A better way to solve the student loan problem

The rising costs of college and graduate school have led to large amounts of student loan debt for many young Americans. The possibility that the federal government will forgive some or all of that debt is a hot topic in Washington and communities across the country.

Except in extraordinary circumstances, I believe it is wrong to cancel student loan debt. Millions of young people and their parents have done the right thing and made sacrifices to repay the loans they incurred to get them through school. Millions more served in the military entitlement to educational benefits. Forgiving others’ debt without conditions is unfair to them and to those who decide to never attend college.

For those who have forgiveness incurred significant levels of debt they believe they cannot possibly repay or can only repay with difficulty, my answer is not student debt, but rather a way to earn their tuition.

Before they start college, students should have the option to serve our great country to the best of their abilities for a year or more in return for tuition funds, just as many in military service already do. And if young people decide not to prequalify for funds, they should have a pathway to reimburse lenders for their loans by serving our nation once they graduate.

We need a program, centrally organized through the Department of Education or elsewhere, that clearly defines the types of service work high school graduates can do to have some of their prepaid tuition — and help them to find that work.

Beginning with World War II, our nation has offered those who served her faithfully in uniform the chance to get a college education through successive versions of the GI Bill. The World War II GI Bill, the greatest program of social legislation ever enacted, ensured that every veteran could attend the best schools to which they could be admitted. The promise of higher education, limited only by ability and ambition, unleashed a generation of leaders that propelled America to greatness in the second half of the 20th century, and transformed both America and Americans’ expectations for themselves.

Young Americans seeking loan forgiveness or tuition assistance should not need to serve in the military, however. Helping out in health care, conserving our nation’s resources, supporting rescue and rebuilding efforts following natural disasters, caring for the young and the elderly — all help our nation and its citizens, allow young people from all walks of life to meet and learn that their similarities as Americans far outweigh their differences, and provide alternative options for civilians to help their fellow Americans in return for forgiveness of their loans.

Some programs already exist to help young people. The public service loan forgiveness program offers those who work full time for qualified nonprofits or public service employers who make 120 monthly student loan programs the opportunity to have the remainder of their student loans cancelled. Teachers employed full time in low-income public elementary or second schools can have up to $17,500 in student loans forgiven after working for five years; nurses have several options for loan forgiveness; and some who cannot work due to being totally and permanently disabled may also qualify to have their debt reduced or eliminated.

These programs, however, are not centrally administered; the rules vary from profession to profession. Let’s make the rules transparent and understood by all at the time of loan commitment. Let’s find work for those who want it that is meaningful, related to their career aspirations or interests, and bring them together with other young Americans in a meaningful way to earn the loan forgiveness they require.

As President John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” If we are to help our young people along their path in life, it is only fair that they help the rest of us along our path to continued national greatness in return.

Anthony J. Principi served as Secretary of Veterans Affairs from 2001 to 2005.

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