Comparing the student loan program to a thunderstorm may be an understatement. It might be more accurate to compare the program to a hurricane bearing down on the Gulf Coast at 150 miles an hour. And–extending my hurricane analogy a bit further, we might say the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) is the “dirty side of the storm.” In fact, Diane Jones, a senior DOE official, called PSLF a “disaster” earlier this week. Jones said the Department of Education does not support PSLF, although it will meet its legal obligations to administer the program.
But DOE is not administering the PSLF program, or–to be more accurate–DOE is not administering the program competently. As has been widely reported, DOE had processed 28,000 PSLF loan forgiveness applications by late September and only approved 96! What’s going on?
Personally, I think DOE number crunchers looked at PSLF and realized that the program will be extremely expensive if it is administered correctly–shockingly expensive. DeVos and her senior minions know the program will cost taxpayers billions of dollars if DOE processes loan-forgiveness applications in accordance with PSLF participants’ reasonable expectations.
As Jason Delisle said in a 2016 paper for the Brookings Institute, by at least one interpretation, PSLF’s definition of eligible participants is quite broad. Delisle estimates that one quarter of the entire American workplace is a public service worker and all these people are eligble to participate in PSLF if they have student loans.
Delisle cited a 2015 General Accountability Office report in support of his conclusion. On page 10, footnote 19, GAO said borrowers are eligible for loan forgiveness under PSLF if they are “employed full time by a public service organization or serving in a full-time Americorps or Peace Corps position.”
What is a “public service organization? This is what GAO said:
Qualified public service organizations include those in federal, state, local government; 501(C) nonprofits; and other nonprofit organizations providing a variety of public services.
That definition is a lot broader than the common perception that PSLF is open primarily to nurses, police officers, and first responders. I know for a fact that many student borrowers who work at public universities and community colleges believe they are eligible for loan forgiveness through PSLF.
We will get some guidance about who is eligible for PSLF when the American Bar Association’s lawsuit against DOE is decided. ABA sued DOE in 2016 when it denied PSLF eligibility to public-service lawyers working under ABA’s auspices. ABA wants a federal court to rule that its employees are eligible for PSLF; and ABA and DOE have both filed motions for summary judgment.
If a federal court declares ABA to be a public service organization whose employees are eligible for PSLF student-loan forgiveness that will be an indication that DOE’s narrow interpretation of a public service organization is far too narrow and legally incorrect.
In the meantime, almost a million people have applied to have their student loans certified as eligible for PSLF. Of the 28,000 people who filed for loan forgiveness since last September, DOE granted forgiveness to less than 1 percent. DOE declared that seventy percent of the applicants were ineligible.
Millions of people working in the public sector took out student loans in the reasonable belief they are eligible for loan forgiveness after ten years of public service.
DOE has taken the position that most of these student-loan borrowers are wrong. No wonder DOE Undersecretary Diane Jones calls PSLF a “disaster.”
|PSLF is a “disaster” according to DOE official|
Stacy Cowley. 28,000 Public Servants Sought Student Loan Forgiveness. 96 Got It. New York Times, September 27, 2018.
Stacy Cowley. Student Loan Forgiveness Program Approval Letters May Be Invalid. New York Times, March 30, 2017.
Jason Delisle. The coming Public Service Loan Forgiveness bonanza. Brookings Institution Report, Vol 2(2), September 22, 2016.
Betsy DeVos. Prepared Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to Federal Student Aid’s Training Conference. November 27, 2018.
Casey Quinlan. Education Department official slams Public Service Loan Forgiveness program as ‘disaster.’ thinkprogress.org, December 4, 2018.
Jordan Weissmann. Betsy DeVos Wants to Kill a Major Student Loan Forgiveness Program, Slate, May 17, 2017.
U.S. Government Accountability Office. Federal Student Loans: Education Could Do More to Help Ensure Borrowers are Aware of Repayment and Forgiveness Options. GAO-15-663 (August 2016).