When Daniel Cuciak went online this month to check his student loan balance, his first reaction was disbelief.
His loan balance – which had been nearly $35,000 – had been reduced to zero.
After nine months of phone calls, chasing down paperwork – and even getting his senator involved – it was the confirmation he was hoping for: The Department of Education was forgiving his student loans under a program to help people who work in public service jobs.
Cuciak is one of a lucky few. Federal data released this week shows that 41,000 people have applied under the new Public Service Loan Forgiveness program – but as of Sept. 30, only 206 had received it.
That success rate – just 0.5 percent of borrowers who apply – has frustrated applicants, student advocates and consumer groups, who say borrowers made education and career decisions based on the government's promise that their loans would be forgiven.
"It’s clear that it’s not working, and that public servants who thought they had a deal aren't getting the benefit of that deal," said Daniel Zibel, vice president of the National Student Legal Defense Network.
The College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 allows the government to forgive student loans for graduates who commit to work in public service: Military, law enforcement, education, social work, public health and other fields.
Many jobs in those professions require advanced degrees but pay modest salaries to start.
After working 10 years in a qualifying profession and making 120 loan payments on time, many of those borrowers thought their loans would be forgiven.
But when the first cohort of borrowers started applying in October 2017 – a decade after the law took effect – many learned that they had the wrong kind of loan, or the wrong repayment plan.
The Department of Education would not answer questions about the program on the record. But Liz Hill, the press secretary for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, sent USA TODAY a written statement saying the department is "committed to helping borrowers navigate this complex program."
"The Department has faced a challenge in communicating with people directly about PSLF, because we don’t know who they are," Hill said. The department encourages borrowers to submit an Employment Certification Form every year to make sure they're on track.
The Trump administration wants to get rid of the program entirely, and replace it with an income-driven repayment program that would reduce loan payments based on salary and family size.
"We think that will help students that heretofore haven't been able to pursue higher ed in a longer-term, meaningful way," DeVos told a Senate committee in June. "We're focused on finding ways to make sure that students that are most in need of these opportunities are able to access them and then have good options for the back end in repaying."
'There was this promise'
Cuciak, a mental health and substance abuse counselor in suburban Columbus, Ohio, didn't make his career choice based on the loan forgiveness program. It didn't exist when he went to graduate school.
But one reason he stayed in a job at a community-based counseling service, he said, was the hope of loan forgiveness.
The work "was what I felt called to do," Cuciak said. "But when I had opportunities to look at other options in my career, that was a factor. There was this promise."
Then Cuciak learned he had the wrong kind of loan. He was on a graduated payment plan. Only income-based and pay-as-you-earn plans were eligible.
Congress fixed that problem in March, approving $350 million to temporarily expand the eligibility criteria to help borrowers on other kinds of payment plans.
Cuciak was one of the borrowers who stood to benefit. But even with the new legislation, he said, it took months of bureaucracy to get his application approved.
"There's nobody you can talk to, and you don't know why they’re denying this, and it’s very anxiety-provoking," he said.
After he called his senator – Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio – the Department of Education gave him a dedicated representative to work on his case. He learned this month that more than $34,900 in loans would be forgiven.
"I would like to think that being a squeaky wheel makes a difference," he said. "I had to do a lot of leg work that I felt like should have been their job.
"It felt as though this has been slow-walked, this whole process. I can't believe that 200 people out of 40,000 actually qualified."
Neither can Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. The union has joined in lawsuits against student loan servicers and investigations into the Department of Education.
"Betsy DeVos and her friends in the loan servicing industry are breaking that promise and making the program useless," Weingarten said. "The latest numbers confirm just how insidious and flagrant the Department of Education’s mismanagement and industry abuses have become."
Cuciak, 40, recently left his public-sector job for private practice in order to start a family. That $35,000 in forgiveness — which he estimates would have reached $45,000 or more with interest over the next 10 years — will help.
"You could definitely say it was an early Christmas present," he said.