payments, and estimates that more than 500,000 people could be closer to forgiveness this way. Many others should also be reimbursed.
Tongson and his wife didn’t throw a party or even go out for a fancy dinner to celebrate. Instead, she transferred the $ 20,000 to her savings account. “This is the first time that I have really saved money,” she said.
She hopes that future borrowers of the program can come to expect the promised forgiveness.
“I hope that doesn’t make you want to win the lottery,” she said.
To her, this is exactly how she felt.