We’ve used this space to question the wisdom of President Joe Biden’s wide-eyed and grandiose plans to cancel billions of dollars in student loan debt for millions of Americans on a wholesale basis while he was on the campaign trail.
But no one should question Biden’s attempt to overhaul a notoriously troubled federal incentive program designed to encourage public service by offering student debt forgiveness to thousands of public workers, including teachers, nurses, police offers and firefighters.
When it comes to forgiving student loan debt, Biden deserves applause for this effort.
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Program, signed into law by then-President George W. Bush in 2007, offered college students a deal — if you work in government or for qualifying nonprofits and make your monthly student loan payments for 10 years, the federal government will forgive your remaining loan balance.
That sounded good, but in practice, the PSLF was a disaster both for borrowers and the government. The program was confusing and difficult to navigate due to convoluted rules and borrowers receiving little help from their loan servicers, the companies that handled billing and other services.
After making a decade of payments, many borrowers discovered that they had the wrong type of federal loan or repayment plan to be eligible for the program. Thousands have been straddled with debt that they thought would be erased, according to USA Today.
About 1.3 million people are trying to have their debts discharged through the program, but only 16,000 borrowers have been successful to date. That’s an abysmal record for a program that was supposed to help entice people into public service and other high-need fields.
The U.S. Education Department acknowledged as much this past week and pledged to reform the program to restore its original promise and to ensure people who make a good faith effort to abide by its terms are approved for loan forgiveness. Perhaps more importantly, the department promised to simplify the program going forward.
The department said it would loosen some of the rules that had prevented eligible borrowers from discharging their loans through a limited waiver that will continue through Oct. 31, 2022.
The department also said it would conduct a review of borrowers’ applications that have previously been denied and work to correct processing errors, according to Erich Wagner, of Government Executive.
The Education Department estimates that more than 550,000 borrowers will be helped financially, with 22,000 of those borrowers immediately eligible for forgiveness.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said borrowers who devote a decade of their lives to public service to their community and country should be able to rely on the promise of PSLF.