Episode 44: Where Is Congress on Student Voter Access and Public Service Loan Forgiveness?


​​​​​​​Aired June 3, 2021

Hosts Jon Fansmith and Mushtaq Gunja talk with Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), chief author of the For the People Act (H.R. 1), the comprehensive election reform bill that could have an impact on how colleges register voters. They also discuss the past, present, and future of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program as Sarbanes moves to strengthen the program under the Biden administration.  ​

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:


Senate Punts on China Bill Amid GOP Objections​
Politico | May 27, 2021

White House Releases Budget With Increased Funding for NIH, NSF

Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education Announces Public Hearings on Protections for Students, Loan Repayment, Targeted Loan Cancellation Programs, and Other Higher Education Regulations
U.S. Department of Education

From the Conversation With Rep. Sarbanes

For the People Act of 2021

Here’s What H.R. 1, the House-Passed Voting Rights Bill, Would Do
The Washington Post (sub. req.) | May 11, 2021

Biden Administration Will Review Income Based Repayment, Student Loan Forgiveness Programs
Forbes | May 24, 2021

Charles Testifies Before House Committee on Voting Rights Legislation​


 Read this episode's transcript

Jon Fansmith: Hello, and welcome to dotEDU, the higher education policy podcast from the American Council on Education. We'll be joined shortly by our special guest, Congressman Jon Sarbanes of Maryland's third district, but I'm your host, Jon Fansmith, with ACE's Government Relations Office. And I am joined today by only one of my co-hosts, but Mushtaq, really you by yourself are more than enough for any co-host or podcast responsibility, so very good to have you here with me. How are you doing?

Mushtaq Gunja: I am doing great. It's nice to see you. I miss Sarah, who is missing this episode, but will be back with us next time.

Jon Fansmith: We hope, anyway. I constantly wonder whether she'll return at all.

Mushtaq Gunja: Jon, I had a great weekend, I watched basketball the entire weekend. Well great, my Lakers lost and maybe now are in danger of losing the series with-

Jon Fansmith: It's not looking great, yeah.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah, Anthony Davis' groin and now your team, your Sixers, have a big injury also.

Jon Fansmith: Yes, first place Sixers. Wait, what? There's a big injury?

Mushtaq Gunja: What? You didn't hear about Joel Embiid?

Jon Fansmith: No, what?

Mushtaq Gunja: He's getting some sort of MRI, I think his knee today?

Jon Fansmith: Oh god, no, oh.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yes, oh no.

Jon Fansmith: Of course. Well, this is the most Philadelphia thing ever, of course. So there you go. Well, I should've expected that entirely.

Mushtaq Gunja: Oh no, I'm bringing you down, I'm sorry about that. Look, by the time our listeners hear this, we're recording on a Tuesday morning. By the time our listeners hear this on Thursday, everything is going to be fine, the Sixers-

Jon Fansmith: I'm sure.

Mushtaq Gunja: ... will have taken care of the Washington basketball team and will be good to go.

Jon Fansmith: Yes. Well, your lips to God's ears, Mushtaq, but if Philadelphia's sports history is any indication, it will probably be a career ending injury for Joel Embiid. So that is the general pattern of my sports fandom, but all the best to your Lakers as well.

Mushtaq Gunja: I was going to say, speaking of career ending injuries, we thought we were going to have a bill last week potentially, or vote on a bill, the Endless Frontiers Act, which I think maybe now has been renamed. And Sarah would normally tell us all about this, but in her absence, what happened, Jon?

Jon Fansmith: Well, few different things have happened. I mean, the big takeaway is that Senator Schumer and certainly the democratic leadership team in the Senate, had hoped to get this bill over the finish line on Thursday. There was some consternation and procedural issues that forced them to move it to Friday morning. Then as Friday morning dawned and began, it became abundantly clear they would have more procedural issues as they tried to get through the day, and frankly they already had some other things they had to do before the recess, including a vote on the possibility of creating a commission to look into the events of January 6th. So they shelved it. They basically said, "Well, the goal was to get this done." They'd allowed two weeks of floor time for debate, which is an exceptional amount of floor time to consider any one measure. They still couldn't get it in under the wire, so they released senators to attend to other business and then fly home for the holiday. And they're going to take it back up next week. Obviously the hope at this point is we have a finalized bill, we have a manager's amendment, this is the package of all the tweaks and changes that include other amendments that's been in there. There will be time obviously for members to gauge what the provisions there of concern to their constituents, especially since a lot of them will be doing events with constituents over the recess. And they will come back and we shall see where we stand.

