Become a Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Help Tool Ninja

Become a Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Help Tool Ninja

In 2020, we released some exciting changes to the PSLF Help Tool. This article will summarize those changes and provide tips on how to use the help tool so that you’re in and out with minimal hassle. Here are the changes we’ll cover:

  1. The redesigned PSLF Help Tool
  2. Combining PSLF and TEPSLF processes
  3. The employer database

PSLF Help Tool Basics

The PSLF Help Tool launched on StudentAid.gov in December 2018, and it helps those seeking PSLF to learn more about the program, whether their employment qualifies, and what they might need to do with their loans to set themselves up for success.

Right now, the output of the PSLF Help Tool is a PDF of the PSLF form. You must take this form to your employer for signature and then submit by mail, fax, or secure upload to FedLoan Servicing’s website (if they are already your servicer).

It might seem strange to say so in 2021, but you and your employer can’t electronically sign the form through our website at this time. You also can’t electronically submit your form to us through our website when you’re done with signatures. Rest assured, we are working to make it possible to digitally sign and submit PSLF forms as the next major enhancement to the PSLF Help Tool. So watch this space.

Even though we aren’t fully digital—yet—we have made some significant enhancements.

A Quick Note About Signatures

While we understand and agree with your desire for electronic signatures, right now we can accept only these types of signatures:

  • A wet signature that was drawn in ink and sent to us in its original format;
  • A wet signature that was drawn in ink and then digitized (for example, drawing your signature and taking a photo of it and placing that photo in the signature block); and
  • A digital signature that was drawn with your hand using a pointing device (like a mouse or trackpad) or a finger (like on a smartphone).

We can’t accept signatures that are font-based, regardless of whether they are made to mimic a signature through the use of a cursive-style font; digital certificate-based signatures; and digital signature services that don’t require you to draw your signature with your hand or pointing device.

PSLF Help Tool Redesign

You may have noticed that the PSLF Help Tool has a new coat of paint… Actually, that’s underselling it. We rebuilt it from the ground up using principles of user-centered design. We had customers test our designs, which we then refined based on their feedback. And we continue to gain insights from our customers—and to make improvements from this real-world usage.

This is an image of the PSLF Help Tool landing page which includes some introductory text about using the PSLF Help Tool and a “start” button.
PSLF Help Tool landing Page This is where it all begins.

Combining PSLF and TEPSLF

For those of you who have been following changes to the PSLF Program over the years, Congress created a temporary expansion of the PSLF Program for certain borrowers. We call that temporary expansion “Temporary Expanded PSLF” or “TEPSLF” (yes, we rock the name game). When we implemented this program, we had to do so very quickly. The result was a process that required you to separately apply for PSLF and TEPSLF in order to receive TEPSLF.

While there were some good reasons for creating a separate process, it was never the user experience we wanted. So, we combined the separate PSLF and TEPSLF processes into a single process, and we merged what were two PSLF forms—the Employment Certification Form and PSLF Application for Forgiveness—into a single form. Now, it no longer matters whether you want PSLF or TEPSLF, or whether you want to apply for forgiveness right now or just see your progress toward that goal. You simply fill out this new, combined PSLF form, and you will automatically receive PSLF or TEPSLF if you are eligible for it. If not, you will find out where you are in the process.

Note: The form still asks you whether you think you qualify, but we just use this to figure out what your expectations were when you filled the form out. Your answer doesn’t affect whether you receive forgiveness or what type you receive. If you are eligible for forgiveness, you’ll receive it automatically when you submit this form—even if you tell us you think you don’t qualify.

In sum, this new streamlined form and process are now integrated into the PSLF Help Tool, and the PSLF Help Tool now speaks to the differences between PSLF and TEPSLF.

Employer Database

We also have a new database of employers that we regularly update with employer eligibility for PSLF. Below is information about how the database works, as well as some tips on how to interact with it. As of the day we published this article, the database has more than 2.7 million employer records in it, which is already an increase of more than 1 million employer records since we launched it.

Get your employer’s EIN—we aren’t kidding

We can’t stress this enough: To interact with this database, you need your employer’s Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN/EIN). You can find your EIN in box b of your W-2, or you can get it directly from your employer by asking them what EIN they will report on your W-2. Get the right number from a document your employer gave to you; don’t hunt around for this number on the internet. Employers frequently use one EIN for employment and another for other financial purposes. Entering the wrong number can really slow up the process. Have the EIN in hand when you are ready to use the help tool. Note: The Federal Employer Identification Number is different from the state ID number that also appears on your W-2. As PSLF is a federal program, we want the federal number, not the state number.

