It is Time to Abolish Student Loan Interest Rates for Healthcare Providers
Millions of Americans are suffering amidst the collective weight of the pandemic + working as a healthcare provider + crushing student loan debt. The weight of this trifecta is unbearable at times, yet significantly improved with the current option to defer payments and acquire zero percent interest on our student loans. This saving grace expires December 31, 2020. This begs the question, why can we not keep it this way? For my family, this question is quite literally the (half) million-dollar question, as our interest will add up to nearly $500,000 throughout our repayment lives. (I hope Navient uses it wisely.)
We currently owe over $350,000 in student loans, the majority of which are mine. No! My husband and I are not both surgeons, we just happened to grow up in lower middle-class families in which postgraduate education was lauded as the key to happiness and no one knew the actual impact of overwhelming student loan debt. We both made it through undergrad with minimal debt, and both accepted staggering loans for graduate education. He is an optometrist and I am an occupational therapist/researcher with aspirations to become an occupational therapy professor. I think it is safe to state that neither of these fields are especially flashy or overly paid. We are fortunate yet simultaneously suffocating. Between the two of us, my husband and I accumulated 19 years of higher education. We have already paid over $180,000 on our student loans, yet actually owe more now than when we first graduated from graduate school in 2008 and 2009. (It was perfect timing with the 2008 financial crisis!) If you’re curious as to how these numbers add up it is because we accrue approximately $27,000/year in interest alone, which cannot be written off due to arbitrary income caps. We earn just over the cusp, placing us in a precarious middleclass position of too much/not enough.
As an occupational therapist, I specialize in prescribing complex seating and positioning systems for people who have cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, traumatic brain injuries, and spinal cord injuries. I have made splints for the hands of tiny babies in the neonatal intensive care unit, wrapped the swollen limbs of those dying of cancer, and explained to a 15-year-old basketball-playing gunshot victim that he will need a wheelchair for the rest of his life. I have dressed the burns of toddlers caught in fires, cried with a mother over her daughter’s lack of brain function after a near-drowning incident, and witnessed the ravages of cancer. I love my job and am honored to be in the presence of people’s most exposed moments, to truly witness the mercy (and lack thereof) of our society. I am trained to treat the body, mind, and soul. It is rewarding, emotionally exhausting, and a vital role in the vast healthcare system we all zigzag through. And, as such, it is expensive to acquire the degrees and experience necessary to perform these tasks. Healthcare is not compromised of nursing and medicine alone, as a plethora of relatively unknown or misunderstood professions provide medically necessary care every day throughout the world. We are all on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, albeit at different levels of intensity. I continue to work in inpatient pediatrics, donning a mask, face shield, gown, and gloves to treat terrified children, while my husband continues to evaluate people’s eyes from mere inches away in a small enclosed room.
Abolishing predatory interest rates on student loans would change our lives in astounding ways. First, the constant physical and mental stress of these high interest rates (which are consolidated as low as possible) would alleviate a constant source of anxiety and hopelessness, as we could actually make progress on the principal debt. Second, we would have the opportunity to volunteer our services more by saving this money. Third, the money we spend on student loan interest could then help us save for retirement, put into the economy, and into our children’s college savings funds, ensuring less of a drain on society in our later years. We made extreme sacrifices due to the weight of these loans on our backs: we moved to Alaska for higher paying jobs and had only two children, despite desperately wanting more. Nevertheless, we are serving a society that will bailout bankers and large corporations who make millions, yet not healthcare providers working in the trenches of humanity while unsupported by a fractured healthcare system. I cannot convey enough that this is not simply hyperbole: 0% interest student loan rates would dramatically and positively change our lives forever, and our children’s lives. The intergenerational trend of debt would stop and we could focus on what all of those years of education were meant for: to treat our patients with all of our heart and mind, to invest in others, and to thrive.
We want to use our education to serve the underserved and work in non-profits, as I have since I graduated from occupational therapy school, because we believe in service to the greater good. My husband went to optometry school with the goal of traveling to communities throughout the world to treat ocular disease. However, with student loans, the expense of life, and childcare, we find ourselves in a vicious cycle of never-ending loans, difficulty paying the principal loan amount, and little hope of growth for our financial future. To fuel this fire, healthcare providers experience constantly decreasing reimbursement rates yet simultaneously increasing educational requirements and daily productivity rates. Healthcare reform is a separate beast to discuss, yet the interconnectedness of educational and healthcare issues is ever-present. For example, the outsourcing of training from hospitals to formal education environments contributed to increased formal educational requirements, such as transitioning to a Bachelors to Masters, or Masters to Doctorate in some healthcare fields. There is also simply more to teach and learn requiring increased education duration. Healthcare providers are expected to know more and more as scientific discovery expands. Unfortunately, salaries failed to increase as well, thus leaving a vortex of expensive monthly payments for our country’s healthcare providers.
As I mentioned, I love my job and my profession. I have a wonderful life and often feel ashamed for the anxiety I carry over my student loans and the difficulty I face with paying them off. I have sought assistance from an accountant, financial advisors, a lawyer, and applied to numerous consolidation programs and scholarship opportunities. There are countless atrocities occurring this minute that seem more important than my skewed debt-to-income ratio that resembles a hamster galloping fervently on its spinning wheel. For example, children’s immigration detention centers, the COVID-19 pandemic, and systemic racism all outrank my own personal situation. I do wonder, though, what collective good we could all do without the burden of student loan debt. Would we volunteer or mentor more? Donate more money to charity? Take a month to help the body, mind, and soul of these children separated from their families and forced to live in detention center squalor? I do. I think we would do just that. And so much more.
Previous policies (à la Senator Elizabeth Warren) considered a student loan cancellation income cap of $250,000, which requires further dissection and consideration. A family who earns $251,000/year with $350,000 in student loan debt is not the same as a family who earns $1,000,000 and can pay significantly more each month. Please do not place us in the same box in policy-making decisions. (I still love you Senator Warren!) We would not have taken out student loans had we not needed them nor would these loans continue to loom over us if another way out existed, i.e., reasonable interest rates, less required education, or increased monetary value on all healthcare providers. Still, I am grateful to the politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Warren who dared to bring this issue to the forefront of national discussion and made it a primary policy objective in recent campaigns. I believe the more we share our stories, the more politicians and policy makers will see the impact of their seemingly blind decisions on the citizens of this country.