Specifically, the department is pushing for veterans advocates and support groups to help spread the word about changes in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program announced last month that could wipe out student loan debts forthousands of veterans and service members.
“We as a country owe these individuals so much for their sacrifices, so for me getting them information on this is the top of my list,” Cardona said in an interview with Military Times Thursday. “For them and for their families, we have to help where we can.”
Cardona’s comments came after a roundtable discussion with student veterans and supporters at Manchester Community College in New Hampshire. The listening session was designed to discuss ways to better engage the military and veterans community on department services, including the loan forgiveness program.
Officials have said at least 17,000 current service members will benefit from changes to the program, which can erase tuition debt for individuals who have federal student loans and have been paying down their balance for the last decade.
For years, the program has faced criticism for being too cumbersome and unforgiving, rejecting many potential beneficiaries on complicated technicalities. In the last four years, only about 16,000 individuals have qualified to have their loans forgiven.
The program reforms are designed to lessen the bureaucratic burden and dramatically expand the number of eligible individuals. The changes are not specific to military members, but troops are expected to make up a sizable portion of the individuals who may benefit from them.
That’s why it is important that veterans know about the benefit and look into whether they may be eligible, according to Cardona.
“We need to amplify our message,” he said. “We’ve heard stories from veterans about how the program doesn’t work, so we made these changes. There is an urgency to protect those who have protected us.”
Cardona said in Thursday’s roundtable, veterans encouraged him not only to focus outreach efforts on veterans groups, but also to employers and colleges, to ensure individuals have multiple chances to see information about the program.
The department has already sent out about 500,000 emails to federal loan recipients informing them of the program changes and encouraging them to look into the eligibility rules.
Loan forgiveness recipients must either work full-time at a government job — federal, state, local and military posts are all included — or a not-for-profit, non-partisan organization, such as the Peace Corps.
Starting in 2022, staff will match department data with other federal databases to ensure that all federal workers, including troops, automatically qualify for the debt relief. About 22,000 individuals are expected to be covered by that process, meaning they could see their debts suddenly erased early next year.
But others will have to apply or update their records to receive the financial benefits.
Additional information is available through the Department of Education website.