The Internal Government Communications and Records Exposing the Broken Employer Certification Process

By Tariq Habash | August 12, 2020

More than a decade ago, Congress created the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program to support America’s public service workers by easing the burden of student loan debt. Premised on the notion that public service workers with student debt should be entitled to student loan forgiveness in exchange for a decade of public service work, the program has a series of requirements borrowers must satisfy to earn loan forgiveness.

Unfortunately, the program has been plagued by widespread mismanagement and abuse, raising alarms from regulators and advocates and spurring litigation in courtrooms across the country, including a groundbreaking lawsuit against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos brought by the American Federation of Teachers on behalf of their members. Since the first potentially eligible public service workers completed a decade of qualifying public service in 2007, approximately 98.8 percent of all public service workers applying for loan forgiveness have not been approved.

Today, we released a new report authored jointly with the American Federation of Teachers analyzing more than 9,000 pages of documents and records produced by the U.S. Department of Education related to the fourth of these criteria—certifying the right type of employment.

Public service workers have struggled to certify the right type of employment. To date, the Department of Education (ED) has rejected more than 50,000 forms submitted by borrowers seeking a determination from the government about whether their public service employer would qualify for PSLF, a form known as the Employment Certification Form or ECF.

In an effort to uncover evidence of mismanagement and abuse underpinning these breakdowns, in December 2018, we requested all documents and records related to the processing of ECFs by ED and by its principal PSLF contractor, the student loan servicer Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), also known as FedLoan Servicing. Uncovering these documents took significant work, months of negotiations, numerous instances going back to ED officials demanding for accurate and comprehensive responses. This is just the first in a series of upcoming reports diving into the breakdowns within the PSLF program, but at every turn, we have been met with new mountains to climb in order to access public records. We will not stop digging for complete answers for the thousands of borrowers who have been failed by a broken system meant to provide them relief, and we will continue fighting back against any delays and obstruction by appealing denials.

Our analysis of the response we received from the government—thousands of pages of documents and communications between ED and PHEAA officials—depicts an employment certification process in complete disarray.

In conjunction with the release of report, we have released two new sets of documents and records that have never before been available to the public: (1) internal government communications and records about the process for certifying public service employment, and (2) the first-ever public, purportedly “comprehensive,” list of approved and denied employers produced by PHEAA and released to AFT and SBPC by ED’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA). 

Internal Government Communications and Records About the Process for Certifying Public Service Employment

In response to requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act, FSA produced more than 9,200 pages of documents and records. Due to the large size of this production, we have divided these documents and records into segments, which are keyword searchable and available for download below. 

In addition to the thousands of pages of email correspondence produced in February 2019, FSA also produced a list of organizations that had previously been certified as eligible for PSLF through the end of 2016. This list was described by FSA at the time as “a list of approved employers categorized by type of qualifying employment.” We are providing this list in its entirety as it demonstrates the critical flaws identified in our report, including:

(1) Mischaracterized employers (e.g. government agencies designated as nonprofits as well as nonprofits characterized as government agencies);

(2) Employers documented on the list as qualifying employers for PSLF, but listed in other ED communications as ineligible;

(3) Employers that are deemed qualifying employers, but in subsequent communications by the Department (see “comprehensive list” below) are inexplicably missing.

“Comprehensive” List of Public Service Employer Approvals and Denials

Through our effort to get answers for borrowers about the recordkeeping of approved and denied employers, we continued asking questions, including whether there existed an accurate and comprehensive list of employers. This ultimately led FSA to produce a new series of records purporting to be a “comprehensive” database of all employer certification approvals and denials through June 2019. Until it was produced in 2019, the government had no complete record of these decisions.

AFT and the SBPC have elected to release this “Comprehensive” List of Public Service Employer Approvals and Denials in six parts, as it was originally produced by FSA. Users should note that this list codes employer certification decisions into five possible categories—(A) Approved, (D) Denied, (AR) Approved Religious, (I) Inconclusive, and (R) Review. We have also converted these files into a single .dta file for use by researchers, available for direct download at the link below.

  1. PSLF Organization Database- Part A (.xlsx/19 mb)
  2. PSLF Organization Database- Part B (.xlsx/17 mb)
  3. PSLF Organization Database- Part C (.xlsx/16 mb)
  4. PSLF Organization Database- Part D (.xlsx/22 mb)
  5. PSLF Organization Database- Part E (.xlsx/17 mb)
  6. PSLF Organization Database- Part F (.xlsx/17 mb)
  7. Complete “Comprehensive” PSLF Organization Database (.dta/633 mb)

In the coming months, we will continue to analyze the data released in this production and remain committed to releasing new documents and records as they become available. Borrowers, researchers, advocates, and policymakers interested in partnering with us as we continue to pursue evidence of mismanagement and abuse in the PSLF program can email us at investigations@protectborrowers.org.

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Tariq Habash is Head of Investigations at the Student Borrower Protection Center.