The federal government is getting ready to forgive billions of dollars in student loan debt for doctors and other professionals with expensive educations, under a law designed to help “modestly paid” workers in public service.
At issue is the 2007 student loan forgiveness program that allows borrowers who have made a decade of payments and work for government or nonprofit entities, have the rest of their debt forgiven. The program was designed to encourage young Americans to pursue traditionally hard-to-fill positions, such as: public defenders, social workers, teachers and modestly paid doctors in underprivileged areas.
However, the program is helping far more than intended, many of the borrowers being well-paid. Thousands of workers with expensive graduate degrees are set to discharge five- and six-figure student debt amounts as they approach typically lucrative careers.
The biggest beneficiaries will be med school students, who owe an average of $180,000 upon graduation and are increasingly working for nonprofit hospitals to qualify for the program. What is being called the “doctor’s loophole,” financial advisors estimate that many will have 80% or more of their original balances forgiven.
The government will not start forgiving loans under the program until 2017, a decade after it was signed into law. But the estimated tab is growing quickly as enrollment surges. As of September, about 295,000 borrowers in all fields had submitted paperwork and were on track to have debt forgiven under the program, according to the Education Department. That is an increase of 368% from two years prior, likely reflecting growing awareness of the program and a boom in higher-education attainment during the recession. The agency projects a total 600,000 borrowers will have loans forgiven over the next decade.
Supporters of the program note it is achieving the goal of increasing interest in jobs that are tough to fill, like public defender positions. A surge has been reported in applications for legal positions, partly linked to lawyers hoping to shed their law school debt.
The typical borrower in the program owes between $60,000 and $70,000 in student debt, with 1 in 4 owing more than $100,000, according to a Government Accountability Office report. This suggests most enrollees are workers with postgraduate degrees. Critics say the program does little to help the millions of Americans who truly need the relief from student loan debt, like those borrowers who did not complete college and have much smaller loan balances or who graduated with degrees that pay far less in today’s economy.
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