Such responses are indicative of what writer John Thornton calls “the retributive view,” which assumes “students could have made different choices to avoid or mitigate their debt. They could have chosen majors that pay more or schools with higher rates of success in the market. They could have worked a second or third job. They could have eaten ramen at home instead of going out.” Within this view, student loans become a mark of failure — failure of character, perseverance, or planning — that’s further compounded if and when a payment is missed. “I think there’s this assumption that millennials are spoiled, naive, and entitled,” Jen said. “Growing up a poor black kid, all I heard was college, college, college. Now we’re fools for taking out loans to make it happen?”
Even after making her loan payments steadily for years, Jen was still barely paying down the original principal amount. But she had some hope: Her job in public policy is considered “public service” — one of thousands of jobs, in both the government and the nonprofit sector, that would make her eligible for eventual student loan forgiveness through a program called PSLF (Public Service Loan Forgiveness).
The premise of PSLF, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by George W. Bush in 2007, is straightforward: Working in public service doesn’t pay a lot, and a lot of public service jobs — including teaching and social work — require advanced degrees, which in turn often necessitate hefty student loans. How do you encourage people to train for those jobs, jobs that are essential to society, even when it means taking on massive amounts of debt? You make “loan forgiveness” part of the package. (To be clear, these borrowers aren’t receiving a free education — they’re still paying. Indeed, in many forgiveness cases, what’s really getting “forgiven” after 10 years of repayment isn’t the original loan balance, but all the interest that’s accumulated on top of it.)