You might think it is easier to ignore the prompt to search by EIN and instead manually enter information about your employer. But one of the first things that you’ll be required to enter about your employer is the EIN.

So, you really do need this number, and there are no exceptions. Entering numbers like 12-3456789 or 99-999999, while allowed in our systems (for now), will ultimately result in our requesting you to use the tool properly later, and only after you have waited for us to look at your submission and determine that 12-3456789 and 99-999999 aren’t valid entries. (And, yes, if you are curious, we have seen this more often than you might think.)

Your submission is virtually guaranteed to take longer if you are manually entering information about your employer instead of using our database, even if you are entering a valid EIN for your employer. We cannot recommend this enough:

  1. Search the database.
  2. And use what’s there.

What happens when you search
When you search for your employer by EIN, employers that are in the database already will have three different eligibility statuses:

  1. Eligible—everything is good to go here and we have determined the employer qualifies
  2. Likely Ineligible—we haven’t made a decision about this employer yet, but our experience tells us that this employer probably doesn’t qualify
  3. Ineligible—we have evaluated this employer and determined that it doesn’t qualify, for example, because it is a for-profit organization

Again, in all cases, if your employer shows up when you search by EIN, populate your submission with what’s in the database. Here’s why:

  1. If your employer is marked as eligible, nobody will need to manually review anything, and your PSLF form will automatically be generated for signature and submission when you complete the help tool.
  2. If your employer is marked as ineligible or likely ineligible, we will still manually review things, but our review will be faster than if you disagreed with what you saw and decided to enter something manually instead. (By the way, if your employer is marked as ineligible, trying to enter things manually won’t circumvent our manual review; it will just prolong it.)

Let’s look at a few other things to note about our database and what we care about when it comes to certifying employment.

Employer Names

If you’ve searched by EIN, do you recognize the name that you see in the search results? If so, use that entry even if the name isn’t exactly what you’d call your employer.

Do you work for Public School 123, but the name in our database shows up as School District 2 or City of X? Use the results of the database anyway. For our purposes, you are almost always considered to be an employee of the district or city, not the individual school where you happen to teach.

Similarly, do you work for a state agency like the Department of Natural Resources in Minnesota, but the database shows your EIN as being tied to the State of Minnesota? Use that result anyway. For our purposes, you are a state employee.

Below are some photos of navigating the employer search portion of the PSLF Help Tool.

This image is a screen shot of the employer search start page.
PSLF Help Tool Employer Search Start Page This page shows an empty employer search. Users click on the add employer button to get to the search page.
This image shows the blank employer search page where users would enter their employer EIN and employment dates.
PSLF Help Tool Blank Employer Search Page This image shows the blank employer search page. Users need to enter their EIN (without a dash) and their employment dates, followed by hitting the search button to see results.
This image shows the employer search page after the user has completed filling in the fields.
PSLF Help Tool Completed Employer Search Page This image shows the completed employer search page after a user has completed all necessary fields to search for the State of Minnesota.
This image shows the results of a search for the EIN for the State of Minnesota.
PSLF Help Tool Employer Search Results This image shows the results of the search for the EIN for the State of Minnesota. Many of our entries for state governments show two entries—one for the state, and one for the state with “all employees” appended to the name to help users understand that we would like for them to use these results even if they work for a state agency that isn’t listed.
This image shows what it looks like when an employer record is selected.
PSLF Help Tool Selecting Employer Search Results This image shows what the help tool looks like when an employer record is selected. To populate a PSLF form with this employer, a user would next hit the continue button.

Lastly, do you work for the federal government? If so, many federal departments share a few common EINs. When you search for an EIN, you might need to click through several pages of results to find your department (the U.S. Department of Education is on page 9 of our search results). But you should do so. Again, we know that all federal agencies are qualifying employers for PSLF, but if you don’t use our database, manual review will be required.

Note: It’s also important to know that, for PSLF purposes, it doesn’t matter which agency or office of a department you work for, which command you are a part of in the military, or which VA medical center you work in. Certify at the department level, using the results of what you see when you search by EIN.

