In 2007, Congress created the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. In a nutshell, PSLF aimed to help college and professional school graduates with heavy loan debt take low-paying, public service jobs. PSLF states that, if a graduate works in public service for 10 years and makes all of her payments on time, the rest of her debt will be forgiven. For many graduates, this is life-changing.
“Public service” here is defined pretty broadly. It includes government employees at all levels — from Justice Department lawyers to military service members to public school teachers (excluding only members of Congress); it also includes workers for nearly all nonprofits, AmeriCorps, Peace Corps and most public interest law organizations. PSLF is not an easy path: One must have taken out eligible loans (Federal Direct Loans) and then made the 120 monthly payments separately, on time and in full, after which any remaining debt will be forgiven. This can spare a student from a considerable chunk of loan debt, as well as much of the interest that accrues on that debt; further, under PSLF, students don’t have to pay taxes on the forgiven debt.
PSLF was created explicitly to benefit high-debt graduates taking a specific kind of low-paying job. If a student has low-enough debt or high-enough earnings, PSLF is mostly irrelevant to her, since she’ll likely have her loans paid off in 10 years anyway.
No one’s studied it too closely, but, eight years later, PSLF looks like a success. Public interest lawyer Isaac Bowers wrote in a Huffington Post blog post that “The initial results of a survey designed by Equal Justice Works … indicate PSLF is playing a critical role in allowing many people to embark on, and remain in, long-term public interest careers.” This survey quoted one respondent as writing, “Public Service Loan Forgiveness is critical to my ability to work at a nonprofit and serve the greater good. Without it, I would be forced to leave my current job and work for a much higher salary.”
In recent months, however, PSLF is looking increasingly doomed. In President Obama’s proposed 2015 budget, he suggested capping the amount forgiven at $57,500. To put this number in perspective, many of PSLF’s recipients are law graduates; according to a recent New America Foundation study, the average law graduate debt is over $140,000. In order to be debt-free after 10 years, the average graduate in debt would have to pay off more than $80,000 in a decade; meanwhile, the median starting salary for a legal services attorney is less than $43,000. If a lawyer stays in this field for 11 to 15 years, she can expect her salary to go up to a princely $65,000.
But then the situation got worse. Last Tuesday, Republicans in the House of Representatives released a plan to eliminate PSLF altogether. Now let’s take our $43,000- a-year public services attorney. According to public interest lawyer Sam Wright, in order to pay off an average amount of debt in 10 years, with interest and without PSLF, a legal services attorney would have to pay “almost half” of her annual income yearly.
It’s easy to be mad at the sociopathic Republicans in Congress, or the wimpy Democrats in the White House. It’s easy to throw up one’s hands and rant. Especially since Yale has such excellent financial aid compared with nearly every other school, it’s easy to just ignore this whole situation.
But I blame something larger. I blame a culture that has completely devalued careers in public interest and public service. I blame a culture that asserts that working in public service is somehow soft or quaint or ineffective. I blame Ronald Reagan, who famously said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” I blame the Tea Party. I blame the Democrats, who seem far more comfortable serving corporate interests than aiding those attempting to help others.
At Yale specifically, I blame a culture that has taught us that greed is acceptable, that social responsibility is meaningless and that judging our peers’ career choices is taboo.
We don’t need more bankers and consultants and corporate lawyers. We need more teachers and social workers and public defenders. Let’s look at the legal profession again. David Stern, the Executive Director of Equal Justice Works (and no relation), wrote in a post on the Harvard Law Record: “There is just one legal aid attorney available for every 6,415 low-income Americans. About 80 percent of defendants in criminal cases can’t afford a lawyer, and the majority of parties in housing, probate and family courts across the country go unrepresented.”
This column is not intended to suggest a way to save PSLF. If you take just one thing away from this column, let it be this: Don’t contribute to a discourse that continues to devalue or stigmatize public interest or public service. Don’t be part of a culture that scoffs at trying to help those around us.
Scott Stern is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.