Guest Editorial: Repay student loans with community service

Charles (“Robi”) Robinson

Charles “Robi” Robinson

Charles “Robi” Robinson retired one year ago after forty years as a teacher of teachers throughout the world.  He recently un-retired to become the executive director of the We Care Foundation and Indian River Medical Society in Vero Beach where he lives with his wife Sandy. He strongly beliefs in public service and continues to volunteer with several area non-profits.

In a recent commentary column by Michael J. Petrilli (“Massive student loan relief would hurt the needy”, USA Today Network, 2/18/21), the author clearly explained the rationale for stopping student loan forgiveness. While I agree with his conclusion that “We can find ways to provide relief to the people who need it most while also working to solve some of America’s thorniest social problems,” I believe he neglected to include an important part of this solution – namely, the borrower.

When I applied for student loans so I could afford to go to college, it was my intention to pay them back in full as soon as possible. These “National Defense Student Loans” had a provision (which I was unaware of at the time) to reduce your debt through public service.  When I taught at inner-city schools a percentage of my debt was reduced, so that in three years, on a low teacher’s salary, I was able to repay the entire loan.  My family and I were very proud that we had repaid our government.  This sense of pride is one of the things that would be missing if student loans were forgiven.

There are several excellent forgiveness programs currently in effect that encourage teachers, doctors, lawyers and others to serve in high-need areas, or to serve in the military or in non-profits like the Peace Corps. If, for example, all student loans for teachers were forgiven, there would be little incentive for teachers to work with high-risk students attending inner-city schools.  I worked with teachers in a Massachusetts inner-city school where one-third of the teaching staff turned over each year.  Think how much worse it would be if there were no loan reduction incentives.

The sense of pride that borrowers feel on repayment of their student loans is an important factor in the debate over student loans. The ability to have your debt reduced through public service is also important to consider.  Think of the impact thousands of volunteer tutors would have on our school children as so many of them struggle with the disruptions in learning caused by the pandemic.  Reducing (not forgiving) the tutors’ student debt will not only help the students they tutor, but it will also provide them with a great deal of personal satisfaction.

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