A Florida teacher thought she had paid off her college debt 20 years ago. Then she got a bill for $1 million.

For nearly a decade, the government took hundreds of dollars each month from the paychecks of a Florida woman named Michelle to collect past overdue and unpaid student loans. The process, called garnishment, is legal and the US Department of Education can order it for someone’s wages, tax returns, and Social Security to force repayment of delinquent loans.

Michelle’s garnishment began in 2008. As a public school teacher in Orlando, who asked to be identified by her first name only because this story involved her personal finances, she struggled for the eight or nine years to make ends meet while supporting her two children. .

“I almost lost my house and everything about it because I just couldn’t afford it,” she said. And with around $800 a month suddenly gone, Michelle recalled that she sometimes faced impossible day-to-day decisions: “I have to ask myself, ‘Do we have this meal or do we Do we keep the lights on? What’s most important right now?’ “

After the garnishment period ended, Michelle believed that her student debts had been paid in full. But, last spring, she started getting notices of a different loan, which she took out through the now-defunct Perkins Loans Program while pursuing an undergraduate degree at the University of Florida.

According to the Department of Education, the program offered low-interest federal loans to undergraduate and graduate students with “exceptional financial need,” and is now being phased out since its official closure in September 2017. graduated from the University of Florida in 1997, and then met the teaching service requirements to obtain it.

So when Michelle opened a letter from her alma mater in July suggesting her Perkins loan repayments were “seriously overdue,” she was stunned. Even more confusing than the bill itself was the amount she still owed the school: $955,000.02.

“I actually went into depression. I went into hiding. I didn’t know how to make sense of it because it was so long ago,” Michelle said. “So now I’m like, I’m about to retire and I’m about to lose everything.”

Michelle turned out to be wrong. Thanks in large part to an internet stranger with decades of expertise who eagerly offered to help her solve the student loan debacle, her situation changed almost overnight.

Michelle’s daughter posted the letter on Reddit – a site Michelle said she had visited “maybe twice” in her life before – in a section dedicated to student loan discussions. Site users were quick to tag one member – Betsy Mayotte, president and founder of an organization called The Institute of Student Loan Advisors, which offers a range of free services to borrowers like Michelle.

Michelle received a letter from the University of Florida, dated July 22, 2022, suggesting that her outstanding student loan balance was nearly $1 million.

Courtesy of Michelle via Reddit

Mayotte is a regular on the site’s r/StudentLoans sub-reddit, where people share personal experiences and advice as they navigate daunting repayment schedules amid changing debt relief policies under the Biden administration, and uses it frequently to connect with people who need advice on their loans. In a comment on Michelle’s daughter’s original post, another user calls Mayotte the “GOAT”, meaning the greatest of all time.

Mayotte, having previously worked with Perkins loan borrowers who had been blindsided by unexpected bills, stepped in as a liaison between Michelle and the University of Florida. The original amount was quickly determined to be an error. A spokesperson for the University of Florida attributed the error to a technical problem at ECSI, a company that universities hire to act as a loan agent for former students paying off balances through the Perkins program.

While the university said in a statement it could not comment specifically on Michelle’s case, citing student records protection laws, the school noted that “no University of Florida student never owed” nearly $1 million in student loans.

“However, in July, the University of Florida learned that the computer system used by the company that manages the university’s billing was issuing statements with incorrect amounts to borrowers for many schools, including UF,” the report continued. communicated. A university spokesperson later said ECSI planned to issue new statements “reflecting the correct balances” within a week of discovering the error.

A spokesperson for ECSI confirmed the calculation issue and acknowledged in a statement that the company “sent letters to a small number of borrowers indicating incorrect amounts owed on their loans” over the summer.

“These letters were quickly corrected and we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused,” the spokesperson said.

By the end of August, Michelle had received at least one of many amended statements that would eventually be mailed from the University of Florida. The new balance was still quite high, around $8,000, and although Michelle said she “felt better, of course, because it wasn’t a million,” she also suspected the revised number, which didn’t did not match the balance reflected in his online account. , was incorrect.

After graduating from high school, Michelle applied for loan forgiveness through an educational program offered to Perkins loan recipients. He promised to cancel part of the borrower’s loan for each school year spent teaching in certain schools or in certain subjects. For example, someone who taught at a school serving students from low-income families, or who taught special education, math, science, or foreign language classes would be eligible for full loan forgiveness. .

Michelle has fulfilled the requirements in various teaching positions held over the past five years. She submitted the necessary documents to confirm her eligibility for relief under the Perkins program guidelines and assumed the loan had been forgiven. But, when Mayotte contacted the university again with questions about Michelle’s updated balance, she was told that Michelle’s records had never arrived.

“They said they never received it,” Mayotte said. She noted that, in her experience, communication issues are common between Perkins loan borrowers and their loan managers, despite company policies that technically require loan managers to send borrowers monthly notifications. regarding their invoices, especially when they are overdue. Unlike other federal student loans which are serviced by providers or managers affiliated with the Department of Education, Perkins loan servicers have always been the universities themselves, which then outsource the loan servicing tasks. to a third party.

“I see people all the time saying, ‘I haven’t had a bill for my Perkins loan for 10 years, 20 years,'” Mayotte said. “That makes it really difficult for the borrower. You know, a lot of times it’s a legit bill. But if it’s not, what consumer keeps records for 20 years to be able to push that back?”

ECSI only became a loan officer for the University of Florida in the early 2000s, years after Michelle submitted her pardon paperwork to the school, and the company spokesperson said that he “had no involvement” in the record-keeping process that determined whether or not she got relief.

“Nevertheless, we were happy to help the institution resolve the issues it had with this borrower and rectify the loan forgiveness,” the spokesperson said.

Michelle, “fortunately”, per Mayotte, was able to prove her eligibility for retroactive relief through the Perkins Loan Education Program. Her ending balance: $408, which she said was paid in full two weeks ago.

“The only word I had was amen when I got this letter,” Michelle said. “I couldn’t completely process it. I was just grateful.”

While Michelle’s sky-high student loan balance is a mistake, Mayotte said she’s worked with a few clients who really owe close to a million dollars for the money borrowed to attend school.

A recent report by the Education Data Initiative highlights the current student debt crisis in the United States, which has proven difficult to address despite President Biden’s promise loan cancellation plan — now waiting, by court order, and potentially directed to the Supreme Court. Student debt currently stands at $1.745 trillion nationally, according to the report, which puts the average federal debt balance at just under $38,000. But, with Biden’s pardon plan stalled, the administration recently announced that it prolongs the break on paying off student debt until June of next year.

“Education, when funded by student loans, fails to live up to its ‘great equalizer’ mantra,” Michelle said in an email, adding that borrowers, especially those who work in the public sector, “often age with the burden of student loans and are sometimes never, ever fully capable of making future plans, improving their lifestyle, saving, investing or retiring on time. The salary is usually too low – paycheck to paycheck – and the life cycle of the loans is too long.”

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