An Open Letter to my Representatives Regarding the Proposed Eradication of Public Service Loan Forgiveness:
Reports came out late last night, on May 17, 2017, that President Trump’s proposed budget would include cuts to the education department, including the elimination of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF). There are no words strong enough to express how much this angers, shocks, and wrecks me.
I am a Reference Law Librarian currently working at the Public Law Library of King County. We are affiliated with the King County government, but we predominately serve the public. My job entails assisting patrons (pro se litigants, attorneys, and judges) with legal research, putting together court forms, compiling packets of information and instructions on how to tackle a wide variety of legal issues, authoring handbooks, teaching classes, volunteering as an immigration attorney in our free legal clinic, and serving as an interpreter for our Spanish speaking patrons. My job requires, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree, a J.D., and a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science.
My current salary: $55,550.
My student loan debt (which includes only my J.D. and my Master’s – no undergraduate student loan debt): $299,824.08. Last month, in the span of 30 days, I accumulated $4,356.88 of interest. The bulk of this loan is not principal – it is interest.
So how did I get here? How did I manage to accumulate $299,824.08 of student loan debt in a matter of 7 years (from 2010 – 2017)?
I graduated from college in 2010, debt free, with a degree in Spanish Literature. I studied Spanish Literature because I wanted a tangible skill – the ability to speak more than one language. With a bachelor’s degree from a liberal art’s college, I knew that I had a wide variety of skills that would make me a strong candidate for any job or any type of education – the ability to speak another language makes me that much more employable. At that point in time, I was passionate about immigrant rights and wanted to go to a law school that had a strong immigration legal clinic. I chose a school in Miami, Florida that fit this criteria and they also offered me a scholarship for my first year of law school – it was not much, but it helped a bit. By the time I graduated from law school in 2013, I was in the top 1/3 of my class, I had won several awards, I had completed an internship at the United Nations, I was an editor of my law review – in short, I worked my ass off and made sure that I was as marketable of a candidate as I could possibly be.
To fully understand how I got from debt-free to six figures of student loan debt in 7 years, it is important to note that while I was in law school, the interest rates on student loans almost doubled (from about 4.9% to 7 or 8%). It is also important to note that while I was in law school, half of my student loans began accumulating interest the second I accepted them – as a full-time law school student, I did not have the means to begin payments on these loans until I was working full-time after graduation.
While I was in law school, I also worked part-time at a private immigration law firm for one of the country’s indisputable best immigration attorneys. After I graduated, I continued working in this law firm as I studied for the bar exam. Without financial support from my family and without student loans, I could not afford to stop working to study for the bar exam as many of my peers did and as all of my professors suggested. Unfortunately, I worked to the detriment of my financial security. Until I was licensed as an attorney (which requires passing the bar exam), I was an hourly worker in the law firm – my employer refused to make me a salaried employee until I passed the bar exam, which I do not believe is unreasonable. While I was able to pay my bills, I simply did not have enough time to study for the bar exam while I was working. I did not pass the bar exam the first time. I did not pass the bar exam the second time. It took 3 tries, extreme budgeting, cutting down my hours at the law firm to 2 days a week, and taking out a private loan from my employer in order for me to finally pass the bar exam. I was officially a licensed attorney by September 2014. My new annual salary: $52,000, in Miami, Florida (the average rent there at the time for a 1 bedroom apartment was $1,000 a month – it has since gone up).
In early 2014, while I was in the middle of preparing to take the bar exam for the third and final time, I also began having dental problems. I have an open bite and a shortened jaw that has only gotten worse with age. My mouth is simply not big enough for my tongue because my lower jaw never fully developed when I was a child, and as a result, my tongue pushes against my teeth, pushing them at an angle that puts strain on my gums and causes them to erode. The only way to permanently fix my mouth and prevent any future dental problems is to have a combination of orthodontic braces and corrective upper and lower jaw surgery – braces alone will cost me around $6,000. How much do you think upper and lower jaw surgery would cost?
While my employer provided me with health insurance, it did not include dental insurance. I purchased dental insurance through the Affordable Care Act. However, my dental insurance would not cover the cost of the orthodontics and my health insurance would not cover the jaw surgery because it was deemed to not be “medically necessary.” Because I was unable to permanently fix my oral problem, my gums continued to erode and I was left with the nerve endings of several teeth exposed and bone loss of a few teeth. This was extremely painful. I had to have oral surgery, where a gum graft was performed along my lower teeth. The area that had to be grafted was so large that they could not use my own tissue – my graft was done with artificial gum. The procedure included being put to sleep, taking antibiotics and pain killers, maintaining a liquid/soft diet, and having stitches in my mouth for about a month. This surgery cost me $6,000 – it was not covered by my insurance. I paid for my gum graft surgery through care credit, which included interest, and I was finally able to pay that back at the end of 2016.
I wish that I could say that the $6,000 gum graft surgery will be the last time that I have to worry about this oral problem. However, at the time that I had my gum graft surgery done, the surgeon told me it was only a temporary fix – if I do not permanently fix my mouth and my jaw through corrective jaw surgery, my gums will continue to erode, and they can only perform so many gum grafts until they will not work anymore. Three years later, I am already experiencing gum recession along the area where the gum graft was completed.
By the end of 2014, I was working as an immigration attorney, successfully representing my clients in court and experiencing great mentorship and support from my employer. However, I was struggling financially. My monthly student loan payments were around $275 a month. On top of my student loan payments, I was paying my rent, I was paying off my gum graft surgery, I was paying back my employer for the private loan he gave me, and I was paying off credit card debt that I had accumulated while I was studying for the bar exam and working fewer hours. I was barely making ends meet. I took on two extra jobs – I worked part-time as a private tutor and I worked part-time in retail for Ann Taylor. I never missed a monthly payment, but while I was burdened with so much debt, the interest on my student loans continued to accumulate. My monthly student loan payments went towards interest – I was never able to afford a monthly payment that went towards the principal of my loans. And every month that interest accumulated, the interest the following month was even more.