I think speaking of that manager's amendment, and obviously we are lacking Sarah's expertise on this bill here, but one provision that came up that was of real interest I think to our listeners and something I personally do follow, at the very end of the consideration late on Thursday, a provision that would actually extend Pell eligibility to short term programs, was added as really the last amendment considered and included in the bill. I think this is not necessarily something that people think about, in terms of the other provisions in this bill, which tend to do a lot with research and economic competitiveness and global competitiveness. And it certainly was, I think, a surprise to a lot of people that this was something that was not only being considered but being included. It's basically what the amendment does would put a bill that's previously been introduced by Senators Cane and Portman, a bipartisan bill, to give Pell eligibility to short term programs. The text of that bill was inserted with some pretty significant changes around, essentially which programs would be eligible, but it's really fundamentally that bill, and that's what's been included. So if everything stands as it looks like it will, that will be part of the Senate bill that gets passed out of the Senate. Obviously Sarah could tell us better, but the House I think is very uncertain at this point, whether they would even consider what the Senate's done, whether they'd start their own bill, whether this is something frankly not on their list of priorities or not. We don't know, but it was a very interesting and from the higher ed space, probably one of the bigger policy developments certainly in the last few days.

Mushtaq Gunja: So is it your sense, Jon, that when the Senate takes this back up next week that the short term Pell provisions considered will be included?

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, I mean I think one of the things as to how it was put in, and some of these things, process stuff is fascinating to us in D.C. I tend to think they're not always as interesting to people outside, but the process here is actually important. The reason it went through was included at the last minute, was you had agreement from both sides. This was something that Republican leadership and Democratic leadership agreed to include, it's a bipartisan bill. That's pretty telling, that's important. There were hundreds, possibly thousands of amendments offered to this bill, and most of them went up and were rejected on party lines. There was very clear divides. The truly bipartisan stuff, even some of the things, they get a vote. There was contention about what exactly it would be. This one went straight through, it was easy. And I think that's pretty telling, in terms of whether it's going to, A, stay in the final bill that the Senate will pass, and B, what's the likelihood that you might see it in the House? This bipartisan support obviously is very unusual in Congress these days. So it's getting ahead of steam, it's getting some momentum, this idea obviously is getting some support behind it. And if the House does move a similar package, it would certainly be very reasonable to expect to see it in there again.

Mushtaq Gunja: Jon, did the president also release his budget? Did that happen last week? All the weeks are going together. Friday afternoon, is that right?

Jon Fansmith: Well, late in a lot of ways, actually. This is the latest a presidential budget has ever been released, but they did it the Friday before the Memorial Day holiday in the afternoon. Always a time where you're trying to highlight important policy developments in your administration, when the eyes of the world are clearly following budget announcements. It was, in a lot of ways, understandably, this was something that was delayed. Understandably, there's a lot of transition issues between the Trump and Biden administrations. There's been some other things that the Biden administration's been more focused on, a rescue plan, two giant infrastructure bills. Even in the spending space, their budget was the hanger on of the process at this point. And in fact, their budget looks like that too.
It keeps referring to all of these things that they've proposed or done in other areas. So especially in higher ed, a lot of where the administration is proposing to make investments, is through the infrastructure bills, it's through the rescue plan, it's not in their base budget. And even then, they announced the biggest things for higher ed in the so-called skinny budget that they put out in mid April. So there really wasn't a whole lot of news, news in this budget for us. There was, certainly in the scientific research area, there's a 21% increase in NIH's budget. There's a 20% increase in NSF's budget. There's big science investments in there, but when you look at the programs at the Department of Education, I think surprisingly the Biden administration proposed a 41.6, I believe, increase in overall Department of Education funding, but almost all that's on the K-12 side. There's a $20 billion increase for Title I programs, for our work study and SEOG grants, which are huge, key components, the biggest financial aid programs behind Pell and loans, flat funded. So not an increase at all, not even an inflationary increase. So you're really looking at a budget where the budget itself doesn't do a whole lot outside of research for higher ed. All those increases we're looking at are really in these other bills that have moved on. So that's where it stands. I think it may be a little bit disappointing to some experts. The other thing we didn't see that we'd been hoping to see, was more information about how exactly the Biden administration plans to double Pell grants. They have promised that a comprehensive plan in multiple written and public opinion, and the budget would obviously be the ideal place when you're talking about what you plan to do over the next 10 years, but we didn't see that. So who knows, maybe more information down the road. Obviously the Department of Education has a lot on their plate, and in fact, Mushtaq, they have eagerly announced it, they're pushing everything, all their chips to the middle of the table, it seems. What's going on over there? Your old stomping grounds.

