Meet a therapist with $81,000 in student debt, who worked in public service for 20 years, and can't get loan forgiveness: 'People in the helping professions are getting totally screwed over'

College student graduation
  • Lindsay Averbook, 38, has $81,000 in student debt after working at nonprofits for 20 years.

  • She has repeatedly been denied loan forgiveness, and she's not sure why.

  • She's banking on the Education Dept.'s forgiveness reforms to give her the relief she deserves.

Lindsay Averbook wants one thing: for the government to honor its promise to forgive student debt for people who work to serve the public good.

At 38 years old, Averbook has spent her entire career in public service. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts Lowell in 2006 with degrees in criminal justice and psychology and later got a dual licensure as a mental health counselor and drug counselor at Cambridge College. Since then, she has worked for nonprofits as a mental health case worker in prisons. She now runs her own practice as a therapist.

While she loves her job, she hates the $81,000 student debt burden that comes with it and does not understand why she doesn't qualify for loan forgiveness.

"I think I've applied for every payment plan that I can and I've been declined," Averbook told Insider. "All the emails I get are confusing. They're all conflicting."

Lindsay Averbook
Lindsay Averbook, 38, has $81,000 in student debt.Lindsay Averbook

As a nonprofit worker, Averbook technically qualified for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, which is supposed to forgive student debt for public servants after ten years of qualifying payments. But the program ran up a 98% denial rate, pushing borrowers like Averbook off the path to forgiveness.

The Education Department, though, recently announced reforms to PSLF, including a temporary waiver to allow past payments in other programs to count toward forgiveness. Averbook is hoping this overhaul will finally give her the forgiveness she has sought for a decade.

"We work in public service," Averbook said. "We're the people that have to deal with the mental health crisis, and they're causing one for the people dealing with the mental health crisis."

'It's so anxiety-inducing for the people that have been tossed around 15 times'

Averbook's first job post-grad had a base salary of $22,000. Until recently, she said, her salary never exceeded $50,000 annually. She often had to take on a second job, like waitressing, to afford basic expenses. Her loans have almost always been on forbearance due to low pay in the public service industry.

Even while she wasn't making payments while on forbearance, her debt load continued to grow due to interest. Not only was she continually getting rejected from PSLF, but she was also denied repayment through an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan because her monthly income was inconsistent.

She said she never received any helpful information from her loan-company on how to pay off her debt, even as they kept rejecting her from programs that would help her do so.

"It's so anxiety-inducing for the people that have been tossed around 15 times," Averbook said. "I'm not stupid. I just cannot figure out the 18,000 pages of paperwork that basically just repeat information that I don't understand about loans that are so nonspecific."

Averbook took advantage of the 0% interest rate on student loans during the pandemic, and she was able to pay off about $3,000 of her debt load over the past year. But the payment pause ends in 80 days, and she's hoping her waiver for the new PSLF reforms will be approved.

Federal Student Aid head Richard Cordray sent a letter, obtained by Insider, to PSLF borrowers regarding confusion and lack of clarity surrounding the new reforms. He said that "changes of this magnitude are hard to process and execute," and he asked for borrowers' patience going forward.

"This may take several months," Cordray said. "We may not be able to answer specific questions right away as we focus on addressing over a million borrower accounts. But we will get the changes made, and I pledge that to you today."

Borrowers like Averbook can't afford to wait several months; the pandemic pause on payments restarts on February 1. It remains to be seen if the reforms will work as the department intends them to. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona wrote on Twitter on Thursday that about 10,000 borrowers have already gotten $715 million in student debt discharged, and Averbook is hoping she will become one of those borrowers, finally putting an end to the years of confusion and anxiety that continued to mount as her debt load grew.

"This is exclusively hurting the helping profession that's been working through this pandemic," Averbook said. "That's what I don't understand. People in the helping profession are getting totally screwed over."

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