This image shows the results of a search for the EIN that was issued to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
PSLF Help Tool Search Results for Certain Federal Agencies This image shows the results of a search for the EIN that was issued to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which covers a large swath of the federal government. There are 55 entries for this EIN.
This image shows the results of a search for the EIN that was issued to the U.S. Department of Education.
PSLF Help Tool Search Results for U.S. Department of Education The U.S. Department of Education is on page 9 of the search results, which are sorted alphabetically.

Addresses
Our employer address data is sourced from several difference places, but most of them are associated with main headquarters addresses or the address to which financial or other legal documents should be sent. That address might not reflect where you typically work. And, for our purposes, that’s okay.

The address is a data point to help you potentially identify the entry we have for your employer in the database. While our address data will improve over time, don’t disregard our database entries just because the address seems different to you from where you normally work or because it’s a P.O. Box address.

If your employer isn’t in the database
If you searched for your employer by EIN and your employer isn’t there, first check that you searched for the federal EIN. States also assign employer ID numbers, and we’ve seen plenty of cases where the state number was used instead of the federal number.

If you entered the right number and there’s still nothing there—sorry! While we have more than 2.7 million employers in our database, coverage isn’t and won’t ever be at 100%. Employers are created every day, and we are still just starting out.

This image shows what would display if the EIN that was entered is not in our database.
PSLF Help Tool Search Results No Employer This image shows what you will see if the EIN you searched for is not in our database. Selecting “Manually add employer instead” will allow you to proceed with the PSLF Help Tool.

In the end, if this happens to you, don’t fret. We will review your submission and use your submission to add your employer to our database when our review is complete. We recommend two things when doing your manual entry:

  1. Enter your employer name exactly as it appears on your W-2.
  2. Upload a copy of your W-2 when prompted to upload documentation (this will save us—and you—a lot of time in our review).

Don’t panic if, when entering your employer manually, you see that we are flagging your employer as likely ineligible. We’ve found that many smaller, local governmental organizations in particular, and some state governmental organizations, aren’t in our database yet. And organizations that aren’t in our database currently show as likely ineligible in the PSLF Help Tool. Rest assured—if you are an employee of a local or state government, your employment will qualify, but uploading a W-2 will still help our research and review, and we will use your submission to add your employer to our database for future use.

If your employer is in the database as ineligible
There are a few reasons that your employer could be in the database as ineligible. These reasons include that we determined that it’s a for-profit organization or that it is a not-for-profit that isn’t a 501(c)(3) organization and that does not provide a qualifying service.

This image shows what would display if the EIN that was searched for is in our database as ineligible.
PSLF Help Tool Employer Search Results for Ineligible Employer This image shows what you will see if the EIN you searched for is in our database as ineligible. You can still proceed to submit for this employer and will be prompted to upload documentation after the employer is selected and you hit Continue.

Our decision that an employer isn’t eligible is based on the best information that we have at the time. We can and do change our minds when presented with evidence that we didn’t have a complete picture about an employer when we made our last decision about it. So, if you see that we’ve said that your employer is ineligible, and you disagree, you have the option to submit documentation explaining why you (and preferably your employer) believe that your employer qualifies. And we encourage you to do so.

While we will review all submissions, even those for ineligible employers, sending us photos of your cat as documentation, while charming, won’t change our minds about your employer. Sending us a text document that says nothing more than “intentionally left blank” is less charming but also won’t change our minds about your employer. Submitting no documentation at all will likely result in our not changing our minds about your employer either.

This image shows what a user would be prompted with when their employer is either ineligible or likely ineligible – so the user could then upload supporting documents.
PSLF Help Tool Request for Supporting Documentation This image shows what you’ll be prompted with if your employer is either ineligible or likely ineligible. Some suggested examples of documentation, which may vary based on the reason the employer is ineligible or otherwise, are listed. But we will accept and review any document that is relevant to the organization’s eligibility.

