Federal student loan forgiveness: What to know

August 31, 2022
Optometry’s advocates continue to emphasize that eligibility for debt relief programs should not exclude optometry and greater options should be available for debt forgiveness programs.
Student loan forgiveness

Federal student loan borrowers could see tens of thousands of dollars in debt eliminated under a new relief plan announced as advocates work to ensure optometry isn’t excluded from broader debt forgiveness efforts.

On Aug. 24, President Joe Biden announced an historic decision to forgive $10,000 in federal student loan debt for individuals with incomes below $125,000 a year, or households earning less than $250,000, as well as an additional $10,000 in forgiveness for federal Pell grantees. The cancellation applies to loans held by the Department of Education and used to attend undergraduate or graduate school. Current students are eligible if their loans were issued before July 1, 2022, and dependent students are eligible based on their parents’ income as opposed to their own.

Exact details on the loan forgiveness application process have yet to be announced; however, more information is expected to be released at the federal student aid website. In a White House briefing on Aug. 26, administration officials anticipated an early-October timeline for the application process to open with loan adjustments taking four to six weeks after completion. To be notified when the process officially opens, sign up at the Department of Education subscription page.

Last week’s announcement also confirmed that the federal student loan payment freeze, initially brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, will be extended one final time, until Dec. 31, and interest rates will remain at 0% until repayments start. The freeze was set to expire Aug. 31.

But larger questions remain over how legal challenges might mire the forgiveness process or even reverse the decision altogether. While the debt relief plan is seen as long-awaited fulfillment of a campaign promise, federal student loans had been the center of attention dating back to the height of the COVID-19 pandemic—and even before—when the AOA and AOSA repeatedly advocated for a federal student loan payment moratorium under both the Biden and Trump administrations, as well as years of advocacy to reinstate optometry in the National Health Service Corps (NHSC).

  • Have questions about student loan refinancing? AOAExcel® will host a live workshop on Nov. 2 for AOA members to have their student loan refinancing questions answered by student loan professionals at Laurel Road. Stay tuned to aoa.org/aoaexcel for more information to be released in early October.

Leveraging NHSC in debt relief, increased eye care access

Given how the average optometry student’s loan debt at graduation is close to $200,000, the AOA and American Optometric Student Association (AOSA) know debt relief is a concern for the profession. In collaboration with the National Optometric Association (NOA), the National Optometric Student Association (NOSA), and the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO), the AOA and AOSA continue to advocate for a win-win solution that not only addresses optometry students’ loan debt but also delivers critical eye care to underserved communities while taking a step toward bolstering access and equity.

In a May 27 letter to U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, assistant to President Biden for domestic policy, advocates once again called for the Department of Education to coordinate with the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) to remedy optometry’s exclusion from the NHSC loan forgiveness program. As HRSA’s flagship health workforce program, NHSC offers doctors and clinicians the opportunity to work and have student loans repaid in exchange for providing two years of service in urban, rural or tribal communities with limited access to care.

“The NHSC is a powerful recruiting tool for health centers and have been shown to be successful in both recruiting and retaining providers to care for patients in underserved communities,” reads the letter, signed by the presidents of the AOA, AOSA, NOA, NOSA and ASCO. “If we are to build a more inclusive and accessible health care system that employs individuals with a wide range of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, action must be taken to reduce student debt and increase loan forgiveness opportunities through the NHSC.”

Currently, optometry is not eligible for the NHSC loan forgiveness program despite originally being included at its inception. This omission is glaring, especially considering that optometry delivers up to 80% of all primary vision and eye health care through Medicaid, as well as medical eye care to over 6 million Medicare beneficiaries annually.

The letter continues by advocating against the exclusion of broad categories of professionals in various debt relief programs and proposals, as other factors, such as current income, are better indicators of those who would benefit most.

Reinstating optometry into the NHSC program has been among advocates’ top priorities for years with calls to initiate an immediate rulemaking process, clarifying 42 U.S. Code § 2541—1 to state the profession’s eligibility. In 2021, the same group of optometric stakeholders wrote to the Department of Education, reiterating policy briefs and statements from the National Rural Health Association (NRHA) and American Public Health Association that demonstrate optometry’s utility in rural and underserved communities. That year, the group also wrote to Ambassador Rice, joining alongside the NRHA and Association of Clinicians for the Underserved to encourage optometry’s inclusion in the NHSC.

But even prior to recent years, the NHSC issue has been one that doctors and optometry students champion to their members of Congress during AOA on Capitol Hill, the AOA’s largest annual federal advocacy event. The fly-in sees hundreds of advocates directly appeal for Congressional intervention to reinstate optometry.

Support the AOA’s advocacy

Help the AOA continue its advocacy on behalf of optometry students and new graduates by getting involved and helping advocates build momentum. Here’s how:

  • Visit the AOA Action Center. Learn more about the NHSC issue and other federal priorities for optometry. Or text “NHSC” to 855.465.5124 to encourage optometry’s reinstatement in the NHSC.

  • Become an AOA-PAC investor. This is one of the easiest, most effective ways to help make an impact in the AOA’s ongoing advocacy efforts. Use your eight-digit, AOA membership ID number and log in from your computer to make an immediate investment* to support the profession.

*Contributions to the AOA-PAC are for political purposes and are not tax deductible. Only AOA members and other eligible persons may contribute. Contributions will be screened and those from non-eligible persons will be returned. You have the right to refuse to contribute without fear of reprisal. You will not be advantaged or disadvantaged because of how much you give or because you do not give.

Student Loan Refinancing

AOA members in good standing are eligible for a 0.25% rate discount when refinancing with AOAExcel’s endorsed business partner, Laurel Road.

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