(NerdWallet) — During my first class of the day, I asked a question of my students, or rather of their avatars on the screen of our online classroom. I waited for an answer but received silence. As none of my students turned on their cameras, I couldn’t know why I didn’t get a response, but some were likely on their phones or back in bed. I started to cry at the futility, and for a profession I no longer recognized.
Today, I am one of hundreds of thousands of public school teachers who has left education since the start of the pandemic, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In doing so, I lost the promise of loan forgiveness that I’d been counting on. My balance of nearly $50,000 will need to be paid back, in full.
Still, I know I made the best decision for my family and me. I was deeply unhappy and unfulfilled.
“If someone had an opportunity to vastly improve their financial situation and their career satisfaction, I certainly could not fault them for moving on and putting forgiveness in the rearview mirror,” says Barry Coleman, an executive at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
Here are the factors I considered and the steps I took to safeguard my family’s financial health.
Check your progress toward loan forgiveness
Borrowers typically must make 120 on-time payments while working full-time for a qualifying employer before they are eligible to apply for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, or PSLF.
As I contemplated leaving education, I wanted to see how close I was to total forgiveness. According to my FedLoan account, I was short by 64 to 74 payments, depending on the loan. (MOHELA, the new loan servicer that is taking over the portfolio previously held by FedLoan Servicing, has a similar payment tracker on its website.)
If you’re closer to loan forgiveness, it may be worth delaying a career change. A few notes:
- Borrowers will receive credits for the months they went without making payments during the current federal student loan payment pause due to the pandemic. They’ll still have to certify their employment during this period.
- There’s a waiver in effect for Public Service Loan Forgiveness that may count previously ineligible payments toward the required total. You must submit a combined PSLF/employment certification form by Oct. 31, 2022, for consideration.
- Teachers who serve low-income schools for five consecutive years may receive loan forgiveness for federal loans up to $17,500. This program, Teacher Loan Forgiveness, is separate from PSLF.
Seek better compensation
With Public Service Loan Forgiveness off the table, I needed a payoff plan. First, I had to find a higher-paying job, which fortunately happened swiftly.
“Depending on the career you’re pivoting to and the new salary, the loan balance can be recouped quickly,” says Jillian Lucas, founder of JML Career Coaching.
But there’s more to consider than just the bottom line.
Compensation for teachers is unique in a few ways. Because many teachers don’t work over the summer, they are paid for 10 months of work, not 12. Teachers looking to switch careers should factor that in when evaluating job offers.
Plus, public school teachers in many states are eligible to receive a traditional pension, an increasingly rare benefit. If you didn’t stay in teaching long enough to qualify, then finding a job that offers a 401(k) match may be a priority.
Also look at bonuses, stipends, equity and insurance premiums when considering new jobs. How do those compare to what you’re giving up as a teacher?
Let the repayment begin
When loan forgiveness is no longer an option, you’ll have to determine a new debt payoff date. Online calculators can help.
Next, figure out what repayment approach is best for your new situation. To qualify for PSLF, borrowers have to enroll in one of four income-driven repayment plans. But if you no longer qualify for loan forgiveness due to a career change, you needn’t be wedded to a particular plan. Remember, too, that federal loan borrowers will be able to enroll in a new income-driven repayment plan that will make paying off loans more manageable by not charging interest on the loan balance as long as you make your monthly payments, among other reforms.
There are ways to hasten your payoff date, too. You could send “extra” money like tax refunds toward debt. Be sure to tell your loan servicer to apply any additional payments to your current balance rather than counting it toward next month’s payment.
Or try the biweekly payment method. Say your monthly loan payment is $500. Instead of paying $500 a month, you’ll pay $250 every two weeks. At the end of the year, you’ll have made the equivalent of one extra month’s payment.
Forgiveness, or happiness?
At the time I left teaching, I was just 13 months of qualifying employment shy of partial loan forgiveness. I had already put in 12 years; couldn’t I do one more?
I’m not an impulsive or financially irresponsible person, but I had fallen out of love with my job. Who was this teacher that I had become, and what would I be like as a teacher, a mother and a wife after another year in this career? My mental health and my family’s equilibrium would suffer deeply, and nothing — not even thousands of dollars of loan forgiveness — is worth that.
“Everyone deserves a job they love,” Lucas says. “And money will only take you so far if you hate what you’re doing.”