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Covering Student Loan Forgiveness: 5 Tips From Danielle Douglas-Gabriel

A Washington Post higher education reporter shares insights to help journalists cover the new federal student loan forgiveness program and higher education debt more broadly.

Photo credit: Pixabay/Mohamed Hassan


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This blog was republished with permission from The Journalist’s Resource, which published it Aug. 25, 2022. (Disclaimer: The author serves on the board of directors for the Education Writers Association.)  

President Joe Biden unveiled his highly anticipated student loan forgiveness program, designed to eliminate up to $10,000 in debt for most Americans with student loans backed by the federal government.

Borrowers who received Pell Grants for low- to middle-income families while they were students could see their loan debt slashed by as much as $20,000.

Biden’s historic plan calls for a range of changes designed to reduce the financial burden associated with going to college and seeking training at trade schools, vocational schools and other programs after high school. Nationwide, student loan balances total $1.6 trillion, according to White House officials.

They estimate that as many as 43 million people — the vast majority of adults with federal student loan debt — qualify for the one-time reduction. About 20 million could see their whole balance disappear.

“The policy will deliver the single largest discharge of education debt on record,” The Washington Post reported.

In the coming months, the U.S. Department of Education will release more details about the program, including how borrowers can apply and how much it will cost. An analysis from the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Wharton Budget Model estimates the debt cancellation piece of Biden’s three-part plan will cost up to $519 billion. The Federal Student Aid office announced an application will be available by Dec. 31.

To help journalists cover this new initiative and student loan forgiveness more broadly, we asked Washington Post reporter Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, who covers the economics of higher education, for advice. She shared a wealth of insights and other information, which we distilled into these five tips to get journalists started.

1. Avoid focusing on young borrowers with college debt. Give audiences a more complete picture of the problem by including other types of borrowers, including older adults and people who used federal student loans to attend vocational and trade schools.

Douglas-Gabriel says it’s a mistake to present student loan debt as a problem plaguing mostly college graduates who have just begun to build their careers. She urges journalists to feature a variety of borrowers in their coverage to demonstrate how the burden of education debt has affected different borrowers and their families over the short- and long-term.

Although news coverage does not always show it, middle-aged Americans make up a substantial portion of the country’s student loan holders. In 2021, 38% of student loan borrowers were 40 years old and older, including more than 3.5 million over age 60, the Federal Reserve reports.

About 34% of borrowers were under age 30, and almost 28% were between the ages of 30 and 39.

Douglas-Gabriel encourages journalists to seek out older adults to ask about the challenges of paying down student loans while also, in some cases, helping younger family members such as a child or grandchild pay for college. It’s important for journalists to also examine student debt among Americans who attended vocational and trade schools, which offer training in areas such as welding, cosmetology and automotive repair, Douglas-Gabriel adds.

She points to a recent story about employer-based training for truck drivers as an example of journalists drawing attention to an education debt problem many people might not know about. The story, published by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit education news outlet, reveals how trucking companies offer training to help employees obtain commercial driver’s licenses, provided employees sign repayment agreements that can leave them in debt and make it tough for those who quit to find other jobs.

“Those kinds of hidden-debt stories are important to do because they add to the overall landscape of who has [education] debt and what it means for these different populations,” Douglas-Gabriel says.

Here are two of her other storytelling suggestions:

  • Interview borrowers with average levels of loan debt instead of primarily focusing on adults with six-figure debt loads, who are uncommon. In late 2021, 10% of Americans who had taken out loans to fund their education owed $100,000 or more, according to a May 2022 report from the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, 26% owed less than $10,000 and 19% owed between $10,000 and $19,999.

    A separate Federal Reserve analysis shows average student loan balances vary substantially across states, ranging from $28,218 in South Dakota to $42,543 in Maryland during the last quarter of 2021.

  • Seek out borrowers from the center of the country. Focusing on student debt in urban areas of the East Coast such as Washington D.C. can be misleading, Douglas-Gabriel notes.

    “A lot of people who live in D.C. have large debt loads because they have graduate degrees or they’re attorneys,” she adds. “They do not represent student loan borrowers [as a whole].”

2. Familiarize yourself with the loan forgiveness programs the federal government offers.

The student loan forgiveness program Biden unveiled Wednesday is one of several the federal government offers. Douglas-Gabriel recommends journalists become familiar with them, and these five in particular:

  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness: This program aims to help teachers, nurses, firefighters and others who specialize in public service fields eliminate their federal student loan debt after 10 years of work.
  • Teacher Loan Forgiveness: Teachers who agree to work five consecutive years for a school or educational service agency serving primarily low-income students can use this program to reduce their student loan debt by as much as $17,500.
  • Income-Driven Repayment plans: Borrowers participating in this program can lower their monthly student loan payments to an amount more affordable for their income and family size. Any balance remaining after 20 to 25 years gets canceled, depending on the repayment plan.
  • Total and Permanent Disability Discharge: People who become disabled and can no longer work can apply to have their federal student loans canceled.
  • Closed School Discharge: This program eliminates student loan debt for people whose schools closed while they were enrolled or shortly after they withdrew.

