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Student Loan Forgiveness For Frontline Professionals: Fortifying Future Supply

As nurses, we are on the frontlines in the war against COVID-19. Deemed healthcare heroes and recipients of nightly applause, the recognition is gratifying but cannot compensate for the risk inherent in our ethical obligation to care for patients, especially when recycled personal protection equipment is all we have. As of July 13, there were 98,150 COVID-19 cases and 521 deaths among healthcare workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nurses deserve compensation commensurate with the hazards they endure.
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As nurses, we are on the frontlines in the war against COVID-19. Deemed healthcare heroes and recipients of nightly applause, the recognition is gratifying but cannot compensate for the risk inherent in our ethical obligation to care for patients, especially when recycled personal protection equipment is all we have. As of July 13, there were 98,150 COVID-19 cases and 521 deaths among healthcare workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nurses deserve compensation commensurate with the hazards they endure. 

A unique opportunity exists for the federal government to acknowledge the sacrifices made by nurses during the pandemic. While inaction persists at the federal level, some states, such as New York, are working toward loan forgiveness for frontline healthcare workers. Student loan forgiveness is a starting point given the extensive education and training required to enter, advance and excel in our field. The implicit social contract between healthcare professionals requires more than a public thank you in this high-risk era. 

Student debt, high-interest student loans and inflation influence those considering a nursing career. Ultimately, the healthcare system will be impacted by diminishing the number of nurses — both RNs and advanced practice nurses (APNs). Ninety percent of nursing students at for-profit schools borrowed upwards of $30,000 to finance their education, according to a 2014 study. Graduates can expect to pay $1,219 every month for 10 years. The 7 percent interest rate adds greatly to the debt. The ability to obtain a mortgage, finance a car and save for retirement are affected. The amount of student debt after nursing school should not impact a nurse’s quality of life when they work every day to improve the lives of others. The fear of student loan debt should not be a barrier to education. 

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing currently recommends that by 2025 advanced practice nursing students should obtain doctoral degrees to manage increasing practice complexity. This would double the time and cost to achieve APN status. Yet, between 2018 and 2028, there is a predicted 26 percent increase in the need for APNs, according to federal estimates. COVID-19 highlighted the need for APNs to provide accessible, affordable and high-quality healthcare. Minimizing or eliminating student debt for nurses at all levels of licensure is essential to keeping the healthcare system functional.

New York is setting a precedent as one of the few states proposing student loan forgiveness for frontline healthcare workers. The Student Debt Forgiveness for Frontline Workers Act, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), aims to alleviate the financial burden of nurses working the frontlines. Successful passage of this bill could encourage diversity among healthcare workers as well as willingness to work in rural or underserved areas, among the hardest hit by COVID-19. An adequate supply of healthcare providers in these areas will be one less barrier to ensuring positive patient outcomes in the coronavirus resurgence. Federal student aid currently requires the borrower to have made 120 payments and be employed full-time by a qualifying employer. However, Maloney’s bill doesn’t discriminate based on hours of service per week for applicants who are frontline healthcare workers.

The sacrifices of the nation’s nursing workforce deserve not just recognition but compensation. The time is now for federal and state governments to take action. Maloney’s bill can do just that by forgiving the principal federal loan borrowed as well as the interest accrued. Loan forgiveness is as much about workforce development as individual recognition. It can facilitate equal opportunity and access to the education needed for this critical-service profession to attend to individual and societal health appropriately as well as increasing the diversity of the workforce. It is important to note how extraordinarily burdensome this pandemic has been for nurses of color or from disadvantaged backgrounds. We need to fight to keep these healthcare professionals in practice. The federal government needs to reduce the loan interest rate for nurses from seven to zero percent. Ideally, if we truly value our healthcare workforce in times of both sickness and health, all past loans and future nursing educational costs for frontline workers will be funded by the federal government.

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Sara Bowen, a GYN surgical oncology nurse, and Emily Bower, an operating room nurse, are Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) students in the Connell School of Nursing at Boston College.

2 Comments

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    thomaswilliams Reply

    My daughter is a nurse and did not and will not ever ask anyone else to pay her debts. My wife and I were proud to save and sacrifice to pay her tuition at a state school and she quickly paid off any remaining debt during her first year working. Like her, you are probably making over $80K per year and should be able to pay your own debt instead of asking the frontline workers at grocery stores and distribution centers to pay it for you. BC School of nursing is a good school but it costs almost three times as much as a state school. Pay your own way and don’t put your burden on someone because of your choices.

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    I don’t necessarily agree with student loan forgiveness, but there should be a cap on interest rates or some type of education package. I work on a COVID floor and there has been a huge mental, physical, and emotional toll on all healthcare workers. I personally know I have seen/been the primary RN for more deaths in 2 weeks on our floor than my mother (also an RN) had seen in her 30-year career in emergency surgery. When I would describe how I felt, my father (US army vet) said it sounded exactly how he felt in the army. You walk into work every day knowing you may die. Reusing your PPE for weeks at a time, going against everything you know about infection control, knowing reusing it is also a risk to yourself, but at the same time knowing it’s your only option. Try desperately to save your patients while you watch them essentially slowly drowned on land. Running codes in rooms with one other person while you have doctors outside the door telling you what to do, waiting for what feels like forever for only 2 other people to gear up to come in and help. Hearing family members scream and cry on the phone when you have to call and tell them you tried but you couldn’t save them. Having crisis staffing working 16-18 hour shifts. Every single day, sometimes multiple times a day. Oh and this isn’t over, I was told this morning we now have a national glove shortage…. So cool thomaswilliams whatever you and your wife paid for your daughter’s school, enjoy your brag, but a lot of us do not even have the luxury of a 2 parent household. And if you have the choice to not wear a mask, do I get the choice to tell you bye bye go home enjoy your COVID, don’t bring that stuff here? No, I’m still here serving my community, I’m still here holding your aunt’s hand while she takes her last breath, cleaning up vomit off your neighbors face, getting screamed at by the meth user down the road from you that’s now in psychosis, not taking a lunch so I can call your brother to ensure he’s updated on his wife status. For anyone who doesn’t think healthcare workers deserve any type of break on education loans, ok you are entitled to your opinion, but I hope you remember that opinion next time you think of coming to the hospital for help

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