Mushtaq Gunja: I think that's right. I mean, they are planning something that's truly... ambitious is an understatement, I think. So starting next week, they are holding the initial hearings on the re-regulation, I believe, of the Title IX provisions. That we knew was coming. That we could have anticipated, I think right from the beginning. But a couple of weeks after that, it looks like the Biden administration is set to do an initial set of hearings, taking a look at everything that the Department of Education could possibly do, including issues that are related to, I think for-profit colleges, including gainful employment and borrower defense. But there's also a whole other set of things they would like to take up regarding how for-profit colleges can do these conversions to not-for-profit status. And then a whole set of things around the student loan program, including targeted cancellation and a closed school discharge. And I think basically everything related to loans. And it's exciting. I mean, I don't know how you feel about this, Jon, but it feels like this is a nod toward a realization maybe, that a comprehensive redo of the Higher Education Act is not likely to come. So they're going to regulate on the things that they possibly can and-

Jon Fansmith: Yeah. No, I think that's exactly... And I know one of the things you're talking about is public service loan forgiveness, and we'll talk to our guest, Congressman Sarbanes later in the show about that very issue. But I think you're exactly right. If you look at there were 13 separate items proposed, and you laid it out, that there's all of these things that are required to do, because of new legislation. All of these things that they want to do, restore things that were undone under the Trump administration. And then just a huge... My favorite thing is there's 13 distinct items, tons of repayment things. And then one catch all paragraph that's like, "We also want to promote racial and ethnic equity, and improve outcomes and access through federal regulations." And it was essentially this paragraph's like, "Really, anything else in this giant bucket of things you can propose, we'd like to consider that as well." And when you're saying that, you're not expecting Congress to hand you a massive piece of legislation you need to respond to, this is the, "We're just going to chart our course, and we've got things we want to do through policy. And if we won't see legislation, then we won't. Nobody really thinks we're going to see HEA anytime in the near future." This is how you do it, right? They're seizing the opportunities available to them.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah. My nerd brain went immediately to how all of this is going to fit on the master calendar, and when any of these regulations... how long the process will take, what the steps will be, and when they will all get implemented. But I think that's very much missing the forest for the trees. I mean, I think at this initial stage, the laying out all of the items that the administration would like to tackle, and using this as a framework I think is interesting. And I'm looking forward to talking about it over the course of the next three years. I mean, it'll take the entire administration probably to be able to get this from start to finish, but that's okay if you're tackling everything I think.

Jon Fansmith: Last thought on this maybe, but the Trump administration did this giant grab bag of regulatory issues too, and they broke it up into one main negotiating committee, and then some subcommittees that broke into the three different chunks. The departments are indicated they're probably going to have multiple committees, but given the size and the scale I think your point [of] 3 years, there's going to be multiple committees on multiple issues moving forward at the same time. There's clearly a desire to move as quickly as possible, but there are only so many staff, there are only so many processes. This is a big bite to chew and it's going to take a long time, probably longer than they'd like to get these processes through and organized, written, drafted, implemented. It's a lot of work.

Mushtaq Gunja: Well, and to get all the comments from the community, and all the stakeholders. I hope and expect that the department will do this carefully, thoughtfully. And we'll certainly be at the table, hopefully, trying to make sure that we're able to provide feedback.

Jon Fansmith: Was that an announcement that you're seeking roles in negotiated rule maker, Mushtaq? I'm happy to nominate you, if that's what you're subtly trying to ask me to nominate, I'd be more than happy to do it.

