college graduates looking over horizon

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Back in my 20s, I had a modest dream: By my 40s, I hoped, I’d be able to pay off my student debt. I’d even give some of my hard-earned money to my mom and rent a nice apartment. Maybe I’d get a dog, too.

And I wanted to do it while making a difference for working-class families like my own.

Really, that’s all most people from my background want when they think about the promise of higher education.

Growing up, making ends meet wasn’t easy. My single mom worked overtime, paid taxes, and consumed only within her means, but still we couldn’t find economic stability. Every shake and bump of the car engine, every toothache, and every new school expense could tip the scales toward disaster.

My brother and I learned early on to avoid debt collectors. We knew not to answer the phone, not to open the mail, and not to talk to strangers. As soon as we turned 15, we started working minimum-wage jobs at the local pizza buffet to stretch my mom’s secretary paycheck.

I studied hard, got a scholarship for college, and graduated with honors. Then, when I got into a Columbia University graduate program for social work, I had a choice to make.

Tuition would cost $50,000, and scholarships were slim. But a professional degree from an Ivy League school could be my ticket into the middle class. So I took out student loans. It was a gamble — I knew I’d be paying them back for a few decades.

It was hard. Somewhere along the way, living on credit cards and coupons and trying to cover rent and utilities for the 8-by-8-foot room I rented, I stopped dreaming and just tried to stay afloat.

Then, on November 8, 2007, something amazing happened.

I got an email from my friend Rachael, a freshly minted idealist like me, with a link to a new federal program. It would forgive our remaining debt after we made 10 solid years of payments while employed in public service. It was available for future teachers, firefighters, librarians, or in our cases, social workers.

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF) helps people like me who want to work at organizations that match our values — without forsaking our chance to buy homes, have kids, and plan for retirement. The program was created during George W. Bush’s administration.

When my loans became eligible for relief, I signed up, consolidated my debt with the federal government, and enrolled in an income-based repayment plan.

It still hasn’t been easy, to say the least.

When I was battling cancer and undergoing a stem cell transplant, I had to check on my payments from the hospital bed. The one time I turned my annual tax records in late, I had to pay a penalty of more than $1,000. My loan servicer wouldn’t adjust it, even when I caught my mistake and sent in documentation before the bill was due.

Still, not only did my monthly payment go down, the path ahead of me cleared. And I started to dream again.

Unfortunately, because of budget politics, this program is always in danger of being cut or modified. It’s on the chopping block for repeal in the latest Republican budget.

That’s a shame. We need public servants and first responders. Numerous cities and states are facing shortages of teachers, EMTs, and child welfare workers, with serious consequences.

And with 43 million Americans living with more than $1 trillion in student debt, we need lifelines like this one. It ensures that promising young people who want to serve their neighbors are able to get an education and put it to good use.

As for me, I just bought my first house with my fiancé, and we recently adopted our second dog. I’m paying my taxes. Now in my early 30s, I’m still working in public service. I hope to keep that trend going so our future children can dream, too.

Tiffany Williams is the associate director of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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