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

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

With public calls for student loan forgiveness reaching an all-time high, the administration’s focus on improving and expanding access to PSLF could positively impact the lives and livelihoods of working artists in the Southwest and beyond. Yet, as artists continue to navigate a troubled economy rife with limited access to full-time and well-paying work, PSLF may prove a limited consolation.

The program’s rigid employer eligibility criteria exclude self-employed or otherwise independent artists working outside of the nonprofit or government service sector. For those fortunate enough to secure full-time employment in this troubled economy, the vast majority continue to face insurmountable debt from the degrees necessary to secure such employment.

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

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

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

Such measures are a reaction to the multitude of issues marring the program’s success since its inception thirteen years ago. Among them, rigid eligibility requirements that denied approximately 99% of applicants, in addition to recurring issues with the servicers of federal loans—a 2018 report from NPR cited statistics from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), who up until this time had received more than 60,000 complaints and returned more than $750 million to those harmed by the servicers’ practices. The data was unearthed from a CFPB whistleblower.

Still, visual artists are encountering confusion over the program’s bureaucratic obstacles and express frustration over the myriad ways in which debt has permanently altered their lives.

For Lee Montgomery, the process of eligibility and navigating PSLF has taken years.

Montgomery, an artist and Associate Professor of experimental art and technology at the University of New Mexico (UNM), had roughly sixty-thousand dollars in student loan debt after completing his MFA degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, an institution that has weathered financial threats to its viability in recent years.

Daunted by the high loan payment amounts, Montgomery was at times forced to take his loans into forbearance. Once he started teaching at UNM, he became eligible for the program but earned a lower salary than he did while working for a community college in California. While he was grateful to be eligible, the length of the process was daunting.

“I think I’ve always seen it as a ten-year commitment, so I had to get in the mindset of a long game of chipping this debt away.”

Still, Montgomery emphasizes the various bureaucratic hoops borrowers must jump through to qualify in addition to the illusion of benefit the program offers while tuition costs continue to skyrocket, and students are increasingly reliant on loans to attend college.

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

“The part that they never really say out loud is that they are giving you a benefit down the road for not really making any money for ten years. I just think that student debt, in general, has been sold to us with false premises; culturally there is a narrative around student debt that I think is manufactured and not helpful. I bought into it for a time, but I also think it is a fiction that has allowed tuition to just balloon over my lifetime. School is not affordable any other way. What options do people who are not wealthy 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 graduate school were assuaged by the advice from a loan counselor informing her that she could work in the university system for ten years and have the debt forgiven through PSLF.

Ryder is relieved to hear of the Biden administration’s plans to overhaul the system and reconcile otherwise non-qualifying payment plans and loans into PSLF, but she remains in limbo as she awaits confirmation of her status.

“Without these changes, I’d probably still be owing thirty thousand dollars while operating under the assumption that my debt was paid off,” she says. “I cannot just work one job. I haven’t been able to save for the last ten years, and I do not have the bandwidth to apply to gallery shows when I am working 50-60 hours per week.”

Salt Lake City-based visual artist and arts administrator Nancy Rivera says that her payments have stayed reasonable under the program — and as part of the Income-Based Repayment plan — because she has worked for a nonprofit since she enrolled in 2017. Because of the program, she believes taking on student loans hasn’t hindered her ability to thrive professionally or personally, yet she still contemplates the implications of the nature of the loans and their accruing totals.

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

Despite working for a nonprofit for five years at a good salary, Nina Elder — an artist, educator, and researcher — could never 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 approximately quarter-million dollars in student debt.

Adding to the problem are the various jobs she worked as a contract worker. Elder primarily works with museums, nonprofits, and science organizations and makes her money teaching and delivering lectures. She has encountered difficulty enrolling in PSLF because to qualify, applicants must maintain 30 hours with at least one employer and go through a traditional employment process.

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

A lot comes to mind for Elder when contemplating the economic and emotional impact of student debt.

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

“It has 100% incentivized me to stay poor. If I started making enough money to get put into an income bracket to afford the sixteen to eighteen thousand dollars a month in payments, it would ruin my life,” she says.

Another artist and New Mexico-based professor I spoke to relayed a similar story — several years of contradictory information from loan servicers about her qualification for PSLF. Eventually, she opted for an Income-Based Repayment (IBR) plan which capped her monthly payments.

To her surprise, however, in the fall of 2021, she received an email from the Department of Education notifying her of the expanded PSLF option which enabled her to count five years’ worth of otherwise non-qualifying payments toward the ten-year PSLF term. Shortly thereafter, she confirmed her debt was forgiven. She even received a refund for payments made over the ten-year PSLF term.

The experience has provided immense relief on a personal and creative level.

“I took out loans in my 40s to attend graduate school….It has made me feel as though I can start thinking about retirement. [Before this], I was worried I was going to have to work well into my 70s,” she told me.

“One of the things that I think is so hard for artists, in particular, is that you feel that you can’t take risks because of this debt. It is making me feel as though I can continue to be creative and try new things and not be so discouraged.”

Biden is expected to make an announcement soon concerning student loan debt, As meanwhile 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 better-paying industries or imposed a sort of economic serfdom upon those reliant on student loans, government grants, and other forms of assistance to work in the creative economy. 

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Scotti Hill

Scotti Hill (she/her) is a Utah-based art critic, curator, and lawyer. In addition to teaching art history at Westminster College, she’s a regular contributor to 15 Bytes: Utah’s Art Magazine...