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Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

PSLF is in jeopardy. You can do something about it

Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) is the light at the end of the tunnel that makes a legal career in public service possible. This federal program allows borrowers who work for 10 years in a full-time public service position to earn forgiveness on eligible student loans. Sadly, this vital program is now at risk of elimination due to opposition from the White House and the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

PSLF was enacted in 2007 under the George W. Bush Administration with bipartisan support. Congress acted out of concern that stifling levels of education debt would force students to forgo lower-paying but socially valuable public service careers. U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas summarized the arguments in favor of PSLF: “[P]ublic servants will receive complete loan forgiveness after 10 years of service. This will assist our driven young people who want to serve their country in the military, law enforcement, or as first responders, fire fighters, nurses, public defenders, prosecutors, and early childhood educators. It ensures that dedicated Americans will not be precluded from serving their country because of a preponderance of debt.”1

PSLF was intended to assist a wide variety of public service professionals, but the program is especially important for public interest lawyers who require a JD for their public service work. Today’s law graduates often have $150,000 or more in education debt, and starting salaries for public sector attorneys are typically $50,000 or less. 

According to a National Legal Aid & Defender Association survey released this year, civil legal aid lawyers and public defenders said that PSLF enables them to accept and remain in public service work. Eighty-one percent of respondents who were aware of PSLF at the time they took their current job were significantly influenced by the program’s promise of loan forgiveness. The vast majority of respondents indicated that financial constraints make it at least somewhat likely they would need to leave their public service positions if PSLF did not exist. More than half indicated they would be very likely or certain to leave. They explained that without PSLF, it would be necessary to leave public service for private sector employment to be able to afford to start a family, purchase a first home, or start saving for retirement.2

Public service attorneys throughout Minnesota have expressed similar views about PSLF’s role in making their public service careers financially feasible. “As a first generation immigrant and the first in my family to attend law school, all I knew was that I wanted to serve my community,” says Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Fue Thao. “I didn’t realize just how much debt I would take on by choosing this career. After I found out about PSLF, I was reinvigorated about the potential to serve my community and the ability to pay my loans. I depend on PSLF to allow me to support my family and have peace of mind, knowing that being in the public sector can still mean being debt-free one day.”

Qualifying for PSLF

In order to achieve loan forgiveness, borrowers must make 120 income-driven monthly payments on federal direct loans while working full-time in qualifying employment. Income-driven repayment amounts are usually 10-15 percent of income above the federal poverty level as measured by household size. Most relevant to lawyers, qualifying employers include governmental entities and 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations. Borrowers don’t apply for the program until they have reached the 120 payments, but submitting an Employment Certification Form annually during repayment can help provide some reassurance they are satisfying the complex program requirements. Minnesota attorneys pursuing PSLF may also wish to reach out to their law school’s financial aid office or the Loan Repayment Assistance Program of Minnesota (LRAP Minnesota3) for guidance on accessing PSLF.

Ultimately, PSLF allows public interest attorneys to commit for the long haul to careers they excel in and love by forgiving the remaining balance on federal education loans after 10 years. Sarah Davis of the Legal Rights Center is among the 1,000 or so national borrowers expected to become eligible for PSLF in 2018.4 Davis, whose PSLF application is currently pending, says, “I am incredibly grateful for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. I went to law school because I wanted to pursue a career in public interest law, and PSLF made it possible for me to do so. 

“When I graduated, I was fortunate to have two job offers: one from a large corporate law firm and another, at a fraction of the salary, from the public defender’s office. PSLF made it possible for me to choose to follow my passion and begin my career in public interest law. The promise of PSLF, along with the critical support of [LRAP], has also made it possible for me to continue and grow in this career. I am now the associate director of the Legal Rights Center. I am so thankful to be at the point of applying for PSLF, and look forward to both continuing my own career in public interest law and supporting others who hope to dedicate their careers to this work.”

Because PSLF allows attorneys to commit to public service careers, outcomes are better for our clients and communities. Attorneys who qualify for PSLF can leverage their dedication and expertise to serve more clients with more complex legal matters, advancing access to justice.

Political jeopardy

Unfortunately, PSLF is vulnerable to elimination or drastic reductions for future borrowers, a move that would choke off the pipeline of public interest attorneys in Minnesota and throughout the nation. In December 2017, the U.S. House’s attempt to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, called the PROSPER Act, advanced out of committee. This act eliminates PSLF. No one knows when the PROSPER Act might come to the House floor for a vote, but House Democrats have responded with the Aim Higher Act, a Higher Education Act reauthorization bill that protects and expands PSLF. On the U.S. Senate side, Higher Education Act reauthorization discussions were active in early 2018, and could ramp back up at any time. It is critical that the Senate Higher Education Act reauthorization retain PSLF.

A national coalition of public service professions has formed to advocate for the preservation of PSLF. Among its members are attorney groups such as the ABA, Equal Justice Works, LRAP Minnesota, and the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. This coalition has created a one-stop tool to help you contact your members of Congress to urge them to preserve PSLF in its current form.5 Take action today by phone, email or social media at www.preservepslf.com/take-action . 

 

HEATHER RASTORFER VLIEGER has been the executive director of LRAP Minnesota for 15 years. She also serves on the MSBA’s Legal Assistance to the Disadvantaged Committee.

 

 

Notes

1 Vlieger, Heather Rastorfer; Brown, Daniel J.; and Pryor, Thomas (2012) “Doing More with Less: How the Loan Repayment Assistance Program of Minnesota Augments Federal Loan Repayment Assistance to Expand Legal Aid,” William Mitchell Law Review: Vol. 39: Iss. 1, Article 6 at 74. Available at: http://open.mitchellhamline.edu/wmlr/vol39/iss1/6 

2 The full NLADA report can be found at http://www.nlada.org/node/15046  

3 LRAP Minnesota helps reduce the education debt burden experienced by dedicated public interest lawyers working at 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations who represent low-income clients seeking legal services to secure essential needs like food, shelter and safety, and fundamental rights like equal access to justice. LRAP leverages PSLF by helping program attorneys successfully make 10 years of qualifying, income-driven payments. See www.lrapmn.org 

4 Marquit, Miranda (3/9/2018) “Has Anyone Actually Received Public Service Loan Forgiveness?” Available at https://studentloanhero.com/news/anyone-actually-received-public-service-loan-forgiveness/

5 Even a cap on Public Service Loan Forgiveness would effectively eradicate the program’s value for public service attorneys who have extreme debt-to-income disparities commensurate with graduate level degrees.

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