Students are seen on the Saint Louis University campus in St. Louis, Mo., on August 19, 2020. File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo
Oct. 6 (UPI) -- President Joe Biden's administration said Wednesday it's temporarily expanding the Education Department's school loan forgiveness program to make it easier for public servants to get debt relief amid hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under the change, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program will recognize certain payments that previously did not count toward the 120 monthly payments needed to qualify for forgiveness.
The department said the change will bring a half-million public servants closer to full debt cancellation.
Officials also said that about 22,000 borrowers will automatically be eligible for forgiveness without taking any action -- and 27,000 borrowers could qualify if they verify periods of employment.
Under the program, public workers qualified for debt forgiveness if they made 120 payments and worked full-time as a public servant for 10 years. At that point, the remaining balance would be canceled.
The changes will last until at least November 2022 and public servants have about a year to submit their application for debt cancellation, the department said.
For years, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program has been criticized as overly complex and difficult to understand. The New York Times reported earlier this year that 98% of applicants to the program have been turned down due to loose management and complex rules.
"Borrowers who devote a decade of their lives to public service should be able to rely on the promise of Public Service Loan Forgiveness," Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement Wednesday. "The system has not delivered on that promise to date, but that is about to change for many borrowers who have served their communities and their country."
The department said borrowers who have consolidated loans -- including previously ineligible loans -- can be immediately eligible for $1.74 billion in forgiveness.
"Teachers, nurses, first responders, service members and so many public service workers have had our back, especially amid the challenges of the pandemic," Cardona added. "Today, the Biden administration is showing that we have their backs, too."
Wednesday's changes waive restrictions on types of repayment plans and a requirement that payments be made in full and on time. Also, the overhaul will allow borrowers to effectively appeal rejected forgiveness claims, which the department has not done before.
The American Federation of Teachers sued former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and said the department ignored some borrowers' concerns about inaccurate information and administrative mistakes that they say blocked loan forgiveness.
"We have repeatedly highlighted the Kafka-esque, absurd administrative hoops the Department of Education and servicers made people go through to access Public Service Loan Forgiveness," AFT President Randi Weingarten told The Washington Post. "What the department is doing is cleaning up the mess created by DeVos and the servicers."
Advocates and critics have called on Biden since he took office to take serious action to forgive billions of dollars in federal student loans.
"Including the borrowers eligible for immediate forgiveness under these actions, the Biden-Harris administration has now approved more than $11.5 billion in loan cancellation for over 580,000 borrowers," the department said in a statement.