It’s important to note that some states also offer student loan forgiveness programs. Many of those target adults specializing in fields where there is a shortage of workers or turnover rates are high.

In Maine, for example, the Alfond Leaders Student Debt Reduction Program provides loan repayment assistance to Maine residents who work in Maine in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. The New York State Young Farmers Loan Forgiveness Incentive Program helps college graduates who pursue careers in farming in that state pay down their student debt.

3. Examine the reasons more people have not qualified for or participated in earlier federal loan forgiveness programs.

The rules for federal loan forgiveness programs are complicated and confusing, Douglas-Gabriel notes. Because of it, many borrowers don’t follow the rules correctly and miss out on a chance to erase all or a portion of their loan debt. Some borrowers also are denied because of paperwork errors and other technicalities.

In 2018, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a 34-page report criticizing the way the U.S. Department of Education had administered the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, established a decade earlier. As of April 2018, fewer than 1% of borrowers who had applied for loan forgiveness under this program received it.

According to the report, “borrowers were frequently confused by program requirements.”

“For example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported that borrowers have complained of spending years making payments, believing they were making progress towards PSLF loan forgiveness, and then learning that they were not eligible,” the Government Accountability Office writes.

That office released a report last year pointing out the Department of Education had, as of January 2020, denied 94% of Public Service Loan Forgiveness applications submitted by active-duty service members and other Department of Defense employees.

Last year, the nonprofit National Consumer Law Center released a report blasting Income-Driven Repayment plans, known as IDR plans. In the 25 years that program has existed, the federal government has canceled debts for a total of 32 people.

“As noted, only 32 IDR borrowers have successfully cancelled their loans even though approximately two million borrowers have been in repayment for 20 years or longer,” according to the report. “The shockingly low rate of cancellation of these borrowers’ loans is emblematic of [the U.S. Department of Education’s] failure to deliver the relief Congress intended when it passed the statutes enabling the creation of these IDR programs.”

4. Seek out experts who examine issues around student loan forgiveness through different lenses. Spotlight the work and opinions of authorities who are not white or male.

While Douglas-Gabriel recommends journalists interview researchers and academics when reporting on student debt and loan forgiveness, she says it’s important to reach out to other types of experts to get a fuller understanding of the issue.

“There are a wealth of people paying attention to this space who don’t get much attention for it,” she says.

She suggests interviewing:

  • Consumer attorneys whose clients are borrowers struggling to pay their college debt.
  • Borrower advocates and advocacy groups such as The Institute of Student Loan Advisors.
  • Former legislators and government leaders who years ago helped design or set up student loan forgiveness policies.

Douglas-Gabriel urges journalists to further diversify their sources by spotlighting the work and opinions of experts who are not white or male. Ask researchers and other sources for suggestions about who to call.

This is how she does it:

“I say ‘Hey, I really want to elevate the voices of people of color and younger and older folks who don’t get attention [for their work]. Does anyone come to mind?’”

She adds that framing the question “in this really positive, altruistic language helps to break down any defensiveness people may have” about a journalist looking for sources with specific characteristics.

5. Watch the mini-documentary series, “Looking Back to Move Forward: A History of Federal Student Aid.”

Douglas-Gabriel recommends watching this series of six short films, presented by the Lumina Foundation and the Institute for Higher Education Policy, to learn about the origins and evolution of the federal student aid system over the last 60 years. Each film runs 10 to 15 minutes.

“I really would encourage anyone who wants to get into this space and to know how we got here and why we’re here to watch [the series],” she says. “It gives you a better idea of why this system — like many government programs — was really well-meaning but unwieldy, exceedingly complicated and made it easy to fall through the cracks.”

If you’re looking for more higher education reporting tips, check out our tip sheets on covering “free college” and “college promise” programs and covering college finances amid COVID-19.

About the Author

Denise-Marie Ordway

She joined The Journalist’s Resource in 2015 after working as a reporter for newspapers and radio stations in the U.S. and Central America, including the Orlando Sentinel and Philadelphia Inquirer. Her work also has appeared in publications such as USA TODAY, the New York TimesChicago Tribune and Washington Post. She has received a multitude of national, regional and state-level journalism awards and was named as a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2013 for an investigative series she led that focused on hazing and other problems at Florida A&M University. Ordway was a 2014-15 Fellow of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. She also serves on the board of directors of the Education Writers Association. @DeniseOrdway