Why the Federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is Unfair

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You probably aren’t even aware of this, but there’s a special loan forgiveness program available for recipients of federal student loans — but if you work for someone who has the nerve to be seeking a profit, you’re not eligible.

The program, established by the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, works like this: Work in a public-service job for 10 years while making payments on your Federal Direct loans and — as long as you don’t bump up against income limits — the rest of what you owe will be forgiven at the end of those 10 years.

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How is public service defined? Basically, it’s any job that involves working for the federal, state, or local government, or for a tax exempt 501(c)(3) non-profit — you know, like the American National Cattle Women Foundation.

If you have student loan debt and happen to be working at a government or non-profit job, you should be pleased with this program. But if you’re anyone else, you should be offended by it.

The most offensive part is the notion that anyone who works for the government is automatically involved in public service and therefore deserves help with their student loans that those of us in the private sector don’t deserve. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the idea of the government having special taxpayer-financed deals available only to a select cadre of people who work for Washington. Consider these two barely hypothetical scenarios:

  1. John works at a cancer research start-up. He devotes 80 hours a week to his work in the lab, and his $40,000 per year salary (he has stock options but most start-ups don’t go anywhere, so those are more like lottery tickets than income) barely covers the payments on his $30,000 in student loans. It would have been more, but he worked full-time during his undergrad years.
  2. Sam partied his way through college, racking up $30,000 in student loans, even though his parents paid for most of his expenses. Most of his student loan money was really used for living expenses — and by living expenses, I mean beer — and when he graduated, he used a family connection to land a job at his local Department of Motor Vehicles, where he processes license renewals. He’s the last one to work every day and the first one to leave, and most of the time he’s hungover. He also makes $40,000 per year.

Under the loan forgiveness program, John will have to pay back all his federal loans with interest. Sam will have all his loans forgiven after 10 years of payments because he is working in “public service.” If you think that’s the way it should work, I don’t know what to say. The reality is that there are many people working for the government who are not serving the public, and many people working for private companies who are serving the greater good.

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The notion that working for the government is automatically more worthy of loan forgiveness than working for a private company is downright offensive to the millions of people who work hard every day doing work that improves people’s lives while working for companies that happen to be privately owned.

One of the arguments in favor of this loan forgiveness program is that people who work for the government earn less than their private sector counterparts. Two problems with this argument:

  1. It’s debatable whether it’s even true. A USA Today analysis, for instance, found that federal workers earn more than double what their private sector counterparts earn.
  2. Even if it is true that people working for governments and non-profits earn less, offering loan forgiveness as part of these pay packages actually discriminates against anyone who doesn’t have student loans — effectively requiring them to perform the same work for a smaller pay package than someone with debt. This isn’t a program that attracts the best workers, it’s a program that attracts the workers with the most debt — and there is some evidence that financial stress actually inhibits productivity.

We need a comprehensive solution to the problem of excessive student loan debt in America. But that solution should benefit everyone, not just those who happen to work outside of the private sector.