To the members of Congress:
I write this open letter to you because I still have faith in our Constitution’s system of checks and balances. I still believe that you have it in you to stop the madness and make decisions that will truly benefit this country and all of its citizens. I am hoping that you will not let me and so many others down.
I recently read a Washington Post article that outlined some of the proposed changes in the near-final version of the first full education budget. While these figures are still preliminary, I am outraged that essential programs that provide after-school services, adult basic literacy instruction, arts education, child care for low-income parents in college, mental health services, Advanced Placement, and other services are receiving deep cuts and/or being defunded altogether. However, in this letter, I want to address one specific proposed cut: Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). In fact, I want to put a face on these cuts. Let me tell you a little bit about myself.
I am a public servant. More specifically, I am a first generation, low-income, ethnic minority, tax-paying public servant. In fact, at 29 years old, I have been paying taxes for half my life as I have been working at least part-time since I was 14 years old. I always have excelled academically, graduating with honors from both high school and college, but more importantly, I always have engaged in efforts to support my community. I consider these efforts more important than academics because after you read more about me you may be tempted to believe that I have pulled myself up by my bootstraps.
However, my achievements and accomplishments are not my own. They are the achievements of my village — my community of family, friends, teachers, and mentors that have supported me, guided me, and cheered me on. As such, it is my duty to give back to the communities that have given so much to me. Academic success would be nothing without the skills and heart necessary to thrive in our society.
This duty to give back to my community has been a guiding force in my life. In high school alone, I racked up almost 1,000 hours of community service. In college, not only did I complete a minimum of 30 community service hours per quarter, but I led a state and city recognized outreach program that provides mentorship and college guidance to 120 at-risk high school sophomores and juniors from the Los Angeles Unified School District. Upon my graduation from college, I went on to serve two years as a full-time AmeriCorps volunteer where I completed over 3,000 service hours in a high-poverty community. These experiences shaped my career aspirations, as it was through my service that I realized I wanted to build my future career as an educator supporting students who would come after me.
Today I write to you as an Ivy League graduate having received my M.S.Ed. in higher education from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education (GSE). I now serve as an associate director at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, where I work full-time. I am also a part-time doctoral student at GSE and part-time master’s student at Penn Law.
Things have worked out pretty well for me. However, none of this would have been possible without the investment the federal government made in my education via student loans, without the support the government has provided me through income-driven repayment plans, and without the support I hope to someday receive through PSLF.
As my own story demonstrates, there is a demand for higher education. However, the costs for obtaining this education are increasing and outpacing family income. Students and families are expected to shoulder more of the burden of paying for higher education at a time when they are struggling to make ends meet because of the rising costs of living that exceed their income growth.
With my own efforts of helping my family out financially, my meager wage as a teenager was not enough to cover the educational costs of AP exams, college applications, let alone the rising college tuitions. The need to borrow to finance my education was a result of a shifting balance between federal and state roles in funding higher education and the responsibilities of students and families in paying. I was not alone in my needs, given that by 1981 loans had surpassed grants as the dominant form of federal aid due to the lower cost to taxpayers. The transformation of loans from a nod to middle-class families to a universal entitlement has allowed the federal government to increase aid to students at a much lower cost to taxpayers.
Students such as myself must rely on federal student loans more than previous generations have in order to pay for colleges that would otherwise be inaccessible or unaffordable. There has been a breakdown of the intergenerational compact and now more students must turn to loans to cover their education because the previous generation no longer wants to fund the education of others. To aid us in the repayment of these loans, the federal government has created several student loan forgiveness and income-driven repayment programs to make repayment manageable.
Now you may be thinking that I am trying to get out of paying my student loans. This is not true. I believe in leaving things better for those that come after me. I know that my monthly payments go back into the pot to help fund the educations of future students. As a taxpayer of 15 years, I know that it is my responsibility to help them just as it was the responsibility of the generation before me to help me fund my education. However, this has to be reasonable. It is not reasonable to ask our nation’s public servants to take on the burden of uplifting, supporting, and educating our citizenry without providing them with the security PSLF gives us.
