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Over 200 groups urge Biden to forgive student debt for nurses, military members, and other public...

September 22, 2021

The Honorable Miguel Cardona Secretary

United States Department of Education

400 Maryland Avenue SW

Washington, DC 20202

Secretary Cardona:

We, the more than 200 undersigned union, student, consumer, higher education, public health, workforce, public interest, professional, military, and faith organizations representing millions of public service workers and student loan borrowers are writing to urge you to take administrative action to ensure that all public service workers who have completed a decade of service receive the debt relief they were promised. As part of this administrative action, the Department of Education must guarantee that any and all changes to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program aren't just prospective but provide retroactive relief to all dedicated public service workers with student debt. This action should be immediate and need not wait for the Department of Education to write new rules.

Since the Department of Education called for comments on the future of PSLF, nearly 45,000 individual student loan borrowers from all 50 states have shared their stories— demanding the Biden Administration restore the promise of this critical protection. These public comments describe how workers across the country have faced widespread, systemic barriers to PSLF while responding to an unprecedented public health emergency, navigating a deep economic recession, and struggling to emerge from an unequal economic recovery. Throughout the pandemic, public service workers have remained on the hook for debts they should not owe, taking a heavy psychological and financial toll month after month.

Congress, in a bipartisan fashion, made a promise more than a decade ago that public service workers who choose to give back to their communities and our country wouldn't be locked in a lifetime of debt. This promise ensured aspiring nurses, educators, and millions of others were not precluded from pursuing these careers due to the dual financial pressures of stagnant wages and ever-rising student loan balances, and that underserved communities were able to attract public service professionals to their communities.

This promise has been broken.

Since the first public service workers became eligible for debt cancellation in 2017, 98 percent of those who applied have been rejected. Despite reassurances from the Department of Education that these were just initial missteps and that rates of debt cancellation granted under this program would improve over time, year after year we continue to see widespread denials without explanation and no serious effort to address the underlying problems driving this systemic failure.

Throughout the history of this program, government mismanagement and industry abuses have knocked a generation of dedicated public service workers off track, including student loan borrowers across the public sector and those serving at nonprofit organizations. This led to predictably poor results, highlighted in warnings from government auditors,1 regulators,2 law enforcement officials,3 and Members of Congress.4

Millions of people who planned their lives and livelihoods around the promise of PSLF deserve better. That’s why, earlier this year, the largest international labor unions5; organizations representing servicemembers, veterans, and their families6; a coalition of 100 student, consumer, civil rights, and public interest organizations7; and more than 50 U.S. Senators and Members of Congress8 called on you to immediately take critical steps to restore the promise of the PSLF program.

Building on this call to action, we urge you to follow these three central principles when delivering overdue debt relief to our nation’s dedicated public service workforce:

  1. Eliminate all student debt owed by those who have served for a decade or more. We call on you to establish new, streamlined criteria for a simple, straightforward path to cancel debt for all who have worked in public service for a decade or more. The current payment pause presents a unique opportunity to bring an end to the mismanagement and abuse that have become the hallmarks of PSLF. Simply, our remedy cannot require dedicated public service workers to start anew, following an equally complicated

multi-year pathway to access relief, as the prior Administration had done. This relief must also be extended regardless of current employment status, ensuring all who have served can benefit. The elimination of public service workers’ debts must be underway before restarting student loan payments and before the imminent departure of the Education Department’s primary PSLF loan contractor— ensuring no public service worker who has served for a decade ever receives another student loan bill.

  1. Grant one year of credit for each year of service for all public service workers who owe any type of federal student loan. This effort should grant prorated credit toward PSLF for every public service worker with student debt who has served for less than a decade. Regardless of borrowers’ loan type, loan status, or repayment plan, the Department of Education must recognize and reward borrowers’ service, consistent with congressional intent. By reorienting the criteria for eligibility to focus solely on the duration of public service performed, the Department of Education will also make public service workers whole where they have been the victims of widespread deception and fraud by the student loan industry.9

  2. Ensure relief to public service workers is automatic. To the maximum extent possible, the Department of Education should automate the process of verifying and awarding credit to borrowers who owe these debts, relying on information already collected or available through other government agencies. Last month, the Department of Education used this approach to protect military borrowers, delivering debt relief to more than 47,000 current and former active duty service members by leveraging existing government records about borrowers’ employment to automatically waive interest charges.10 The Department of Education should build on this framework, leveraging a wide range of federal, state and local government records—including employment records maintained by the federal Office of Personnel Management, Internal Revenue Service records of employer tax status, and personnel logs maintained by public school districts—to identify and automate access to PSLF for all borrowers who can be identified as public service workers.

