The White House’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget request proposes to eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, stating it unfairly favors some career choices and is complicated for borrowers to navigate. Instead, the administration intends to focus student loan assistance on needy undergraduate student borrowers from all professions and simplify the repayment process. The American Bar Association (ABA) opposes the administration’s proposal because it would adversely affect access to justice in communities across the country and is fighting to preserve the PSLF program.
The federal PSLF program, created in 2007, eliminates student debt for certain non-profit and government employees after ten years of qualified public service and eligible loan repayments. Public service often requires advanced degrees for professional licensure – for prosecutors, veterinarians, public defenders, legal aid lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, and many more. Graduates with these credentials often emerge saddled with crushing student loan debt.
Prior to the PSLF program, there was a glaring lack of incentives for professionals to work in the public sector. Graduating professionals were drawn to high-paying private sector work, and local communities struggled to fill other positions. In many cases, high debt, combined with the pay discrepancy between the public and private sectors, were a direct barrier to public service, especially for lawyers.
The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) reports that a significant number of law school students interested in public service are deterred from public service careers because of their education debt. A joint study between Equal Justice Works and NALP in 2002, surveying 1,622 law school students from 117 schools, concluded that 66% of students interested in public service saw loan debt as the primary factor preventing them from government or pro bono careers. That number has increased in recent years with the higher levels of student debt and relatively lower salaries for public servants.
Responding to the cry of communities in need, the PSLF program has encouraged lawyers to pursue public service jobs that support their communities and nation by alleviating the burden of their heavy student loan debt. In fact, a November 2017 survey by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association consisting of 3,369 justice system lawyers found that 87% of them were “much more likely” to accept job positions that qualify for PSLF. Over 50% of these lawyers were “very likely” or “certain” to leave their jobs if they did not qualify for the program.