Will artists ever be forgiven for their student loans?


In fall 2021, the Biden administration announced plans to massively overhaul the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), a federal service plagued by years of eligibility criteria confusion and complaints. inefficient management.

The program, created in 2007 to allow loan forgiveness to eligible employees — typically those who work for the government or a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, requires individuals to work at least 30 hours per week and make 120 qualifying income payments. repayment plan based. Currently, the program only applies to direct federal loans and takes about ten years before a forgiveness can be granted.

As public calls to cancel student loans reach an all-time high, the administration’s focus on improving and expanding access to the PSLF could have a positive impact on lives and means livelihood of artists working in the South West and beyond. Yet, as artists continue to navigate a struggling economy with limited access to full-time, well-paying work, the PSLF may prove limited solace.

The program’s rigid employer eligibility criteria exclude self-employed or otherwise self-employed artists working outside the nonprofit sector or government services. For those lucky enough to secure full-time employment in this struggling economy, the vast majority continue to face insurmountable debt due to the educational qualifications needed to obtain such employment.

Underlying the “nonprofit industrial complex,” which critics say advances the interests of public and private entities instead of the common good (while underpaying and often overworking its staff), is the fact that many artist-employees try to increase their salaries while also maintaining their careers as artists through self-employment contracts. And inherent racial, class and gender disparities prioritize those who are already ideally situated to thrive while leaving everyone else behind.

Artist and educator Lee Montgomery gives a drone demonstration/talk at the Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico (photo courtesy of Lee Montgomery)

Among the changes the Biden administration is implementing to the PSLF are expanding the types of loans recognized under the program – FFEL, Perkins and other non-direct loans will receive a time-limited waiver until 31 October 2022 – a review of previous denied eligibility claims and automatic credit for military service employees and certain federal employees.

Such measures are a reaction to the multitude of problems that have marred the success of the program since its inception thirteen years ago. Among them were rigid eligibility criteria that turned down about 99% of applicants, in addition to recurring issues with federal loan managers — a 2018 NPR report cited statistics from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which so far had received more than 60,000 complaints and returned more than $750 million to people harmed by repairers’ practices. The data was unearthed from a CFPB whistleblower.

Yet visual artists are confused by the program’s bureaucratic hurdles and express frustration at the myriad ways debt has permanently altered their lives.

For Lee Montgomery, the PSLF eligibility and navigation process took years.

Montgomery, an artist and associate professor of experimental art and technology at the University of New Mexico (UNM), had about sixty thousand dollars in student debt after graduating with an MFA from San Francisco Art. Institute, an institution that has withstood financial difficulties. threats to its viability in recent years.

Discouraged by the high amounts of loan repayments, Montgomery was sometimes forced to suspend his loans. Once he started teaching at UNM, he became eligible for the program but earned less than he earned while working for a community college in California. Although he was grateful to be eligible, the length of the process was daunting.

“I think I always saw this as a ten-year commitment, so I had to put myself in the mindset of a long game of cutting that debt.”

Yet Montgomery points to the various bureaucratic hurdles borrowers must jump through to qualify in addition to the illusion of benefiting from the program’s offerings as tuition fees continue to soar and students become increasingly reliant on loans. to attend university.

Artist and arts administrator Nancy Rivera (photo courtesy of Nancy Rivera)

“The part they never really say out loud is that they give you an edge down the road for not really making money for ten years. I just think student debt, in general, was sold to us with false premises; culturally there is a narrative around student debt that I think is fabricated and unnecessary. I bought into it for a while, but I also think it’s a fiction that made tuition skyrocket in my lifetime school is not affordable otherwise what other options do people who are not rich have but to borrow money ?”

Adelaide Ryder is an artist, museum professional, and adjunct professor at a local liberal arts college in Salt Lake City, Utah. She says her fears about the amount of debt she had taken on for college were allayed by the advice of a loan counselor that she could work in the university system for ten years and that the debt would be canceled by the PSLF.

Ryder is relieved to learn of the Biden administration’s plans to overhaul the system and reconcile payment plans and otherwise ineligible loans in the PSLF, but she remains in limbo awaiting confirmation of her status.

“Without these changes, I would probably still owe thirty thousand dollars while operating assuming my debt was paid off,” she says. “I can’t have just one job. I haven’t been able to save for the last ten years and I don’t have the bandwidth to apply for gallery shows when I work 50-60 hours a week.

Nancy Rivera, a visual artist and arts administrator based in Salt Lake City, says her payments have remained reasonable under the program — and under the income-based reimbursement plan — because she works for a nonprofit organization. lucrative since enrolling in the 2017 program, she believes having student loans has not hindered her ability to grow professionally or personally, but she is still considering the implications of the nature of the loans and their accumulated totals.

“The three years of payments I have made so far have barely reduced the principal loan amount and have mostly paid off accrued interest. This means that unless I can afford to pay almost twice as much in monthly installments, I could carry this loan for many years to come,” she says.

Despite working for a nonprofit organization for five years with a good salary, Nina Elder – an artist, educator and researcher – was never able to afford the minimum monthly payments associated with her repayment plan. “Now my minimum payments are more than I make in a year,” she said of her student debt of about a quarter of a million dollars.

Adding to the problem are the various jobs she held as a contract employee. Elder works primarily with museums, nonprofits, and science organizations and earns money by teaching and giving talks. She encountered difficulties in registering for PSLF because to benefit from it, candidates must maintain 30 hours with at least one employer and go through a traditional hiring process.

“I have multiple temp employers and did taxes in seven states last year. I don’t know of a single artist with a single employer,” she said.

Many things come to mind for Elder when considering the economic and emotional impact of student debt.

Artist, educator and researcher Nina Elder conducting field research with the Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, 2022 (courtesy Nina Elder)

“It spurred me 100% to stay poor. If I started earning enough money to be put in an income bracket where I could pay the sixteen to eighteen thousand dollars a month, it would ruin my life” , she says.

Another New Mexico-based artist and teacher I spoke to told a similar story — several years of conflicting information from loan officers about her PSLF qualification. Eventually, she switched to an income-based repayment (IBR) plan that capped her monthly payments.

To her surprise, however, in the fall of 2021, she received an email from the Ministry of Education informing her of the expanded PSLF option which allowed her to count five years of otherwise ineligible payments for the ten-year duration of the PSLF. . Shortly after, she confirmed that her debt had been forgiven. She even received a refund for payments made over the ten-year term of the PSLF.

The experience provided tremendous personal and creative relief.

“I took out loans in my 40s to go to college…It made me feel like I could start thinking about retirement. [Before this]I was afraid that I would have to work well past my 70s,” she told me.

“One of the things that I think is so difficult for artists, in particular, is that you feel like you can’t take risks because of this debt. It makes me feel like I can continue to be creative and try new things without being so discouraged.

Biden is expected to make an announcement regarding student loan debt soon. As artists continue to navigate a difficult economic terrain of loans, contract work and financial stability, the need for survival has catapulted some of them into higher paying industries or imposed a kind of economic bondage on those who depend on student loans, government grants and other forms of support to work in the creative economy.


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