Around the same time, the end of 2014, I realized that while I loved the law and loved immigration, working as an attorney did not give me the job satisfaction that I needed in order to succeed in a lifetime career. With much thought, planning, and preparation, I decided to go to the University of Washington to get my Master’s in Information and Library Science, with an emphasis in Law Librarianship. UW has the #1 program in the country. It is also the only accelerated 1 year program – most other accredited MLIS programs in the United States are 2 years. I decided that this was a sound financial investment to make at the time, particularly because of the existence of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. From the research I had done, I knew that I would have a job within the first three to six months of graduating from this program. I also knew that my starting salary as a law librarian would be more than attorney. I also knew that one year of education was cheaper than two. I also knew that as a law librarian, I would qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program so long as I worked at a public law library or a governmental library.
In 2015, I packed my bags, moved across the country to Seattle, WA, and began my accelerated 1 year MLIS program at the University of Washington. I had to take out student loans to cover the cost of the program, but I worked two jobs while I was in school to help off-set the program – I worked part-time in the UW law library for $11 an hour, and I worked part-time as a barista in a café for $15 an hour. Neither job paid much, but it helped pay for my health insurance through the Affordable Care Act and my rent, which was about $800 a month.
In 2016, I was offered my current position at the Public Law Library of King County. I finished school, graduated at the top of my class, and began working. My salary when I was hired: $55,000. I have seen a raise of $550 in the year that I have been here.
I love my job – I have no desire to work anywhere else.
Law Librarianship is the perfect job for me and working at the Public Law Library of King County is a fantastic fit. Every day, I use every skill and level of education that I have studied, I help people, I speak Spanish, I give legal advice, and I get to do a geeky large amount of legal research. Professionally, I am incredibly happy.
But the sacrifice I make for my professional happiness is at a detriment to my finances. As a public law librarian, my salary is not very high. I currently earn $55,550 a year in a city where the median home-price is $700,000, according to The Seattle Times in April 2017. The interest accumulated on my loans last month, in a mere 30 days, was $4,356.88. I still need to have orthodontic braces and upper and lower jaw surgery. My incredible health insurance that is government level (so you know that it is good) covers a portion of the braces expenses (I would still have to pay $4,000 – $5,000 for braces). I have no idea if my health insurance will cover the cost of the jaw surgery – I am still waiting to hear back from the insurance company. If my health insurance will not pay for the surgery at this time, then I will have no other options than to put it off even longer, and I will eventually have to have another gum graft surgery which will cost me $5,000 – $6,000.
You tell me, on an annual salary of $55,550, how am I supposed to pay back my student loans when the accumulated interest in one month is $4,356.88? Every month that I pay less than this amount, the interest continues to go up. Next month, when I get my monthly statement, my accumulated interest will be closer to $5,000. So again, tell me, how am I supposed to pay back my student loans?
My story is not unique. My story is actually better than most other people’s. I do not have any undergraduate degree debt. I have a family who helps me financially in the small ways that they can – helping with my phone bill and my auto insurance costs. I have managed to pay down all other debt, except for one credit card with a remaining balance of about $2,500. My goal is to have that credit card paid off within a year, and I know that I will be able to do that. I do not have any children. I am financially responsible solely for myself, no one else. I have training and experience that will always afford me the ability to earn an income; I will most likely never be without the blessing of a job in my lifetime.
But even with those privileges, even with those advantages, I am faced with the same problem: I earn $55,550 a year, and the accumulated interest on my student loans last month was $4,356.88. This amount will go up every single month. How am I supposed to pay back my student loans?
The answer is simple: I cannot and will never be able to pay back my student loans.
This is why Public Service Loan Forgiveness exists. Yes, I would be given a gift to have my student loan debt forgiven in 10 years after I make continuous monthly payments – believe me, I am well aware of that. But in exchange for that gift, I give 100% of myself to the public every day. Every single day, I show up to work where I help the most vulnerable communities of King County, Washington: the indigent, mentally ill, homeless, immigrants, those with criminal convictions who are looking for a second chance, those who have unexpectedly lost their loved ones and must now administer their estates, those first-time home buyers who must deal with unexpected home repair costs and sometimes crooked contractors, tenants who are wrongfully evicted by their landlords, landlords who must evict tenants who have taken advantage of them and who have damaged their personal property, individuals seeking protection orders, families caught up in divorce and dissolution proceedings… and so many more. Every single one of us will be involved with the court system at some point in our lives. When that happens to you, rest assured knowing that your local public law library is there to help you.
But if you vote to eradicate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, I will have to leave my job. I will have no choice but to seek a job that will pay me the most money I am capable of earning with my training and education. Even then, it is highly unlikely that I will ever be able to pay back the full balance of my student loans, principal and interest, due to the fact that 7 years of extremely high amounts of interest have already accumulated and continue to accumulate. If I leave my job, who will step-in and help the residents of King County, Washington? Who is able to work a job that requires a bachelor’s degree, a J.D., and a MLIS and have the benefit of not having any student loan debt? How many of those individuals exist and how many of them want to work this particular job? It’s an easy answer – you might as well call them unicorns.
Eradicating the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program should never be an option. As a society, we have too much to lose if we leave behind both our students and our most vulnerable communities, and eradicating PSLF will do just that. I am begging you, please help save the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.