House votes to include feds in student loan repayment program
Bill would remove burden from individual agencies to find money for the benefit.
The House passed a bill Thursday that includes language making certain federal employees eligible to receive up to $5,000 each in student loan repayments from a fund set aside for that purpose.
Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., introduced the measure as an amendment to the Higher Education Act (H.R. 609), which updates student loan policy nationwide. If passed by the Senate and signed into law, the bill would qualify public servants at the local, state and federal levels for an Education Department fund that helps workers in some professions, including teachers, nurses and first responders, repay student loans.
As it stands, federal agencies are authorized to repay student loans up to $10,000 a year, with a total cap of $60,000. But money for loan repayments has to be found within an agency's budget; this measure would provide an alternate source of funding. The bill provides loan forgiveness up to $5,000 for employees who complete an undergraduate or advanced degree and work in the civil service for five consecutive years.
"Many students graduate from college and professional schools with overwhelming debt, which prevents them from pursuing jobs with government agencies or legal services programs," Porter said. "By expanding loan forgiveness, we'll encourage more highly trained young men and women to enter and continue in areas of public service."
Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, expressed his support for Porter's bill on the House floor Wednesday.
"We have to take proactive steps to ensure the best and the brightest will be attracted to public sector employment," Davis said. "These are talented, well-educated people with a strong sense of duty. We likely will never be able to compete on a dollar-for-dollar basis with the private sector, but we do have to take steps to make government service a viable option."
Twice, Davis has introduced a bill that would render student loan repayments for federal employees tax-free. That bill, called Generating Opportunity by Forgiving Educational Debt for Service (GOFEDS), has yet to find legs.
Agencies have struggled with implementing the student loan repayments. The Government Accountability Office said 2,945 federal employees received repayments in fiscal 2004 at a cost of $16.4 million.
The Office of Personnel Management initiated an interagency forum last summer for student loan repayment administrators to share best practices and increase use of the program. At an August session, participants said funding was a roadblock to using the repayment authority.
The State Department, which uses student loan repayments to entice prospective employees to historically difficult posts in places such as Baghdad and Kabul, among other jobs, was held up at the forum as a success.
Justice Department program administrator Deana Willis attributed at least part of State's accomplishments to funding. Taylor said the department has separate funding devoted each year to student loan repayments, whereas Justice has to pull money for the program from other areas.
Porter's amendment was co-authored by Reps. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz. and Robert Andrews, D-N.J. The entire bill passed by a vote of 221 to 199.