How Loan Forgiveness Plans Can Help Social Workers

November 14, 2022 @ 9:33 pm

Update March 1, 2023: Challenges to President Biden’s loan forgiveness plan came before the Supreme Court this week, with a decision expected in the next three months. The School of Social Work will continue to follow developments in this story that profoundly impacts our students and alumni.

Loan forgiveness plans can be a great boon to the social work profession, says economist Rob Hartley of the Columbia School of Social Work. And while the financial benefits of such plans may be obvious, the positive outcomes are not limited to finances alone. For one, programs that reduce or eradicate student debt can increase access to the field and expand diversity within the entire profession.

“Taking on graduate school means taking on risks: first meeting family needs while working and studying intensely and later finding employment that pays off enough to justify all of the costs,” explains Dr. Hartley, whose research focuses on labor and public economics related to public policy and family outcomes across generations. “Lowering the long-run costs of a social work degree would certainly attract more social work students and, importantly, expand accessibility for those from a wider range of socioeconomic backgrounds.” 

This is important in a field that needs more practitioners who are culturally competent and who look like and understand the communities they serve. 

At the individual level, reducing one’s amount of student debt provides intangible benefits as well. “In non-pecuniary terms, decreased debt could mean quite a lot to a social worker’s perceived value, pride in their work, and sustainability in the profession,” Hartley states. 

Freedom from debt affects a social worker’s self-image and morale, the way they carry themselves and conduct their career, and even the well-being of their children and grandchildren. Debt level powerfully impacts a social worker’s long term ability to start a family, own a home in order to build intergenerational wealth, and achieve other important life goals.

Leading social work organizations have long seen the need for these programs. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) issued an August 24 statement upon President Joe Biden’s announcement of a new Federal Student Loan Debt Relief Program, while urging that more expansive action is needed.  

“NASW has advocated tirelessly for student loan debt relief for social workers, including through cancellation, public service loan forgiveness and other mechanisms, like employer-supported student debt relief measures,” said NASW public policy director Sarah Christa Butts, who is also a field instructor for CSSW. “Today’s action by the Biden Administration is historic and impactful; however, NASW recognizes that student loan debt remains a tremendous burden for social workers across the country and will continue to advocate for sound policies providing additional relief.”

Many social workers eagerly awaited the chance to apply for this new federal program; the online application system went live on October 17. As of this writing, debt discharges are on hold, though you may still apply. The current deadline is December 31 of 2023, but some experts recommend wrapping up your application much earlier, by November 15 of this year. 

Other options also exist for social workers who wish to reduce the debt they’ve incurred in training. The US government offers a Public Service Loan Forgiveness plan for people such as federal, municipal, and nonprofit employees who have worked in public service for ten years or more. The deadline is October 31; see details and an eligibility tool here. (The NASW is urging the government to extend this deadline.) Columbia University employees may be eligible for this program. To find out more, you can register for a Columbia information session here

The National Health Service Corps offers a repayment program that covers up to $50,000 in debt for clinical social workers who work for two years in a high-needs geographical area. Some employers also offer their own loan forgiveness programs for workers who have completed a specified term of service.