A call to service without debt

A call to service without debt
© Getty Images

As a country, we have encouraged our children to strive for bright futures. We prod them to go to college, pursue apprenticeship programs, and otherwise climb the ladder of opportunity by seeking educational opportunities beyond high school. But all too often, they leave these endeavors saddled with excruciating student loan debt, owing tens of thousands of dollars over the course of what otherwise would be promising careers. It is a financial ball and chain that hamstrings every choice they make about their future.

For decades, a program known as Public Service Loan Forgiveness has worked to ease that burden for Americans, while also promoting service to our nation. In exchange for 10 years of working in our military, public schools, civil service or nonprofit service organizations, qualified borrowers have the balance of their debt forgiven after 10 years of qualifying repayments. At its core, the program represents the most basic promise of higher education and of service to America, and those promises must be protected.

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Unfortunately, some in the Republican majority in the House of Representatives have other ideas. They have proposed the disastrous Prosper Act, which slashes many of the programs designed to help people afford an education and promote national service, including Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

The bill also guts minimum quality standards meant to protect students from subprime colleges, and weakens protections for student loan borrowers against predatory for-profit institutions, big banks, and even the federal agencies that loan them money. Instead of helping fulfill the promise of higher education, the Prosper Act destroys it entirely, opening the floodgates for bad actor corporations to fleece taxpayers and students.

There are 32 million Americans currently eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, and millions of teachers and active duty service members rely on it to help pay back the costs of their education. Federal agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is struggling to recruit medical professionals, also use it to attract qualified staff. No one goes into teaching or military service or nursing to get rich. Citizens do it to serve and protect their country, honor their communities, make a difference in the lives of others, and care for the sick.

Yet, instead of making it easier for Americans to serve their country and communities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosColleges, universities seeing rise in sexual assault claims, lawsuits Support for educational choice continues to grow Stand with veterans instead of predatory for-profit colleges MORE and House Education and Workforce Committee Chairwoman Virginia FoxxVirginia Ann FoxxTrump calls North Carolina redistricting ruling ‘unfair’ Women poised to take charge in Dem majority House passes bill putting restrictions on unfunded mandates MORE want to make it harder. They may talk about the heroism of public service, but are proposing to make those careers impossible to pursue unless you are wealthy.

There are about 200,000 active duty service members on the frontlines of keeping our country safe who owe a collective $2.9 billion in federal student loan debt, according to a recent report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. America honors the time those men and women spend in military service through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

The Pentagon, in a position paper opposing the Prosper Act, stated explicitly that Public Service Loan Forgiveness is essential to recruitment and retention of service members. The U.S. Navy, in a similar position paper opposing the bill, says its Judge Advocate General’s Corps would be decimated without Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

In addition to active duty service members, Public Service Loan Forgiveness also benefits military veterans, families, and survivors, both as beneficiaries of nonprofit organizations that support them across the country, and as workers at nonprofit service organizations, putting in long hours for low pay to serve their brethren in veterans service organizations, to support survivors of the fallen, and more.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness encourages veterans to transfer the leadership and other skills they acquired during military service to new careers in public service as teachers, first responders, law enforcement officials, and other sorely needed professionals. The program also helps recruit teachers and health workers, which our veterans and communities need desperately. We have seen thousands of teachers take to the streets to demand respect and resources, and we have heard countless stories of educators working two or three jobs just to afford rent and groceries.

These are not isolated incidents. Between 2000 and 2012, there was an 82 percent increase in the average debt load of education majors with a master’s degree. An astonishing 94 percent of teachers spend their own money on school supplies without reimbursement, and now lawmakers are threatening to eliminate the program that helps them repay their student loans, too. It is no surprise we have trouble attracting people to the teaching profession, and that it is becoming less diverse.

Congress ultimately has a responsibility to advance access to quality higher education, drive the costs down for students and families, and use taxpayer support for higher education to strengthen the American economy. If we cannot honor current law that helps service members, teachers, nurses, and other nonprofit workers pay off their college loans, then we ought to revisit our priorities as a nation.

Carrie Wofford is president of Veterans Education Success. Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers.