Dear Secretary DeVos, You and I have a lot in common. We're both from the great state of Michigan and have the same Michigan accent. We both have careers in education reform. In fact, we've both played our own role in driving education reform in Michigan—my work being policy and legislative analysis, yours being philanthropic. I haven't worked for an organization that you funded, but many of my colleagues and partners in reform have. We’ve been on the same side of some bills, and we’ve been on opposite sides. And while we have differing views on the role of accountability in school choice and on many other ideological fronts, the biggest difference between us is one that impacts nearly every decision I make in life: Despite aggressively paying my student loan bill every month for the past five years (and counting!), I still have more than $70,000 of debt from the public universities I attended. That’s nearly twice the average of a student who graduated in 2016—and yet tens of thousands
less than many of my good friends. You've never had one cent of student loan debt, so you can't imagine the extent to which this figure weighs on me. I'd like to buy a home this year but saving has been hard because of the cost of my loans. I'd like to get married and have children in the next few years, but I'm scared to incur the cost of a wedding or bring children into a world where a large percentage of my monthly budget goes to paying off debt. When the lottery was up into the billions last year and everyone was buying tickets, I was making a list of what I'd do with my earnings. Number one: Pay off my loans. Number two: Pay off the loans of the people I love. Number three: Cash it all in and roll around in the gigantic pile of money.
The Power of Forgiveness
My saving grace has always been the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program—the federal program that says,
as a way to thank you for working in public service to make this country a better place, for taking on a lower salary than if you were in the private sector, we’d like to forgive whatever remains of your student debt after 10 years of employment and consistent payments. And now I hear you’re planning on getting rid of it. I knew about this program before making the decision to go to graduate school. In fact, I don't know that I would have attended if it weren't for the assurance that this program would make a life in public service doable.
As the daughter of two immigrants, the message in my house was always clear: Education is the priority. That I would go to college after high school was never questioned. And while they were as supportive as any parents could ever be, they weren’t able to help me financially when I left for school, with the exception of groceries or a meal out in downtown Ann Arbor here and there. For the entirety of undergrad and graduate school, I juggled work-study jobs and waited tables on nights and weekends, to keep my debt down. I took both internships and paying jobs during the summers. I had scholarships. I volunteered. I shared a bedroom to save on rent. I did everything you're supposed to do to keep the costs down and succeed after graduation. I bootstrapped as hard as any Republican could ever want a student to bootstrap. When I graduated with my master’s degree, I began working at a nonprofit with the mission of closing educational achievement gaps. While I was there, my coworkers and I used to play the game, What Would You Do to Pay Off Your Loans? Would you peel hard-boiled eggs for 10 hours a day for a year? For two years? Would you eat a live bug? Ten live bugs? 100? When that organization suddenly and dramatically downsized, I was laid off and had to scramble to find a job so that I didn't miss a payment. But it was crucial to make sure my next job was also with a 501(c)(3) so that I could continue to qualify for PSLF. Every job I've ever applied to has qualified for this program, because I do not want to carry my loans around for the rest of my life. Moreover, because I’ve been planning all along that my loans would eventually be forgiven, I’ve been paying the minimum amount each month. If this loan forgiveness disappears, I’ll be doubly tricked, because I've been paying my debt using the income-based plans
recommended for this program. While the monthly amount that I pay now still gives me sticker shock, I would actually have been paying even
more to avoid all this interest if I hadn't been counting on this program. In other words, I’ve accrued interest that I would not have accrued. And if you cut this program, it will have been for nothing. I've made nearly $30,000 worth of loan payments, but the amount of my loans has barely decreased. I, and some 500,000 other public servants—including teachers, by the way!—are relying on you to make sure that we aren't punished for trusting that the public would give us a hand in exchange for our public service. This is your first foray into public service, and I hope it opens your eyes to the true nature of this work. Working in public service has shaped who I am, and I am all the better for it. It has always been worth it to me to do this work, despite knowing I could have a higher salary (and therefore less debt) if I worked in the private sector, in a less mission-driven field. The organizations you have financed through your philanthropic efforts are staffed by people who feel the same way I do, and face the same challenges. I hope that you find the same joy in public service that I have found, and I hope that you decide that people in public service should be rewarded for their work. Yours in service, Valentina Korkes
Valentina Payne joined Bellwether Education Partners in 2021 as chief of staff to Andy Rotherham on the External Relations team. Prior to Bellwether, she spent seven years at brightbeam, where she most recently served as its chief growth officer, overseeing operations, finance, fundraising, and strategic growth of the organization.