As noted above, in the weeks since launching this public inquiry, ED has received nearly 45,000 comments from affected student loan borrowers and other stakeholders, offering new insight into the myriad failures of the failed program. These comments have come from educators, frontline workers, legal aid workers and public defenders, firefighters, contingent faculty members, workers laid off due to COVID-19, social workers, among other key segments of our nation’s public service workforce. Yet the consequences of breakdowns around PSLF cannot be captured in a rejection rate or an average loan balance. Individual borrowers’ narratives illustrate the heavy toll that widespread government mismanagement and industry abuses have taken from public service workers with student loan debt.11

During your confirmation hearing, you committed to using all of the tools at your disposal to provide student loan borrowers with immediate relief. You also committed to “boldly address” inequities across our education system.12 The burden of student debt falls disproportionately on Black and Brown borrowers— those who, as a result of a racial wealth gap driven by systemic racism, most often lack the familial wealth necessary to obtain a debt-free higher education in America. Unfortunately, a growing body of evidence also demonstrates that these borrowers frequently miss out on existing avenues for debt relief enacted by Congress.13 For these reasons, fixing existing loan forgiveness programs so that the Department lives up to the promises required under law should be one of the first places you start.

Should the Department identify legal, statutory, or regulatory barriers to implementing the steps described above, we believe you must invoke your authority under the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act or other statutory authorities, that allow you to waive or modify statute and regulations as necessary.14

Once again, we urge you to take immediate administrative action outside of the rulemaking process to deliver the promise that all public service workers who have completed a decade of service see their student debt eliminated, that those workers who have completed less than a decade of service have their past work credited toward full relief, and ensure any action is not limited to prospective change, but delivers retroactive relief for all public service workers. As you take the actions described above, we look forward to meeting with you and your staff to discuss the timeline and tactics the Department will deploy to fix the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. We stand ready to assist you and President Biden in this effort.

Sincerely,

Student Borrower Protection Center Equal Justice Works

American Federation of Teachers National Education Association

603 Forward

AASA, The School Superintendents Association Accountable.US

Administration of Resources and Choices (ARC) Affordable Homeownership Foundation Inc.

Affordable Housing Centers of PA ALAA UAW Local 2325

Alaska PIRG

Alliance for Youth Action

American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education American Association of University Professors

13 https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3726183

14 P.L. 108-76

American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE)

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) American Library Association

American Psychological Association

Americans for Financial Reform Education Fund Arizona Housing Coalition

Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO Association of Educational Service Agencies (AESA)

Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) Association of People Supporting Employment First (APSE) Association of Schools Advancing Health Professions Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health Association of Young Americans

Autistic Self Advocacy Network Bet Tzedek

Blue Future

Broome County Urban League Inc California Association of Nonprofits CCCS of Buffalo

Center for Economic Integrity

Center for LGBTQ Economic Advancement & Research (CLEAR) Center for Responsible Lending

Center for Workers' Rights

Central American Resource Center-CARECEN Central Islip Civic Council, Inc.

Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy Chicago Foundation for Women Child Care Law Center

Citizens for Public Schools Civil Service Bar Association Clarifi

CNC

Coastal Enterprises, Inc.

Committee of Interns and Residents / SEIU Community Reinvestment Solutions, Inc, Community Service Society of New York

Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, U.S. Provinces Consumer Action

Consumer Credit and Budget Counseling, Inc d/b/a National Foundation for Debt Management Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland and Delaware, Inc.

Consumer Federation of America Consumer Federation of California Consumer Reports

Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety

Cook County Public Defenders Office Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas Council on Social Work Education Cuban American National Council, Inc. CWA Local 1036

CWA Local 1081

Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation DC37 Municipal Employees Legal Services Debt Collective

Debt-Free MD, Inc. (Maryland) DevNW

Disability Rights Maine Empire Justice Center Equal Rights Advocates Equality Maine

Financial Inclusion for All Illinois Financial Pathways of the Piedmont Forum for Youth Investment

Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard Fosterus

Frayser CDC Greenpeace USA Heartland Alliance Hildreth Institute HomeFree-USA

Horizons, A Family Service Alliance Housing Action Illinois

Housing and Economic Rights Advocates Housing Opportunities of Fort Worth, Inc. Housing Options & Planning Enterprises, Inc. Hudson County Housing Resource Center Illinois PIRG

International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF)

International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) Inversant

Investor Advocates for Social Justice Ironbound Community Corporation Jain Family Institute

