Carla Mosley is a teacher in Broward County, Florida, where she has taught mostly in low-income communities. She graduated from college over 20 years ago, yet she still has more than $10,000 in student loan debt. She has written letters to her state’s governor and her school district and worked with her union seeking debt relief while serving as her mother’s primary caregiver. She’s tried several times to enroll in loan forgiveness programs specifically for educators, but to no avail, and the mounting debt led to default and wage garnishments – affecting the very wages she earns from getting up and going to work every day to teach students how to read and write. There are millions of stories like Carla’s.
One in four US adults are paying off student loans, and 70% of students today finish college in debt. For many of them, the call of public service is strong: They are eager to give back to their communities and help make people’s lives better, whether it’s through teaching in a classroom, taking care of patients in a hospital, or serving as first responders.
As a former volunteer missionary and a former high school social studies teacher, we both know the formative value public service can have on a person, and we credit that work with inspiring our careers today. We also know this career path isn’t nearly as possible in 2019 as it was when we went to school: 41 states spend less on funding higher education than they did before the recession 10 years ago, and college tuition costs are rising steadily.
Too many Americans are finishing school saddled with a prohibitive “debt sentence” that prevents them from seeking careers that may not pay like Wall Street but offer a different kind of enrichment. To ease that burden and encourage more graduates to enter public service, Congress passed a bill, signed into law by George W. Bush in 2007, that created the bipartisan Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The program offers us an opportunity to do right by public servants and the communities they serve by forgiving their student debt after 10 years of qualifying repayments.
But despite the bipartisan commitment to loan forgiveness for public service, evidence shows that the Department of Education is failing, or refusing, to help qualified borrowers.
In response, Congress provided in 2018 $700 million in additional funding to the Department of Education for Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness to allow borrowers, many of whom had received inaccurate or incomplete information from their student loan servicing companies, to access the loan relief they were entitled to.
Since then, both our offices have requested data on the administration of the TEPSLF program, to find out exactly what is going wrong. Earlier this month, we received some of the information, and the results it showed were abysmal: Only 262 people have qualified for TEPSLF, out of more than 38,000 applicants. Out of the $700 million authorized to cover loan cancellations, only $10.6 million in debt has actually been forgiven.
At a recent student debt clinic in Brentwood, New York, one AFT member had documentation showing her loan servicing company had recorded the incorrect number of qualifying payments she’d made. She was told by her servicer it would take a year before it would even consider correcting her information in the system, let alone reconsider her application.
Countless public servants from Florida, New York, Virginia and across the country have been sharing these horror stories. To end this nightmare for them, we’re pushing for legislative fixes to PSLF. The What You Can Do for Your Country Act, introduced this month, would make every type of federal loan and every type of repayment plan eligible for student loan forgiveness. Servicers could no longer use trivial technicalities, like choosing the wrong repayment plan, to deny people the forgiveness they’ve earned. The bill would also require the Education Department to better communicate how borrowers can apply for forgiveness and simplify that application process. Finally, the bill would allow for partial forgiveness so public servants could have half their loans forgiven after five years of service.
We’re also considering strategies to fix this program that go beyond legislation: Several unions and consumer protection groups are sending a letter to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau asking it to investigate the agencies and companies involved directly in implementing PSLF, and we are pursuing requests for documents, alongside the Student Borrower Protection Center, to help uncover records, data, contracts and other filings that shed light on just why PSLF is failing the people it was intended to serve and who is playing a role in this failure. Several classes of borrowers — including a group of AFT members — and a number of state attorneys general are also suing loan servicers for their failure to implement PSLF effectively, in the hopes that this might streamline the process and offer some relief to current and future borrowers.
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Public service transcends politics. It’s one of the greatest reflections of American values, and Public Service Loan Forgiveness is a promise worth our continued investment so the great tradition of service in this country can move forward without enforcing a lifetime sentence of debt.
NOTE: The piece has been updated to correct details of the opening example.