Mushtaq Gunja: Jon, if I wanted it, trust me, I would not be subtle about my... Hey, one last thing before we get to Congressman Sarbanes. The other thing that has happened over the last few days, it's been a busy few days in politics actually, given them Memorial Day weekend, sometimes it's not. Was that the Texas State legislature has been taking up some new bill related to voting. And I'm trying to say it as neutrally as I can. But it's a bill that would restrict and make more difficult for certain communities, the ability to vote. And this is done in the name of security and making sure that the Texas citizens have confidence in the election and election outcomes. And the Texas Democrats did what I've never heard of, a walking filibuster, they left the Texas Chamber in drips and drabs actually, stealthily I understand, to prevent a final vote from being able to be taken. So Texas has not yet passed and had signed into law a fairly significant set of provisions related to voting. But I think it is likely to come at some point. And we didn't ask Congressman Sarbanes specifically about Texas, but we did have a really interesting conversation with him about his introduction of the For the People Act, H.R. 1. I think it's still H.R. 1, right?

Jon Fansmith: H.R. 1, yep.

Mushtaq Gunja: And I'm looking forward to that conversation.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah. I think it should be, as you just pointed out, not just a good conversation, but a timely one as well. And we will be back with that conversation with Congressman Sarbanes right after the break.

Mushtaq Gunja: And welcome back. And we are joined today by a very special guest, Congressman Jon Sarbanes of Maryland's third congressional district, where he has been a Congressman since 2007. I think the third district covers parts of Baltimore City and Arundel County, Howard Montgomery County, Baltimore County, lots of places of which we are pretty familiar here at the American Council on Education. Congressman Sarbanes has a deep history about thinking on questions on education. He spent seven years working at the Maryland State Department of Education, and he's also the primary author of the For the People Act, which we also know as H.R. 1. It was introduced in the last Congress, passed the House, died in the Senate. It was introduced again this year in this Congress, and the For the People Act passed the house, I believe in early March of this year. And the Senate is waiting to take it up. So Congressman Sarbanes, welcome to the podcast. Thank you for being here.

Congressman John Sarbanes: Thanks very much, it's good to be with you.

Mushtaq Gunja: I'd love to start with the For the People Act, if that's okay with you. What was the impetus behind the writing of the bill?

Congressman John Sarbanes: Well, it's been a long time coming in some sense, because we've spent a period of years listening very carefully to a set of grievances out there in the general public, about the state of our democracy and our politics. And all of those themes came together in four or five baskets. So we thought, "Well, let's see if we can put this together into one comprehensive overarching package of changes, that can lift up the democracy, strengthen people's voice, their sense of confidence about their place within our politics, strengthen civic engagement in meaningful ways." So if you look at the bill, it really originates with that careful listening. And the things people are concerned about are not a mystery, they want to be able to access the ballot box every couple of years without having to run an obstacle course. That ought to be the aspiration in the United States in 2021, that we should be the gold standard when we look at our peer nations, in terms of how people are able to register and vote. So there's a whole part of the bill that does that. A lot of frustration around partisan gerrymandering, this idea of politicians picking their voters instead of the other way around, so we address that. Ethics reforms, campaign finance reforms, protecting our elections against foreign actors trying to interfere. All of these are things that people feel strongly about. And we began to assemble critical pieces of legislation that have been introduced over a period of years, that could address those concerns. And from that, we developed H.R. 1, now S. 1 on the Senate side, before the People Act. And we're in the final stages of hopefully getting that over the finish line and onto the president's desk.

Mushtaq Gunja: Do you have favorite parts of the bill? I know it covers a lot of topics as you just noted. Are there a couple of provisions that particularly stand out to you?

Congressman John Sarbanes: I have to say, my original connection to this effort was the idea that big money has too much influence over the way our system operates, it creates a lot of cynicism out there in the public. And in particular, the dependency now that members of Congress, lawmakers, have on campaign contributions from high donors, from PACs and so forth. That that often ends up blocking sensible policy, because you lean in that direction instead of towards things that the public wants to see like fighting climate change, fair tax policy, reducing the cost of prescription drugs, gun safety measures that make sense for our society, et cetera. So, I wanted to tackle that, and I got very focused on this idea of creating a new way of funding campaigns in America, where you don't have to go hat in hand to special interests and big money donors, you can go out and collect small donations, and then have those matched by public funds. And in that way, you power your campaign. And when you arrive in Washington, you don't owe anybody except the American people. James Madison said that government should be dependent upon the people alone, we ought to strive for that. In order to achieve it, we have to focus and reform how money operates in our system. So I like that part, but the voting parts of this bill are amazing. They lift up the voices of so many different parts of the electorate across the country, including the voices of young people. The ethics reforms are key because, let's face it, when voters send people to Washington, they want them to behave themselves and act ethically and accountably and with transparency. So we're trying to achieve a lot of things here, which when you take them together as one whole, has the potential to begin, and I say begin, because you can't achieve this overnight, but begin restoring the public's faith and confidence in how our politics work and how our democracy works.

