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1 borrower's student debt is erased with loan forgiveness program overhaul

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

We have a good news story about a retiring special education teacher and $83,000. The teacher is Mary Fried. She works in Camden, N.J. Fried was hoping to retire at the end of this school year, but that $83,000 is what she still owed in federal student loans.

Here's NPR's Cory Turner with the rest of the story.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Three years ago, I started reporting on problems with Public Service Loan Forgiveness. The federal program promised to erase the student loan debts of anybody who worked for 10 years as a nurse or a teacher, like Mary Fried. But I reported then that 99% of applicants were being rejected. And Mary was one of them.

MARY FRIED: The fear in the back of my mind is I'm going to die owing this debt and it'll never be paid. And I'm not one who likes to renege on my debts.

TURNER: Mary Fried had been a teacher for more than 15 years when she first applied for forgiveness but was told, like many borrowers, she'd been in the wrong repayment plan. She'd have to start over. She was frustrated because after growing up without a lot of money, she had raised her kids to value education above all else.

M FRIED: It is the one thing in life that you can get in here, and nobody can take that from you. Take your house - they can take your money, but they can't take what you learned.

TURNER: This October, when the Biden administration announced it would loosen the program's rules and reconsider all these rejected borrowers, I immediately tracked Mary down to see if these changes might help her. She was preparing for retirement - or maybe bracing for retirement.

M FRIED: I'm working this year to restructure my finances so that I don't have to buy dog food to eat.

TURNER: After talking over Zoom several times, going over her student loan debt, it seemed pretty clear; she should qualify. And then just a few weeks ago, I asked Mary and her husband Tom to take one more look at her loan balance.

Signing in - gosh - how many times have you done this over the years, right?

TOM FRIED: (Laughter) Lots believe me.

M FRIED: And seen numbers that were like, oh, God, they have to be kidding me.

TURNER: Yeah. And what was the number before?

M FRIED: Eighty-three thousand.

TURNER: And what is the number now, Mary?

M FRIED: Oh, my God. It really is zero. Oh, my God (crying). Oh, I've been waiting for this day for so, so long. I really have.

T FRIED: You've tried awfully hard.

M FRIED: I've tried so many things and so many ways. And I don't know what to say.

TURNER: Not only were Mary Fried's student debts erased, but her forgiveness had been backdated several years, meaning she had overpaid.

M FRIED: I don't think you're taking me out for a picnic. I think you're taking me out to dinner (laughter).

T FRIED: Honey, I'll take you wherever you wish to go.

M FRIED: (Laughter).

TURNER: We said our goodbyes. And she texted me right before Thanksgiving to say a refund of nearly $8,000 had already come through.

Cory Turner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.