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AAUP Testimony on Public Service Loan Forgiveness Reform, Part Two

Earlier this year, the US Department of Education announced a two-part effort to reform the troubled Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. On October 6, the department announced a series of executive actions to fix known, widespread servicing issues and opened a limited waiver to allow more loan payments to be properly counted. Beyond that, the department has convened a negotiated rulemaking committee on a range of student lending topics. New regulations have been proposed to recognize the difficulties faced by contingent faculty in their pursuit of PSLF; while they are a huge improvement from the current program, the proposed rules must go further to meet the needs of faculty. Art historian and Pennsylvania state conference president Jessica Sponsler offered the following comments to the rulemaking committee during its second week of negotiations.

Hello, my name is Jessica Sponsler. I am an art historian working as an adjunct professor in Pennsylvania and I serve as the state conference president of the American Association of University Professors.

This is a path I never would have imagined taking as a child. I grew up in a trailer park. But I was able to attend an Ivy League university with a merit scholarship for my undergraduate degree and cobble together financing for graduate work with loans, fellowships, and multiple part-time jobs. I received my PhD in 2009 at the height of the Great Recession. Even though I was a “promising young scholar,” applying for a job in 2009 was soul-crushing, as open jobs that cycle were suspended or just disappeared.

I took a full-time position at a small art and design college where tenure had been permanently suspended. There was minimal institutional support for teaching and research. I had a 4-4 course load. My salary was $35,000.  But I had full-time work and health insurance. I was lucky. I found that I truly loved teaching and I had first-generation college students who reminded me of myself. PSLF seemed like a godsend because I could make an impact in the classroom without my student loan debt driving my career decisions. 

I consolidated my FFEL loans and made my payments each month in an income-based repayment plan. Then my loans were sold to the loan servicer MOHELA. It was not explained how this would affect my eligibility. I completed my 120 payments right before the pandemic began. I had heard from news reports and colleagues that everyone was having their requests for forgiveness denied. The only outreach I had were telemarketers trying to get information on my loans and scam me into paying for help with PSLF.  I never had any direct information from a loan provider or the Department of Education, communication was impossible during the pandemic, and any research I did was confusing and contradictory.

In the meantime, my youngest child developed a life-threatening neuro-immune disorder which left her with brain damage that affected her mobility and executive function. I taught my child to walk again—while I also supervised both my daughters’ remote learning and managed my own online teaching with students who were struggling themselves. I did my best to support my husband knowing that his career was the only thing keeping us from financial ruin.

My college decided not to renew some faculty contracts, including mine, last May. Because this hasty decision was made outside of the full-time faculty hiring cycle. I had to scramble to find adjunct work at other institutions. I was terrified I would be rejected for loan forgiveness because I’m currently working part-time. 

It is only recently that MOHELA published any information on loan forgiveness on their website. I still am not sure I understand what I should do. The waiver period seems to be designed to help people like me—but so far I’ve heard nothing about it from the Department of Education or my servicer. 

PSLF promised to make it possible for people like me, who grew up without intergenerational wealth, to obtain an education. The process should be clear and easy to navigate or our society will lose dedicated educators who just need the opportunity to learn. As you complete negotiations next month, I urge you to make PSLF as simple and generous as possible so that professors like me who have been forced into part-time work aren’t sidetracked by austerity plans at our colleges or servicer negligence. Thank you.

Publication Date: 
Friday, November 5, 2021