Mushtaq Gunja: Sure. The American Council on Education has a long history of supporting, promoting civic education, and has a long history of trying to help young people, especially college students, access a ballot box, register and vote. And as I'm sure you know, record numbers of college students voted in 2018. We don't have all the final data in 2020, but I'm sure that we broke records in 2020 as well. Are there particular parts of H.R. 1 that are targeted toward college students and helping them be able to access the ballot box?

Congressman John Sarbanes: So there are broad provisions that definitely benefit college students and students generally and young people, and then there are some very specific provisions. So when you talk about broad provisions that can lift up young people, the changes that would allow for nationwide automatic voter registration, same day registration, which is often used by young people. Because they may show up at the polls, they're not registered yet, they didn't get information until late in the game, et cetera. Online voter registration, again, is something that can benefit young people. And then in terms of when it actually comes time to vote, the more options that are available to all voters, including young voters, the greater the likelihood that that will boost turnout and improve access. So, we now strengthened in this bill, the opportunity for no excuse absentee ballot voting across the country. We definitely saw people using that last November. 15 days of early voting, just to increase that window of opportunity for people to show up and cast their vote. And then the opportunity, obviously, on election day. But we were very conscious that there's some specific things we can do that target students and help students access the ballot box. So for example, this automatic voter registration, we have provisions that would allow institutions of higher education, we designate them as AVR sites, automatic voter registration agencies in other words. So the way that automatic voter registration works, essentially is if you are coming into contact with an agency, or in this case it would be a higher education institution, where they're collecting all the same information that would also be needed if you wanted to register. You have a chance at that point to be automatically put on the rolls.

You can certainly opt out of that at that point of contact, but it just means you're getting more people registered. And in fact, the studies show that if we could have automatic voter registration across the country, it could add upwards of 50 million people to the voting rolls, which would be phenomenal and really ought to be the baseline, if you think about it in terms of American democracy. So allowing educations of higher institution, designating them as able to qualify for automatic voter registration sites or agencies, I think is important. It would require institutions to designate a campus vote coordinator, so this would be someone who takes responsibility, has as their job description, thinking about how students can be registered and can cast their vote. And then there are grant dollars that could flow as a result of the For the People Act to support institutions that are doing that outreach, to promote civic education and engagement, making sure they're thinking through how to offer an opportunity for students to either vote with their domicile being the campus where they are, or their domicile being their home. So how do you work through that dynamic, which can be a challenge for voters? So thinking about that in terms of the impact on students. And then the other thing I'll just mention quickly, is anticipating, again, this opportunity for civic engagement with rising college students. So high school seniors, 16- and 17-year-olds. We have provisions in the bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote, so they're ready as soon as they turn 18 to access the ballot box. And it would also include opportunities for voter education as people are getting close to that point of opportunity. So there's no question that we have students in mind as we put this bill together, and we want to continue to reinforce what you described happening in 2018 and we think we saw in 2020, once all the data comes in. Which is this new sense of participation from young voters, from students, to get involved and lift up their democracy and weigh in on important issues of concern. And the easier we can make it for students to exercise their franchise, the more we'll all benefit from their participation

Jon Fansmith: And Congressman, our audience is generally college presidents and senior college leaders. And I was struck by your comments about the institutions registering voters. You said they have the opportunity to opt in. Is that how the process works, or is it a requirement on institutions?

Congressman John Sarbanes: So we designate institutions as qualifying to function as an agency for automatic voter registration, and this is pursuant to the requirements of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, I think was the year. So it's trying to broaden that collective infrastructure, that can support getting more voters onto the rolls. In this instance, it would be students on the campuses of institutions of higher education, but there's all kinds of other points of contact out there. The Department of Motor Vehicles is the agency that's most often referred to for this, that would allow people to get onto the rolls, in the process of doing whatever else they happen to be doing at that moment. And that interaction on the front end of the system, means that on the back end the opportunity and then likelihood that people will get out there and participate on Election Day or during early voting or using their mail-in ballot, that goes up and immeasurably. And I was listening to Professor Guy Charles, who I think was at Duke and is now headed to Harvard, he's a civil rights law professor. And he was saying that, for too long the burden of accessing the franchise and exercising it has fallen almost exclusively on the individual. We put all of the burden of how to get that done onto the individual, and it becomes this march up the mountain every time. What we're trying to accomplish in the For the People Act, is to have the government step in and just make it a lot easier, clear the path to the ballot box. And take on the responsibility of doing things from a practical, logistical standpoint, that can broaden access. And then the voters' responsibility is to be motivated enough to go seize on that opportunity of access, and exercise their franchise, but they shouldn't have to encounter all of these obstacles along the way, if there's things we can do to remove those obstacles. And that's essentially what we're trying to do through Title I division A, of the For the People Act.

