04/03/2014 03:05 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2014

Punishing Public Service

Co-authored by Antar Tichavakunda

What's with our community organizer president? The Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program was created in 2007 as an incentive for college grads to take jobs that serve the community. Currently, graduates working in public service positions can apply for loan forgiveness and have all of their debt, regardless of the amount, forgiven after 10 years of monthly payments and 10 years of public service.

Recall John Kennedy's call to action: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Well, that's what this is about. This is a program that encourages young people to take low-paying public sector jobs. The only benefit attached to it has been that if we encourage college graduates to not simply ask, but actually act on "what they can do for their country" we'll forgive their college loans.

The 2015 proposed budget will make huge changes to the program. A limit of $57,000 will be placed on the debt that can be forgiven after ten years. So if you've accumulated less than 57,000 debt you're in luck. If you have more than that, then you're left holding the bill unless you work in the public sector for 25 years. Twenty-five years!

That's not fair. It totally defeats the purpose of the program.

Seniors in college may be left with the choice of following their heart and working for a nonprofit or following the money and taking a high-paying private sector job. Depending on how much debt they have from school, the proposed PSLF plan is even more of a reason not to start a career in the public sector. None of the changes made to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program seem forgiving.

The old saying holds true for this proposed budget: "No good deed goes unpunished." Many graduates with hopes of helping their community will be hurt by these changes. The middle-class graduates interested in public service who took out large loans because their families have a relatively high income but not enough wealth to foot the bill will suffer. This reform hits lawyers going into public interest law, doctors working in underserved communities, and teachers in inner-city schools. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, doctors typically incur $162,000 in debt and the American Bar Association reported that lawyers have over $75,000 in debt. The proposed changes leave them out in the cold.

The students with the greatest debt and highest need for loan forgiveness are left with the short end of the stick. What message are we sending to graduates interested in public service: "We will make it easier for you to pay back your loans if you only take out a small amount, but if you take out more than $57,000 in loans you might want to consider a more lucrative career?"

We need to change the conversation around loan repayment and service; we are not simply forgiving debt, we are also repaying public servants. Let's reward graduates who go into public service. For once, let's focus the conversation on the teachers, the non-profit workers, the public interest lawyers, the family doctors, the nurses, the public servants who put the needs of the community before their own. Simply put, these reforms would squeeze more money out of the workers who have the most debt.

Where's that community organizer president when we need him?