Let’s expand public service loan forgiveness to make a dent in student loan debt

Our nation is now facing alarming shortages of teachers, nurses and other public servants. Now is the time to lobby for a more inclusive, less complicated and more generous program of debt relief for students who chose service over profit.

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Student loan borrowers demand President Biden cancel student debt at a demonstration outside the White House on Feb. 16.

Student loan borrowers demand President Biden cancel student debt at a demonstration outside the White House on Feb. 16. Debt cancellation is unlikely, but public service loan forgiveness should be promoted, one educator writes.

Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Americans currently owe $1.6 trillion in student debt. That number includes those who earned bachelor’s degrees at respected colleges and universities, and those who studied but then dropped out of less reputable, for-profit institutions. It includes business leaders, physicians and attorneys making big bucks in posh offices, and those serving society in much-needed yet lower-paying professions such as social work and teaching.

The public has heard a variety of proposals for student loan forgiveness, including the most far-reaching: to wipe out up to $50,000 of student debt. During the 2020 campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden proposed a more modest $10,000 in loan forgiveness for households making under $125,000. Unfortunately, debt cancellation seems unlikely to happen.

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But the Biden administration and the U.S. Department of Education have made an important move: They reviewed and revised the poorly written 2007 law on public service loan forgiveness, which is intended to ensure that teachers, police officers, firefighters and others working in public service and non-profit careers can have their loans forgiven after 10 years of full-time employment.

In practice, very few people benefitted. Until recently, only 16,000 out of 1.3 million applicants actually received debt forgiveness since 2007. The policy has been on the books but didn’t affect people’s pockets.

In October 2021, the Biden administration clarified and loosened the requirements of the program, which were confusing and often impossible to meet. As a result, 22,000 borrowers were projected to benefit immediately. Three months later, 70,000 borrowers have had their debts wiped out, receiving some $5 billion dollars in relief.

Another 550,000 borrowers could benefit, including in Illinois.

If you think you might be eligible for public service loan forgiveness, apply now.

Be aware the forgiveness applies only to loans directly issued by the government. If you have Federal Family Education Loans or Federal Perkins Loans, you must consolidate these into a direct loan by Oct. 31, 2022.

Teachers and nurses can look for information on the Illinois Student Assistance Commission website:

For all student borrowers, President Biden has extended the loan payment pause until May 1, meaning that loan repayments can wait until then.

More change is needed

Now is the time to lobby for a more inclusive, less complicated and more generous program of debt relief for students choosing public service. It makes sense, both ethically and economically, to cancel student debt for those who have chosen to serve society. For example, how about shortening the time to five full-time years of public service employment rather than 10, which is a long time to continue working in an often low-paying career?

The Department of Education should also invest money in a national communication strategy to inform students and alumni of loan forgiveness for public service.

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Our nation is now facing alarming shortages of teachers, nurses and other public servants. It is imperative to provide financial incentives for students to enter, and remain, in these crucial professions.

During the Great Reshuffling, many workers are ready to put the profit motive aside in favor of meaningful employment. Forgiving their student debt is a way to help people make a difference, without requiring an oath of poverty.

Many higher education financial aid officers see their role, not just as numbers-crunchers, but as counselors. Colleges and universities should commit to educate and employ only those who will guide students through the bureaucratic complications of getting the monetary assistance they deserve. Right now, students and alumni need up-to-date information on public service loan forgiveness. Every college and university should develop its own communications plan.

In 2007, the federal government put a loan forgiveness policy on paper that very few could benefit from. That program is now more accessible. With student debt a national issue, the Department of Education, universities, and engaged citizens should commit to a revised program to wipe out debt for those who choose service over profit.

Elaine Maimon, Ph.D, is an adviser at the American Council on Education and was president of Governors State University from 2007 to 2020.

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