Jon Fansmith: And it really is, obviously very topical right now, because we're hearing about multiple efforts in states that would narrow voting rights or restrict categories, particularly in some states where students are... challenges to their voting rights are being put up in a way that seem designed to keep them from voting. I think a lot of students would welcome this legislation you're proposing. But I want to take a hard pivot to another interest area of yours, another place where you've sponsored legislation that's of great interest to our members, which is the public service loan forgiveness program. You are an original author of that legislation that was passed into law in 2007. And I know the program as it's currently run, probably isn't living up to your expectations. Could you just talk a little bit about that?

Congressman John Sarbanes: Yeah, that's an understatement. It's definitely not living up to my expectations unfortunately, because we created that program to offer real opportunity for those who wanted to pursue careers in public service, but perhaps were carrying a loan obligation that made it very difficult to do that. So more than 10 years, I mean, almost as soon as I came to Congress, I was approached by a coalition of nonprofit organizations, legal organizations, law professors, and others, who had identified this challenge. And we got to work on what became the public service loan forgiveness program. And the idea was that if you went into public service and you served for 10 years, you could have whatever outstanding federal student loan or consolidated federal student loan obligation that you were carrying, that could be totally forgiven after that 10-year period. And that even during the 10 years on a monthly basis, you would have reduced payment obligations just to lift the burden, so that making the choice to go work in public service was something that was feasible for people, that they could actually pull it off. For two reasons really, one is for people to have that sense of commitment and mission and want to go get involved in those, being a teacher, being a public safety officer working for the government. All of these non-profit organizations that benefit from that workforce. People wanted to do that, we should make it easier for them to pursue that career. But also, we benefit as a society when we're strengthening institutions that can access that kind of a workforce, that kind of mission-oriented person. So, it's a win-win situation. So we set it up, and then what happened was when the 10 year anniversary of the program hit, which was the moment at which people would start to earn that forgiveness opportunity, because they've been out there serving for 10 years. It turned out the program had a lot of glitches and bureaucratic impediments in it. There was a lot of confusion. And there's many places you can point fingers for that. I do have to say that the situation was made worse under the most recent Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, because she didn't believe in these programs, and she was leaning more in the direction of the lending industry than she was towards the student borrowers. That was a general disposition of hers. It certainly had an impact when it came to this program, because she wasn't really going to try to fix what was broken, because she started out against-

Jon Fansmith: From the opposite position.

Congressman John Sarbanes: Exactly. We now have a new opportunity, because I think the Biden administration is very much committed to trying to get the program strengthened. We're trying to help with that in Congress, by proposing some legislation that would give the department the authority to streamline some of these remedies, to cut through the red tape and the backlog, frankly, of people that in good faith accumulated these 10 years of a public service commitment, anticipated that their loans would be forgiven if they did that. And then based on some technicality or interpretive language that went the wrong way, suddenly discovered they weren't qualifying for that. Well, that's not fair. So we're working with colleagues on the Senate side, we have a group of us in the house. Certainly I'm involved in this because this was an original project of mine going back almost 12, 15 years. And I think we'll get it fixed, but it's not going to be overnight. If we can make this program work, what a tremendous opportunity it is for young people who are wanting to pursue these careers in public service, but have to worry about what their loan and debt burden will mean for that. And if we can relieve that in some way, it's good for them, and it's definitely good for the country, which is why we wanted to get it done in the first place.

Jon Fansmith: And the bill you're referring to is the What You Can Do for Your Country Act, is that correct?

