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Monday, May 16, 2022

OPINION:

Americans are understandably up in arms about inflation and rising gas prices, and they are equally upset that President Biden’s plan to forgive billions of dollars in student loans is unfair to taxpayers. But when it comes to free student loan forgiveness, there’s one group that loses out here more than the average taxpayer — public servants who earned student loan repayment from years of hard work.

As a military officer who served in the U.S. Army Reserve as a judge advocate, I know many soldiers who volunteered for service with the promise of student loan repayment. There is no question that educational benefits are a powerful incentive to do the hard work of serving. Unfortunately, a lot of public servants and soldiers who earned loan repayment have not been reimbursed, and we as a nation should prioritize honoring our commitment to those who served above loan forgiveness for those who have not.


President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew what an important incentive educational benefits were, and that’s why he signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 during the Second World War, a law more commonly known as the G.I. Bill. The law was partially inspired due to the poor treatment of veterans from the First World War, and the fact that Congress saw a need to cast military service in a positive light with a message: When you help America, America helps you.

By the peak of the Eisenhower presidency, 7.8 million veterans had tapped into the bill’s educational benefits, 2.2 million used it to attend colleges and universities and 5.6 million used it for other training programs. Since then, loan repayment was extended to nonmilitary service after President John F. Kennedy created AmeriCorps 1965 with help from Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In 2007, Mr. Bush enacted the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which offered to eliminate student loan debt for 10 years of service in local, state or federal agencies.

Sadly, most of these educational benefit programs were poorly administered, and, as a result, many who earned debt cancellation have been overlooked. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 92% of military borrowers who applied for loan forgiveness were denied by the Department of Education, and an April 22 Washington Post article reports that between 2017 and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, only 2% of applicants asking for repayment from Mr. Bush’s program were made whole.

In October, the Biden administration changed some of the rules to finally help some of these legitimate applicants get what they deserved. Still, GAO reports there are about 177,000 active-duty soldiers who could be eligible for loan forgiveness who aren’t breaking through the red tape. The agency reports that more than half of them owe more than $13,000.

“A lot is at stake for the armed forces, too. In an all-volunteer system, it has a tough time finding people to fill mission-critical jobs, including doctors and information technology specialists, for whom the forgiveness program could be an effective recruitment tool, the GAO noted. In a survey of military lawyers, 94% said they would be more likely to quit the service if the program were eliminated,” The Washington Post reported.

The newspaper added that, ironically, one of the most common problems service members have, is convincing the Department of Education they actually served in the armed forces. As a military lawyer, I heard this complaint from many of my fellow soldiers.

There is no question that many young people are stuck with overwhelming student loan debt. To make matters worse, many strapped themselves with such debt by earning multiple advanced degrees in low-demand areas instead of mastering one high-demand area. Having existed for so long within a university bubble, many young people were encouraged to stay there instead of entering the real world to earn and stop accumulating debt. This helped universities profit at the expense of young people.

Still, loan forgiveness without public service of some kind sends the wrong message. It discourages young people from earning anything while leaving them in the same aimless place they are now. As someone who served as a judge advocate in the armed forces, a prosecutor for the District of Columbia, and senior official for the U.S. government, I found that serving one’s community and country offered many rewards including direction, pride, purpose, self-respect and hope.

If the federal government prioritizes making good on the student loan repayment plans it promised those who earned it, the concept will remerge as a strong incentive for public service. Such service will offer young debtors a path to financial freedom and much-needed career training while empowering our nation with untapped talent. Most importantly, it will give credence to our nation’s original message and promise:

When you help America, America helps you.

• Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is a former Washington prosecutor and the former Director of the U.S. Office of Cuba Broadcasting. He is currently the assistant commentary editor for The Washington Times.


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