Given the demographic shifts in our country, more students entering postsecondary education look like me. They come from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups and modest economic means and have experienced gaps in access and attainment. The large financial commitment required of us to participate in higher education creates an additional barrier to access and completion for those who need the most support. Government subsidies to higher education serve to ensure that all of us, regardless of socioeconomic status, have access to the opportunities afforded by higher education. Simply put, in the absence of government intervention I would not be sitting here writing to you today from my Ivy League desk.
The reality is that borrowing for college is opening doors for many of us and is helping far more people than it is hurting. Borrowing for college is actually a sensible idea given that tuition fees are outpacing available student aid and family incomes. Before obtaining an education, people have limited resources, but investing in education will boost their incomes over a lifetime. Therefore, investment in education is prudent if the borrower can utilize that education to make sufficient income to pay off the debt within a reasonable time period. However, this depends upon the assumption that the amount of debt is proportionate to the income that can reasonably be expected in the career for which the student has trained and that there will be sufficient employment opportunities after graduation. For many borrowers, these assumptions simply are not true.
In my case, and the case of most of my peers in education and other public service careers, these assumptions do not apply to us. I can confidently say that given my work experience and education, I could leave my public service career and perhaps triple my salary. However, I have never pursued the jobs that would fill my pockets with the most money but rather the jobs that will fill my heart with the most joy by allowing me to work with communities like my own. The investment the federal government is making in my education as I self-finance my doctorate is an investment made for a community of people that will benefit from my ervitude and gratitude.
In today’s economy, choosing to be a public servant is a hard choice to make. However, as a beneficiary of the Department of Education’s (ED) income-driven repayment plans, I am able to manage the repayment of my student loans while engaging in work for the public good. More importantly, I trusted ED; I knew that I had the freedom to pursue a career in public service because PSLF would be there to help me make ends meet as a thank you for my labor and positive contributions to our society. Before I committed to a career in service, I did my due diligence and researched how I could manage my student loan debt after graduation. I did not go into this blindly as I discovered federal programs that gave me payment flexibility and would even forgive a significant portion of my debt. Knowing I had these options solidified my decision to be where I am today.
Some of you may be thinking, “Well, the proposed plan isn’t to get rid of income-driven repayment options so you will be fine.” My gripe here is not with the proposed changes to the repayment plans, but with the proposal to cut PSLF. In the Washington Post article, Jason Delisle from the American Enterprise Institute is quoted as stating that if one has income-based repayment, PSLF is not necessary as it is duplicative and income-based repayment already makes the payments affordable. If you inform yourselves on how these programs work separately and together, you will understand that this is simply not true. Public servants are depending on the forgiveness PSLF is set to provide.
While we know that the granting of loan forgiveness and loan repayment benefits to borrowers will result in costs to the federal government and taxpayers, limited information is available on the actual costs that will be incurred by these programs. The only information available on program costs are estimates. Because these programs have not yet issued out benefits, there is also no concrete data available on who will benefit the most from these forgiveness programs. As such, it is premature to begin having conversations about cutting these programs as we do not have sufficient information on which to base these decisions. I only have my own living testimony and my hopes for how these programs will benefit me, but that alone feels like more than what ED has provided us in terms of information.
Congress, I ask that you don’t force me to leave a career that I love, a career that helps others, a career that is not my own but that belongs to my village. When PSLF is on the chopping block, I ask you to save this program for me. Don’t think about abstract projections and theories about programs that haven’t even been given the chance to issue out its first set of benefits. Asking you to save this program for me may sound like a selfish ask, but what it really means is that I want you to think about who I represent, the communities that look like me, the students who will come after me, and the public servants who have dedicated their careers to making our country a better place.
If the proposed changes in repayment programs are implemented and PSLF is cut, you will be sentencing me to 30 years of loan repayment. While you may believe that this is my burden for pursuing an education, this is our burden. You don’t get to leave me hanging when I need you the most. You don’t get to leave all of us hanging. Public servants are dedicating their lives to making this country a better place every day and for that, they should be applauded not punished.
Paola Esmieu is the associate director for programs at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions and is currently a part-time Ed.D. student in Higher Education at Penn Graduate School of Education and a part-time master’s student at Penn Law.