The program has not yet cost the government anything; the first class of beneficiaries is on track to have any remaining debt erased beginning in October. But it could become expensive. Government estimates show that a quarter of the nation’s workers, with loans adding up to more than $100 billion, could conceivably be eligible.
And so it became an easy target for President Trump’s cost-cutting budget, which proposes to scrap the initiative after June 2018, and replace it with a less-generous plan available to graduates regardless of their jobs. (The loans of those accepted into the current program before the cutoff date would still be forgiven.)
The program has been praised for enticing college graduates to take on low-paying public service jobs, and criticized as perversely enticing students to take on large amounts of debt.
As Congress debates whether to go along with this and many other proposed cuts, some of the loan program’s beneficiaries spoke about how it shaped their decisions about what to do with their lives.
Reducing the Stress
Tanika Bango, 37, Orlando, Fla.
Chief of staff for an Orlando city commissioner
Student debt: $70,000
I’m very grateful for this program because I don’t have an added level of stress, of worrying about how I’m going to pay my bills. My student loans are the biggest debt that I have.
Making more money to be able to afford to pay bills is the ultimate goal, so had the opportunity presented itself, I don’t know that I would have said no. But that’s just not the reality.
The reality is, students don’t graduate with high-paying salaries; that’s fake news. It’s only a small portion of students that graduate from college that are able to take on high-salary jobs to even afford a student loan payment.
I service the community in which I grew up. It’s an urban community and there are a lot of challenges as it relates to poverty and education. And because I have a law degree and am educated, it allows me to be able to inform the community and to give them hope, to say, “Hey, I wasn’t limited by the area in which I grew.”
‘We Are in the Top 1 Percent’
Dr. Charles Phillips, 32, Philadelphia
Enrolled in a pediatric hematology and oncology fellowship
Student debt: $300,000
We make very good money. We are in the top 1 percent nationally in terms of our income. I cannot complain.
It’s a privilege to research pediatric cancer, so I think I would have made the same career decisions ultimately, but I would have taken a different path. I would have delayed a couple years, tried to make as much money as possible in the private sector, paid down loans, and then come back.
If everybody who was eligible took advantage of this program, I don’t see how it is financially solvent. If you think of all the teachers, the public defenders, the physicians that are eligible for this, it is an astronomic amount of money.
That being said, I would make more money in private practice than by doing research. So if you want people to take that pay cut, you need to have something to offset that.
Hopping In and Out
Dominique Whittaker, 29, Seattle
Communications manager, Microsoft; previously worked for a nonprofit serving at-risk youth
Student debt: $114,500
I think it gives you a light at the end of the tunnel when you graduate college and you realize, “I have thousands of dollars in debt and the job I just accepted pays a fraction of what that is.”
Nonprofit work allows you to connect to causes that are really important to you, so for me it was working with at-risk youth, helping them get out of toxic living environments and learn the skills they needed to be an adult in the world.
I put in three and a half years of loan payments and recently took a job at Microsoft. (The required 10 years of public service do not need to be consecutive.) My logic was, I’ll hop out of the nonprofit world, go into the corporate world, get on a career track and make enough money so that I can come back into the nonprofit work that I really enjoy, but also be able to afford to live.
You need public servants to fill in the gaps where the government falls short, and so, for the government to say they’re going to completely abandon this program because it costs too much is a slap in the face to the people who are taking on the burden that the government leaves on the table.
Paying Dues to Cut Debt
Rafael Enriquez, 37, San Diego
Student debt: $108,000
I worked on Hurricane Sandy repairs on the veterans hospital. Now I work on the buildings where Navy SEALs train in San Diego.
I never knew a Hispanic architect, and I didn’t see many when I was going to school, either, because on top of getting into college and getting loans, these niche job sectors aren’t diverse because we can’t afford to take on the debt. We’re not independently wealthy from our parents.
I’ll get calls and emails from companies asking if I’m interested in jobs that pay more, but in the long term it doesn’t make sense.
Honestly, the government work is boring, there’s no creative upside, so if it wasn’t for the financial benefit of it, I would have never joined.
Once this program is completed and I’ve paid off my debt, I’m going to go back to the private sector where I can be rewarded not just financially, but creatively too.
‘I Can Manage’
Joseph Oudin, 24, Washington
Research assistant, Global Terrorism Database, University of Maryland
Student debt: $51,000
My payments aren’t insurmountable, and I can manage. If the program were to go away, it would create a disincentive for people to stay in public service, which I think is unfortunate because we definitely need well-qualified public sector employees.
Terrorism is a very emotional topic for people, and my goal in working in terrorism research is to help alleviate misconceptions that people might have about it, and provide an accurate picture of the scale of the problem.
We’re a database of all terrorist attacks globally dating back to the 1970s. The State Department uses our statistics to do their annual report on global terrorism, and a lot of different organizations use our statistics.
I sort through thousands of news articles per week to help build our database, and I focus specifically on the outcomes, so I work to estimate how many casualties occurred in each terrorist attack.
Law Degree and Dream Job
Neeraj Kumar, 26, Oakland, Calif.
Legal fellow for nonprofit advocacy organization
Student debt: $61,500
I’m planning to start a one-year fellowship with a legal nonprofit doing advocacy for Bay Area residents who have criminal records by providing education about corrective remedies, or means by which people with criminal histories can pursue employment and education.
The work had always been a dream, but I think the reality of it mostly came as a result of me knowing that I could offset my debt by doing it.
Accepting a public interest job in the Bay Area of California in 2017 is not feasible. It’s sort of an economic reality, and I think the fact that that’s being ignored is kind of depressing.
Overcoming an Arrest
Joey Danner, 32, Seminole County, Fla.
Middle school teacher
Student debt: $40,000
I teach eighth-grade social studies. I wanted to be a teacher for a long time, but the funding of the degree just wasn’t there. After doing the research and finding out about public loan forgiveness, that solidified my decision.
I had an arrest record from when I was a young kid, for possession of marijuana. I was on a road trip with some friends — it was the smallest, silliest amount. We got pulled over for speeding, they searched the car and they found it, and that was that.
I had to wait five years to enter the public school system. Personally it was important for me to get a graduate degree to help me obtain a position and rise above that blip on my résumé.