La Vida Scholars

Law Foundation of Silicon Valley

Law Students for Climate Accountability Latino Action Network

Lawrence CommunityWorks LCLAA

Legal Action Chicago Legal Aid at Work

Los Ángeles Center for Law and Justice Maine Center for Economic Policy Maine Community Action Partnership Maine Education Association

Maine Immigrants Rights Coalition Maine Public Health Association Maine Youth for Climate Justice Margert Community Corporation Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition

Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance Miami Valley Community Action Partnership Midwest College Project

Minority Veterans of America Mobilization for Justice

Mt. Airy CDC

National Action Network

National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd National Association of Consumer Advocates

National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA) National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners

National Association of Social Workers

National CAPACD- National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development National Consumer Law Center (on behalf of our low-income clients)

National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) National Housing Law Project

National Housing Resource Center National League for Nursing National NeighborWorks Association National Rural Education Association Navicore Solutions

New Era Colorado

New Hampshire Youth Movement New Jersey Citizen Action

New Jersey State Conference of the AAUP New York Legal Assistance Group

New York State Defenders Association, Inc. New Yorkers for Responsible Lending

Newtown Community Development Corporation NextGen California

NHS of Los Angeles County

Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, IFPTE Local 70 North Carolina Council of Churches

Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition Northfield Community LDC

OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates

Office of the External Affairs Vice President, Associated Students of the University of California Ohio Student Association

OneJustice

OnTrack WNC Financial Education & Counseling Our Revolution

Partnership for College Completion Peace Financial Center

Penquis

People's Parity Project

PHENOM (Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts) Project LIFT

Public Counsel Public Justice Center Public Law Center

Refugee Family Assistance Program Revolving Door Project

Rise

Rockland Housing Action Coalition, Inc. Sandhills Community Action Program Inc SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center SEIU local 509

Service Employees International Union Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia Social Security Works

Sowing Empowerment & Economic Development, Inc. Spanish American Committee

SparkAction

St. Petersburg Neighborhood Housing Services, Inc. dba Neighborhood Home Solutions Student Debt Crisis Center (SDCC)

Student Veterans of America Suzanne Hawley Counseling, LLC

Tanglewood Nature Center & Museum- non-profit Texas Appleseed

The Homeowners Employment Corporation The People's Lobby

The Western New York Law Center, Inc. Trellis

Tri-City Peoples Corporation

Troy Rehabilitation and Improvement Program, Inc.

Tzedek DC uAspire

UnidosUS

United States Student Association United Way Bay Area

United Ways of Texas UnKoch My Campus

Urban League of Middle Tennessee Urban League of Northwest Indiana Urban League of Portland

Urban League of Racine and Kenosha Urban League of Rochester

U.S. PIRG

Virginia Poverty Law Center Women Employed

Working Families Party Worksafe

Wyandanch Community Development Corporation Young Invincibles

Zero Debt Massachusetts

2 https://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/documents/201706_cfpb_PSLF-midyear-report.pdf

3 https://www.mass.gov/news/ag-healey-sues-to-protect-public-service-loan-forgiveness; https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2019/ag-james-sues-student-loan-servicer-mismanaging-loan-forgiveness

-program;

https://oag.ca.gov/news/press-releases/attorney-general-becerra-sues-secretary-devos-and-us-departme nt-education

4

https://www.cardin.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Bicameral%20Oversight%20Letter%20to%20Ed%20Dept% 20on%20PSLF%20Implementation.pdf; https://quigley.house.gov/sites/quigley.house.gov/files/PSLF%20IL%20Letter%202019.05.03.pdf

5

https://educationvotes.nea.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/FINAL-labor-letter-on-emergency-PSLF-actio n.pdf.pdf

6 https://vetsedsuccess.org/our-letter-to-dod-ed-asking-them-to-improve-pslf/

7 https://protectborrowers.org/advocates-pslf-letter/

8

https://sarbanes.house.gov/sites/sarbanes.house.gov/files/05.05.2021_LETTER_Sec-Cardona-PSLF-Imp rovements.pdf

9 https://protectborrowers.org/public-service-loan-forgiveness-2/

10

11 For example, military borrowers: https://bit.ly/3u25YnC; FFEL borrowers: https://bit.ly/3zCfCyl; teachers: https://bit.ly/3zDG6zS; frontline workers: https://bit.ly/39syFk7; legal service workers and public defenders: https://bit.ly/3zx4q6i; fire fighters: https://bit.ly/3kwr6iR; nurses: https://bit.ly/3lLLHPG; social workers: https://bit.ly/3kwza31; and Connecticut borrowers: https://bit.ly/3nYiiEA.

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