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Press Release

Public service workers demand promised student debt relief

NEA leads letter to ED demanding review of PSLF, immediate relief for workers serving their communities
Published: April 1, 2021 Last Updated: April 1, 2021

WASHINGTON —The National Education Association, America’s largest labor union, today delivered a letter co-signed by 14 other unions representing more than 10 million public service workers to United States Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona imploring the Department of Education to keep the promise of Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) for public service workers. NEA President Becky Pringle provided the following statement.

“No matter what we look like, where we live, or what’s in our wallets, all of us should be able to pursue our dreams at an affordable college or university,” Pringle said. “But today, the cost of college forces many students and families to forego their education goals or be trapped in a lifetime of debt. Rather than help  people, of all races and classes, get an affordable higher education, certain politicians and student-loan profiteers have trapped generations in debt. After four years of scandal-plagued implementation of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program that saw 98 percent of applicants denied by the DeVos Education Department, it is time for Secretary Cardona to keep the promise of PSLF for qualified applicants who have devoted more than a decade of their lives to public service. Keeping this promise would be a first step towards the goal of providing all students, regardless of their race, how much money they make or where they come from, with the opportunity to achieve their dreams.”

In the letter, public service unions urged Secretary Cardona to take immediate action by initiating a 90-day review of the PSLF Program with public service stakeholders at the table, followed by canceling all student debt owed by public service workers with a decade or more experience in serving their communities.

The Department of Education’s PSLF Program is supposed to forgive the student debt of public service workers—such as educators, fire fighters, health care professionals, and librarians—who have served their communities while making consistent payments on their student debt for ten years.  Yet only a tiny fraction of these workers have had their student debt forgiven. Educators, nurses, firefighters, and all of our public service workers have held us together during the pandemic. Now it’s time for the federal government to keep its promise to them.

Text of the letter sent to Secretary Cardona is provided below.

April 1, 2021

The Honorable Miguel Cardona
Secretary of Education
United States Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20202

Dear Secretary Cardona:

The undersigned unions, representing more than 10 million public service workers, urge you to take immediate action to cancel the student loan debt of all public sector workers who have completed a decade or more of service. The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need for immediate action. Public service workers who should have already benefited from the Department of Education’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program are serving on the front lines of our pandemic response — caring for patients, teaching our students, and delivering essential services in communities across the country.

The PSLF program was created to ease the burden of student loan debt for a generation of teachers, nurses, servicemembers and others who have chosen careers in public service. After four years of scandal and allegations of widespread mismanagement, it is clear to our organizations that the federal government has fundamentally failed to deliver on this promise. 

Since 2017, when the first public service workers became eligible for debt cancellation, 98 percent of those who applied for PSLF have been rejected.  And that is just the tip of the iceberg — for every borrower who has served for a decade and been rejected for PSLF, tens of thousands have been knocked off track or never had the opportunity to apply for relief.

To qualify for PSLF, an individual must be employed full-time and: (1) have the right type of loan; (2) be enrolled in the right type of payment plan; (3) make the right number of payments; and (4) have the right type of employment.

Unfortunately, with respect to each of these elements, a combination of arbitrary and narrow regulations, mismanagement by the previous administration, and widespread abuses across the student loan industryhave conspired to deny a generation of public service workers the promise of PSLF.

The current suspension of student loan payments presents a unique opportunity to deliver justice—for those whose applications for PSLF should never have been denied, as well as those who have fallen through the cracks. We urge you to:

  • Immediately announce a 90-day review of the PSLF program. The Department of Education should audit student loan accounts of every potentially eligible borrower working in public service and establish simple, streamlined criteria to cancel debt for every public service worker who has served for a decade or more. The audit should include public servants who work less than 30 hours a week on a contingent basis and do not currently qualify for PSLF — for example, part time faculty and non-emergency healthcare workers who lost work hours due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 90-day review should be completed before any action is taken to restart student loan payments for the 40 million student loan borrowers who currently benefit from President Biden’s inauguration day executive action.
  • Give public service workers a seat at the table. As the Administration completes the 90-day review, it is critical to hear directly from borrowers who have sought debt relief only to be derailed or denied. Such borrowers can explain the myriad of ways the current program has conspired to knock them off track — from unfair and deceptive tactics employed by student loan companies, to narrow and often arbitrary eligibility decisions made by private contractors and the previous administration.  The Department must be transparent with borrowers and the public about the reforms being considered and provide opportunities for those closest to our broken student loan system to help fix it.
  • Cancel student loan debt for all who have served for a decade or more. At the conclusion of the 90-day review, the Department should cancel the student loan debt of all public service workers with a decade or more of service and give those with who have served for less than a decade pro-rated credit towards PSLF.  Regardless of loan type, loan status, or repayment plan, the Department of Education must recognize and reward public service, consistent with congressional intent. To the maximum extent possible, the Department should automate the process of verifying and cancelling debts, relying on information already collected or available from other government agencies.

We understand that these actions will require a significant effort by stakeholders across the Department and within the student loan industry. But so much is at stake. Because of the racial wealth gap, which itself is caused by systemic racism, Black and brown students borrow more, owe more, and pay longer, which in turn creates barriers to educators, health care professionals, and other public service workers entering and staying in the profession and perpetuates the racial wealth gap. And we know that women also hold more student debt than men, take longer to pay it off, and ultimately earn less than their counterparts despite holding higher degrees.

During your confirmation hearing, you committed to using all the tools at your disposal to provide student loan borrowers with immediate relief. Should the Department identify legal, statutory, or regulatory barriers to implementing the steps described above, the Secretary of Education must invoke his authority under the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act to waive or modify statutes and regulations as necessary. This effort is the bare minimum necessary to deliver justice to the public service workers who have fallen through the cracks of our badly broken student loan system. 

We look forward to meeting with you and your staff to discuss timelines and tactics the Department will take to fix the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.  We stand ready to assist you and President Biden in this effort.


National Education Association

Alliance for Retired Americans

American Association of University Professors

American Federation of Government Employees

American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees

Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance

Coalition of Black Trade Unionists

International Association of Fire Fighters

International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers

International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW)

National Treasury Employees Union

CFPB Union NTEU 335

Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, IFPTE Local 70

Service Employees International Union

Unite Here


The National Education Association is the nation’s largest professional employee organization, representing more than 3 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators and students preparing to become teachers. Learn more at

National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.