U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp today introduced her bill to encourage more young men and women in rural America to enter public service professions by waiving interest on their federal student loans and expanding federal loan forgiveness to include volunteer first responders and beginning farmers.
Rural communities in North Dakota continue to face severe shortages in public service professions like nursing, education, law enforcement, and agriculture. But in many cases, qualified graduates choose to pass up opportunities to serve in rural public schools, fire departments, farms, or community clinics due to high amounts of student loan debt and increasingly tight budgets. Over 80,000 North Dakotans currently have federal student loans in repayment, and North Dakota residents currently owe $2.1 billion in outstanding federal principal and interest balances.
Heitkamp’s bill would incentivize more graduates to pursue public service career paths by allowing them to pay off more of their debt more quickly— enabling young professionals to better provide for their families, buy homes, and save for retirement. Additionally, by making volunteer first responders eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program for the first time, her bill would provide an extra recruiting tool to volunteer EMT and fire departments as they address staffing shortages and fill open positions.
“Millennials are racking up disproportionately high levels of student debt, and the earnings of recent college graduates haven’t kept up with the costs of steep loan and interest payments. This scenario has crippled the ability of rural areas to recruit new doctors, firefighters, farmers, and other public servants, as many capable young people are prevented from returning to their hometowns and using their skills to improve their communities,” said Heitkamp. “Public servants often sacrifice a higher salary somewhere else to stay in our communities and keep them strong and safe. I’m proud to strengthen the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program’s benefits for teachers, nurses, and other professionals, but my bill also makes sure that volunteer first responders and farmers are recognized for their extremely important contributions to our state and our rural economy. Debt shouldn’t be a barrier to our young people who want to serve our communities, and I’ll keep looking for ways to address rising student debt, while also fighting for North Dakota workers and their families throughout the course of their lives.”
“As someone who helps educate and advise North Dakota’s next generation of nurses, I know firsthand that these men and women are bright, talented, and passionate about their line of work and eager to serve their communities. At the same time, I’ve heard over and over about their worries related to high amounts of student loan debt and the tradeoff of taking a lower salary but serving an underserved population,” said Tami Such, Nursing Program Director, Mayville State University. “Senator Heitkamp’s bill is a clear way to help our state’s health care workers address their staggering burdens of debt. This bill will help countless students better provide for their families, buy affordable homes, and save for their retirements, and her legislation will also help encourage additional students to consider nursing as a viable and fulfilling career path.”
Under the existing PSLF program, students can eliminate the balance of their federal student loan debt if they work in a public service profession for 10 years and make 120 qualifying payments on their federal loans. While PSLF is a valuable incentive for many public servants, the program does not yet include short-term incentives for meaningful public service of several years, but less than a decade in length.
Heitkamp’s Help Encourage a Lifetime of Public Service (HELPS) Act would address public servant shortages in North Dakota and financially assist student loan borrowers working to grow rural communities by:
- Waiving the accrual of student loan interest for any individual eligible for the PSLF program.
- Expanding student loan forgiveness to eligible volunteer first responders and first-time farmers by granting them PSLF eligibility.
Currently, volunteer first responders in North Dakota are not eligible to be enrolled in the PSLF program. Under the HELPS Act, individuals certified as a first responder and serving in a community public safety organization would qualify for the program.
“Volunteer firefighters across North Dakota are ready at a moment’s notice to keep our homes, farms, and businesses safe— and they rarely ask for any special recognition or award. But for years, rural fire departments have faced significant recruitment and retention issues in part because it’s not easy to take time away from jobs and family, settle down in rural towns, or devote dozens of hours to demanding training,” said North Dakota Firefighter’s Association Training Director Robert B. Knuth. “That’s why the North Dakota Firefighter’s Association Executive Board fully supports Senator Heitkamp’s bill to eliminate federal student loan interest for full-time and volunteer first responders and to make them eligible for federal student loan forgiveness. This bill would provide a powerful incentive to help departments across the country recruit and retain firefighters, and fully staffed departments makes our communities safer.”
The rising burden of student loan debt presents a major obstacle to those interested in pursuing a career positively benefiting the general public, like farming. According to the National Young Farmers Coalition, 53 percent of farmers have a hard time making their student loan payments— and 30 percent of young farmers put off full-time farming careers because of their debt. Heitkamp’s bill would extend eligibility for the program to first-time farmers, including the interest waiver.
Heitkamp’s legislation is cosponsored by U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and is endorsed by the National Volunteer Fire Council, the National Young Farmers Coalition, the National Network for Youth, the North Dakota Firefighter’s Association, North Dakota United, and the North Dakota Association of Nonprofit Organizations. Click here to read quotes from additional supporters of Heitkamp’s HELPS Act.
Heitkamp has continued to fight for workers and their families throughout the course of their lives, including at the beginning of their careers. In 2017, Heitkamp helped reintroduce a bill to guarantee paid family leave to working families, so that they have the paid flexibility to care for their loved ones, while boosting the ability of small businesses to retain employees. Heitkamp has also been pushing to protect North Dakota manufacturing jobs, and she has fought to protect the pensions of thousands of North Dakota workers and retirees through her work on the 16-person bipartisan congressional pension committee she was appointed to that is tasked with solving the multiemployer pension crisis.
Conversations with North Dakota students and families have reinforced Heitkamp’s commitment to tackling rising student debt. In 2015, Heitkamp introduced a bill that could enable borrowers to refinance private education loan balances at reduced interest rates at no cost to taxpayers.
Heitkamp has consistently fought to protect and strengthen the PSLF program and its benefits for North Dakota borrowers engaged in public service. In 2017, Heitkamp pressed U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos about concerns over the agency’s announcement that it may renege on its commitments to provide student debt relief for servicemembers, teachers, social workers, and other public servants enrolled in the program.
The introduction of the HELPS Act also builds on Heitkamp’s ongoing efforts to help North Dakota’s first responders find affordable housing and education. In December 2017, Heitkamp helped reintroduce a bill to help recruit more volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel by expanding education incentives. In September 2017, Heitkamp introduced the Volunteer First Responder Housing Act to promote housing opportunities for volunteer first responders.