By LaKeshia Myers
I am one of the forty-five million Americans that have student loan debt. Having earned my undergraduate degree virtually debt-free, my masters, education specialist, and doctoral degrees left me with roughly $280,000 owed. While this number is certainly shocking, it is not abnormal. For many of my contemporaries, borrowing to fund our education was a “necessary evil” –as many of us worked full time while simultaneously earning our graduate degrees. This is a byproduct of the national trend of disinvestment at colleges/universities that have continued to decrease funding for graduate assistantships (graduate-level work study) and fellowships (grants that help graduate students cover room, board, and tuition while they study). The drying up of these funds can be directly linked to the rising cost of education and the declining enrollment of people of color in graduate studies programs across the country.
Luckily, for me there has been some reprieve along the way. After five years of successful teaching, I was able to have $17,500 of my loans forgiven through the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program. This program allows educators who teach in hard-to-staff subject areas and/or Title I Schools (schools with high poverty concentration) the ability to have a portion of their loans dismissed. Consequently, while working for the federal government, I was also able to have my student loan payments paid each month by the U.S. House of Representatives through a special program for employees. It was during my time working for congress that the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) was created and gave hope to millions who were saddled with student debt.
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program was created as part of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 (CCRAA) to provide indebted professionals a way out of their federal student loan debt burden by working full-time in public service. The premise was two-fold: to encourage highly educated individuals to embark on careers in public service and to allow borrowers who make on-time monthly payments under a qualifying repayment plan over ten years to have the remainder of their balance forgiven (Studentaid.gov, 2019). The earliest time in which borrowers could receive forgiveness under the program was after October 1, 2017.
According to the Department of Education, as of March 31, 2019, more than 73,500 federal student loan borrowers had turned in nearly 86,006 applications to have their loans canceled under Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Only 864 of those applications have been approved, and 518 people have received debt forgiveness, to the tune of $30 million in total (U.S. Department of Education, 2019).
The program has drawn criticism from many who have reached the ten-year mark and have attempted to have their loans forgiven and ultimately denied. Earlier this week, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) filed suit against Betsy DeVos, the current U.S. Secretary of Education on behalf of borrowers. The lawsuit alleges the Department of Education of engaging in, “gross mismanagement of a loan forgiveness program for public servants.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers described the PSLF as a, “crapshoot”; “This program was not supposed to be negotiable or debatable. It is a right under law. It shouldn’t be a crapshoot, but under Betsy DeVos, that is exactly what it’s become,” (Weingarten, 2019).
According to the Washington Post, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program has become a lightning rod for controversy. It encourages federal student loan borrowers to work in the public sector with the promise of canceling the balance of their debt after ten years of on-time payments. But participants say the companies the Education Department uses to service loans have led borrowers to believe they were making qualifying payments when they were not, processed payments incorrectly or botched paperwork.
These allegations, according to Weingarten, provide the basis for the lawsuit against DeVos and her department. The lawsuit also claims the Education Department ignored borrower complaints about loan servicers providing inaccurate information and making administrative mistakes. The alleged mismanagement of the loan forgiveness program violates federal law and the Constitution, according to the grievance.
In my opinion, student debt is the next “national conversation”. Its reach is boundless and it affects individuals across racial, gender, and socio-economic lines. The many hiccups with the PSLF program is creating rumblings of fear amongst those that have invested time and money into the program they were told would help them while they helped the country by working in public service. For many (me included) this program is the only way to absolve their student debt. But sadly, it is beginning to feel more like a dream deferred.
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?