The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program Is What's Best About America

Cutting the program signals to our young people, and the world, how we view public service.
05/30/2017 04:51 pm ET
White House staffers stand on the steps of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on November 10, 2016.
SAUL LOEB via Getty Images
White House staffers stand on the steps of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on November 10, 2016.

For the past four years, on the 28th day of each month, the U.S. Department of Education’s FedLoan Servicing automatically withdraws approximately 10 percent of my monthly income from my bank account. Living in a major city, I’d certainly rather have that extra cash on hand to help pay for rent or groceries or train rides to visit my grandmother a few states away. But when I see that payment deducted, I’m not annoyed or angry. Rather, I’m grateful — grateful that I live in a country that allowed me to take out loans to go to graduate school, pursue my dream of working in civil rights policy, and pay back those loans at a rate that doesn’t devastate my monthly budget. I’m able to do that because I’m paying off my loans under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

That’s why last week, I was extremely disheartened to learn that President Trump’s budget proposal calls for the end of the program that I, and so many hard working Americans, financially depend on in order to stay in public service — starting with loans taken out after July 1, 2018.

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is far from a liberal government hand-out.

I’m not a public servant who can afford to forgo my salary, or who never had to take out loans, so it may be hard for President Trump, his children/advisors, and Cabinet to understand my situation. But as a president, and staff to the president, it is their job to understand. I would know — I used to work at the White House.

After taking out loans to put myself through graduate school at Georgetown’s School of Public Policy, I was lucky enough to land my dream job working in President Obama’s White House on the Domestic Policy Council. For nearly the entire second term, I helped push for policies that aimed to bend the arc of the moral universe a little more toward justice—from women’s equality to foster care to LGBTQ rights to criminal justice reform. We had the honor to work for the American people, and while we almost never spoke about it, we all knew we worked for far less pay than our peers in the private sector. Public service requires self-sacrifice; it always has. But the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program made it possible for me use my education for a career in public service without the fear of a lifetime of debt.

But this loan forgiveness program isn’t just about me and my situation. The program was created to encourage and enable students of all backgrounds to enter public service — whether it is as a policy advisor at the White House or an elementary school teacher or a public defender. For years, borrowers make payments on their loans, and at the end of 120 qualifying payments (working in government or non-profits), their remaining loans are forgiven. At a minimum, it takes 10 years.

It should go without saying: the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is far from a liberal government hand-out. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007. To be eligible for debt forgiveness requires years of hard work and sacrifice. Work that is regularly unrecognized and unrewarded and often underpaid. But it is work that ultimately helps people and this program demonstrates the idea that service is not only valued, but necessary for a functioning democracy.

The program, like other public goods we as a society pay for, is part of what’s best about America. It represents a commitment to the idea that America recognizes your sacrifice and wants to reward and incentivize it by making it a little less risky to go into debt for your education. It enables talented individuals, who might otherwise only be able to afford to go into the private sector, to dedicate their skills to service. Eliminating it will signal to the rest of the world that America is no longer serious about our meritocratic and egalitarian principles. Even worse, the cancellation of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program will signal a generation of aspiring public servants that a public service path is either not valued or is only available to those born to privilege.

Given his track record with education, I shouldn’t be surprised by President Trump’s actions. But that doesn’t mean I still can’t be bitterly disappointed. The budget is now in Congress’s hands. Once again, our fate rests with congressional Republicans. I can only hope they will remember that they are public servants too.

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