Two years ago I came up with what I regarded as an awesome idea. What if I could pay down the debt I acquired while in graduate school through service? How I saw it, I was doing a considerable amount of science outreach and mentoring to students from economically-stressed neighborhoods and those attending poor-performing public schools. I was aware of loan forgiveness programs for teachers who taught in such situations. Why couldn't I, as a science tutor and after-school volunteer get in on this action? In fact, I imagined that many scientists and engineers would jump at the chance to work a couple of hours a week in exchange for shaving some interest points or hundreds of dollars from their student loan payments.

Around the same time, St. Louis Magazine was querying several top people in the Metro area for their Big Idea - "Big Question: If you had $10 million dollars, what idea would you fund to transform St. Louis". I was recommended by the St. Louis Academy of Science to be one of the interviewees. That question was answered by I'm one of 45 people who answered the question. I was deeply honored to share some print space with some local heavy hitters like Economic Developer John Edwards, Beer Heir Adolphus Busch IV, and the truly anointed Rabbi Susan Talve.

St. Louis Magazine September 2010 Issue


My Big Idea: Serve Student Debt Away.

You can still order reprints of that issue which provides a slightly edited version of my thesis. Below is my complete proposal.

St. Louis is home to several universities and colleges as well as Fortune 500 companies who educate and/or employ smart and capable individuals willing to serve and mentor others. However, one major set-back for many people’s philanthropic interests is the ever-increasing need to pay down mounting student debt. What if we could provide under-resourced communities quality supplemental educational opportunities AND give individuals the opportunity to serve their student debt away? For every 100 hours of service, volunteers would get $1000 of their student loan debt relieved. Scientists and engineers could run weekly after-school clubs, host field trips and research experiences with students from under-performing school districts. College students could provide tutoring in math, science, and reading or participate in weekend and summer college-prep camps. The catch is the volunteers have to work within the communities at need. Take the knowledge and opportunities to the people who need it most.

$10 million could support as many as 10,000 volunteers, each working to improve literacy, eradicate the high school drop-out rate among inner-city students, engage communities in discussions about advocacy or career exploration, help families identify financial aid opportunities for first generation college students, or lead K-12 students in fun and informative after-school activities in math or science.

The program could support volunteers in after-school, weekend, and summer programs in neighborhoods such as Wellston, Cherokee, and North St. Louis. Such a co-mingling of industry professionals, college students, educators and people from oft-overlooked St. Louis communities could dissolve some of the cliquish pre-dispositions this city is known to have. Plus, this program could create meaningful mentoring and personal relationships among people from different communities.

I still believe in this idea. For me and for the millions of others who desperately need the economic relief in this economy. Plus, I believe in this idea as a viable and achievable way to bring more science and tech outreach to children and families - in urban and rural areas - who seem be the most under served. Right now, I'm just wishing because to do this would require political and economic will. But I've discovered a shimmer of hope.

Student loan processors finally caught up with me after dodging them for nearly 2 years While doing research to tackle my student loans, I visited the FAFSA website: StudentAid.ed. gov you can search and read about everything related to student aid and repayment. And I cam across this:

Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program

If you work in public service (non profit, government & higher ed sounds like it counts, too) then you can qualify to have your Direct Student loans dismissed after 10 years (or 120 payments) of work in public service.

Qualifying employment is any employment with a federal, state, or local government agency, entity, or organization or a non-profit organization that has been designated as tax-exempt by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). The type or nature of employment with the organization does not matter for PSLF purposes. Additionally, the type of services that these public service organizations provide does not matter for PSLF purposes.

You have to be actively working in public service & making qualified payments at the same time, so no back calculating.

The other good news is that there are Income Based Repayment Options.

There are a few options to get your payments adjusted according to your adjusted gross income, so as to bring your monthly payments down. This can be used in combination with the Public Service program.

This news was too good not the share. Either of both sound perfect. Hey, if we can't serve our debt off completely, at least the service we do - in academia or for the government or in non-profit - can count to trim how long we're on the hook. I imagine this could really make a difference to post-docs and junior faculty who might be feeling the pinch. (Right now they are gobbling up nearly half of my take home pay. But that's because of being in default. I declared this the year to get my affairs in order and that's what I'm doing now. (However, if anyone wants to contribute to my student loan payment piggy bank, I won't say no. Thank you).

Happy debt reduction!