Guest Commentary

Public Service Loan Forgiveness program benefits us all

Tiffany N. Willis is a neonatal psychologist at Children’s Mercy and an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Tiffany N. Willis is a neonatal psychologist at Children’s Mercy and an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Submitted photo

I am a first-generation college graduate and the first in my big southern family to receive a doctorate degree. Like many in this country, it was not an option for my parents to pay for higher education. I had to bear the burden of taking out student loans in order to finance the schooling required for my profession.

I did so with the understanding that as a public servant helping the most disadvantaged children and families, my student loans would eventually be forgiven under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, or PSLF. It is devastating to hear that national lawmakers may be planning to end PSLF, the only program that provides financial security for those in public service.

Established during President George W. Bush’s administration in honor of the value of public service, PSLF allows borrowers to earn forgiveness of their federal student loans after 10 years of qualified public service and repayments. Student loan debt is one of the biggest barriers to pursuing a career in this field, but thanks to PSLF, these careers have become accessible and financially sustainable.

As a neonatal psychologist focused on infant and early childhood mental health, my position requires a doctorate degree in psychology. If had not pursued a PsyD, I would not be in my current role. I would not be able to work with those who have experienced trauma, especially underserved and underrepresented minority groups. I would not be able to help them process their losses and trauma effectively in order to re-integrate into society in a functional manner.

There is a great body of research that suggests the importance of parental mental stability is foundational for the healthy development and mental health of infants and young children. The work that I do ensures that parents and babies alike are given their best opportunity to reach their highest potential and become resilient after some of life’s most devastating experiences. If PSLF is eliminated, it would place a burden on me financially, and would likely affect the patients I am able to serve for the foreseeable future.

PSLF is a necessary program that recognizes that public service is a pursuit of the heart, and is often not lucrative. It enables people like me to pursue their passions and give back to our communities without having to bear the burden of student loan debt for their lifetime.

As a person of color and as a female, I feel privileged to add to the diversity of the field of psychology. Not having the option to take out loans that could eventually be forgiven under PSLF would have a direct impact on the number of underrepresented minorities who are able to obtain a doctorate degree and continue the much-needed diversification of doctorate level professionals.

People who are not privileged enough to have trust funds or wealthy parents would be discouraged from, or perhaps forgo altogether the pursuit of a doctorate-level education. I know that at Children’s Mercy, 60 percent of the families we see are members of are racial minorities and come from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.

It is important to have a field of providers that reflects the population they serve in any region. Without PSLF, the number of racial minorities or individuals from low-income backgrounds entering the field of psychology would decline drastically.

I urge our lawmakers to seriously consider the significant ripple effect that ending PSLF could have, not just for the individual borrower and their family, but for future generations and for our society as a whole.

I hope that Congress will fulfill its promise to our public service professionals, and to our community of public service consumers, by maintaining PSLF.

Tiffany N. Willis is a neonatal psychologist at Children’s Mercy and an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.