But, and we cannot stress this enough, it really is important to understand that for-profit employers are not qualifying employers for the purposes of PSLF, even if you have been designated as an “essential worker” during the pandemic. In our short history after enhancing the PSLF Help Tool, we have seen multiple borrower submissions for the following types of organizations:

  1. Most fast-food chains
  2. Many large department stores
  3. Several grocery stores
  4. Large corporate pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies
  5. For-profit charter school management corporations
  6. For-profit medical providers
  7. Banks (and credit unions, which are technically not-for-profits but also don’t qualify)
  8. Financial services companies
  9. Investment firms
  10. Large technology companies
  11. Ride-sharing service and “gig economy” companies
  12. A cookie company
  13. An energy drink distribution company
  14. Management consulting firms
  15. Large government contractors
  16. Shipping companies

These types of organizations play vital roles in the American economy, and for those of you who are essential workers, we thank you. But when it comes to PSLF, for-profits just don’t qualify. We will always review these submissions as they come in, but before you submit, carefully consider whether you work at a for-profit organization. If you aren’t sure whether your employer is organized as a not-for-profit, ask them—they will know.

A special note about professional employer organizations

A professional employer organization (or PEO) is an organization that might employ you on paper for things like tax reporting or benefits. These organizations are almost always for-profit organizations, and therefore they don’t qualify in their own right. But they will often issue your W-2 under your true employer’s name but with their EIN. Some examples of PEOs are ADP, Insperity, and TriNet (just to name a few).

This is the only time you’ll hear us say this: In this case, you shouldn’t use your W-2 to guide your submission on the PSLF Help Tool. We’ve done a fairly good job at tracking down the EINs that PEOs use to issue W-2s through. So if you search for an EIN that comes back as ineligible but is associated with a company that you don’t work for, it’s entirely possible that the name you’re seeing is the PEO’s name.

If this happens to you, we recommend asking your employer about the name of the company. Specifically, ask whether they are partnered with this PEO to handle some of the human resources work that goes into employing you. If the answer is yes, ask your employer for their EIN, not the one on your W-2, and enter that into the PSLF Help Tool instead. If you make your submission using the EIN of the PEO provider, then when we review your submission, we will ask you to use the PSLF Help Tool again using the EIN of your actual employer instead of the PEO provider.

After You Submit Your PSLF Form

All PSLF forms are submitted to FedLoan Servicing, our exclusive servicer for the PSLF Program and for TEPSLF. When your form is submitted, FedLoan Servicing will review it. Then, if you have a Direct Loan and your employer qualifies for PSLF, FedLoan Servicing will determine how many qualifying payments you made toward PSLF and TEPSLF during the time period certified on your PSLF form.

Over the course of 2020, FedLoan Servicing also significantly enhanced how it presents the number of qualifying payments you’ve made. Now you can see where you are in making progress toward forgiveness in more detail. Below are some screenshots of what you can expect to see after you’ve received a determination of the number of qualifying payments you’ve made.

This is a summary view of a user’s loans and the progress made on payments.
PSLF Payment Tracking Landing Page This page will give you a summary view into each of your loans and the progress you’ve made. Here are some things to note about this page that are very important. First, a qualifying payment is one that you’ve made on time, on a qualifying plan, on a qualifying loan, and while working for a qualifying employer. Therefore, the count of qualifying payments you’ve made, and your expected forgiveness eligibility date, are updated only when you submit a PSLF form covering a new period of qualifying employment.
This image notes the distinction between “eligible payments” and “qualifying payments.”
PSLF Payment Tracking – Payment Summary See the difference between this and the prior image? This one creates a distinction between “eligible payments” and “qualifying payments.” Qualifying payments we’ve already described, but “eligible payments” are those that are qualifying payments without regard to where you worked or when. In other words, eligible payments are those that meet all of the nonemployment PSLF criteria; they’ll be converted to qualifying payments once you submit a PSLF form with an employment certification covering that month.
This image shows the details for “eligible payments.”
PSLF Payment Tracking – Details This image is what you see when you select “eligible payments” on the prior image. As you can see, you get a month-over-month breakdown of whether the month counts and if not, why not. It further elaborates on the “eligible” versus “qualifying” payment concept.
If this borrower submitted an employment certification covering full-time, qualifying employment from February 2020 through January 2021, those eligible payments would convert to qualifying payments, the qualifying payment count would jump from 101 to 113, and the expected forgiveness eligibility date would change from August 2022 to August 2021.

I hope you have enjoyed my TED talk.

This article was written by Ian Foss, Director of Policy Implementation and Oversight at Federal Student Aid. Ian is scheduled to receive PSLF in August and has personally reviewed thousands of PSLF submissions as part of FSA’s enhanced process that launched on November 8, 2020.