Congressman John Sarbanes: Yeah. So that was the broad version of what we introduced in the last Congress, and then there's some other iterations of that bill that we are working on in the current Congress. Some of what can be fixed can be done just administratively, it comes with a different commitment by the new Secretary of Education. Others may require some statutory changes or safe harbors. So we're trying to divide up the responsibility for that in a meaningful way, and have the Department of Education really lean into this and what fixes it can bring to bear. And then where there's things we need to do to help that toolkit, we'll definitely be pursuing that.

Jon Fansmith: And as we record this on a Wednesday, on Monday, the Department of Education actually announced there are things they'd like to regulate on later in the year for public comment, and one of them is public service loan forgiveness. So they are clearly moving in that direction, along the lines you'd hope for. In terms of the What You Can Do for Your Country Act, the original public service loan forgiveness program, the proposal was very bipartisan. It passed under a Republican president, there was wide support from both sides of the aisle. Do you see the same dynamic happening this time? That you hear complaints about this from all over the place, do you think there's that same will to fix it?

Congressman John Sarbanes: I hope so. In Washington, there's always two conversations that are happening. One is on the merits of the policy, the other is on what it costs to implement a particular policy. I think on the merits, there's pretty broad agreement across the aisle that this is an important support to offer to people. Where you run into some challenges is that there are those who may not want to make the investment here. Although it's pretty modest compared to the benefits that it yields, in my estimation. But anything that has a fiscal score associated with it is competing with many, many other priorities. But I think what's very powerful here, and I think Republicans and Democratic lawmakers alike respond to it, is the notion that people relied on this program. In other words, we set it up, we presented the rules of the road. If you do these things, you will earn forgiveness. And to be honest, I think some people took on more debt obligation than they might have otherwise done, knowing that they wanted to pursue a particular career, because they believe that they would earn that forgiveness that we can offer to them. So just along the lines of you want to make good on a promise to people that took you up on it, I think that's a very powerful rationale for making sure these fixes are in place. And I think that that can be compelling to lawmakers of both parties. So we're certainly starting from that assumption.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah. I couldn't be more thrilled that you're thinking through some of these statutory fixes. When I was at the Department of Education, we could see the PSLF problem coming and knew that, among other things, some definitional problems around certifications and around which jobs can qualify, were going to be a problem. And I couldn't agree more, we've made a promise to our students who relied on that promise. And the dollars are relatively modest in the grand scheme of things too.

Congressman John Sarbanes: What was really disappointing to me, was as that tenure point in time was looming, I had in my mind an image of a stage where graduates whose loans were being forgiven we're marching across the stage of loan forgiveness, and it would be this constant stream of people. And then that timeline came and went and there's just a trickle of people that seem to be able to access the opportunity that created huge frustration. So we've got to go do right by those people who relied upon it, and then make sure that going forward there's enough confidence that it'll work for the next tranche of people that are interested. That the incentive that it can offer it to pull people into the public service realm, can actually operate in an effective way. So, we got to fix what's broken, we got to do right by those who relied on the program in every instance that we can. And we got to strengthen the program overall, so it can be that beacon going forward for a new group of students.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah. And to add a little context for our listeners, since the program entered that window of eligible you're talking about, just under 1% of the applicants have actually been approved for forgiveness. And the most common reason they're denied, is that they're in the wrong federal loan program, not that they haven't been repaying their federal loans or working in the appropriate place, but that they were in the wrong loan program. So I think to your point there's some common sense fixes, and it's very encouraging to hear you're leading this effort in Congress. The Department of Education is taking a fresh look at this with an eye towards doing something too. We will certainly keep on top of that for our listeners, and we appreciate your efforts in that regard. We also appreciate Congressman, you taking the time today. We know you're very busy, you are shepherding multiple bills of great national imports. So we are very thankful you could take the time and appreciate your insights.

Congressman John Sarbanes: Well, thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you, and thanks for the good work that you're doing. Take care.

Jon Fansmith: And thanks so much. Take care. To listen to earlier episodes and subscribe to dotEDU, you can find us on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, Google Podcast, and wherever you get your podcasts. For show notes and links to resources mentioned in the episode, you can go to our website at acenet.edu/podcast. And you can also use our email podcast@acenet.edu for suggestions for upcoming shows or guests you'd like to see, or just thoughts on how we're doing. Before we go, I'd like to thank Carly O'Connell, Laurie Armston, Audrey Hamilton, and Malcolm Moore, who are the exceptional producers of dotEDU, and make us sound as good as we do every episode. And finally, I'd like to thank you for listening.

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​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major public policy issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts to lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page.

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