Fact Check: Is Congress Exempt From Paying Off Student Loans?

The Biden administration announced changes on April 19, 2022 that would result in immediate student debt relief to some 40,000 borrowers.

The Public Service Forgiveness Program eliminates the debts of government and non-profit organizations' workers, who have accrued at least 10 years of qualifying payments.

However, recent posts on social media claim there are also existing provisions that exempt family members of congressmen and congressional staffers from having to pay off student loans at all.

The claim is often framed around the broader debate of student debt forgiveness, which has become a major polarizing issue across the political and generational divides in the U.S.

Student Debt Protests in DC
Supporters of The Debt Collective convene at the U.S. Department of Education to demand full student debt cancellation on April 4, 2022 in Washington, DC. Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for MoveOn & Debt Collective

The Claim

The claim, which has been viewed nearly 300,000 times on social media platform Telegram, states both children and family members of congressional staffers don't have to pay back their college loans.

It was shared on other Telegram channels, including The Daily Expose.

The post stated, in part: "Children of Congress members do not have to pay back their college student loans."

"Staffers of Congress family members are also exempt from having to pay back student loans."

The Facts

This claim has been shared since at least 2010. Previous iterations of the claim have been debunked by other fact-checkers.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education told reporters that there are no such provisions under Title IV of the federal student aid programs, which provide loans to Members of Congress and families of congressional staffers.

Responding to Newsweek's request for comment, the Department of Education affirmed that federal staff are not exempt from paying their student debt.

"The U.S. Department of Education requires all federal student loan borrowers to repay their loan(s) and any accrued interest and fees," the Department's representative wrote in an email.

The misleading claim reappeared as the U.S. Department of Education announced its expansion of student debt relief to thousands of government agency employees.

"Federal student loans offer flexible repayment plans, loan consolidation, forgiveness programs, and more, which can be found at StudentAid.gov," the email stated.

On April 19, the agency said its Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) would be extended to qualify 40,000 workers for immediate debt relief. Several thousand other borrowers with older loans will also receive forgiveness, in addition to "at least three years of additional credit toward IDR forgiveness" for another 3.6 million people.

The PSLF allows employees of U.S. federal, state, local, or tribal government or not-for-profit organizations to apply for a cancellation of the remaining balance of direct loans after making 120 qualifying monthly payments, while working full-time for a qualifying employer.

The program, created 15 years ago, had granted only a small fraction of applicants forgiveness until 2021. In March 2022, the Department of Education said it had identified 100,000 borrowers eligible for $6.2 billion in student debt forgiveness.

Government portfolio reporting from September 20, 2020, to February 28, 2022, shows the government paid out $7.1 billion in PSLF and related waivers, averaging around $70,883 per borrower.

The Biden administration has come under pressure recently from within the Democratic Party to expand student loan debt relief in an effort to avoid losses during the upcoming November midterm elections.

Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, writing in The New York Times earlier this week, identified the policy among a number of changes the government should explore, in an article titled "Democrats Can Avoid Disaster in November."

In addition to PSLF, provisions set under the Federal Student Loan Repayment Program state that agencies can "repay Federally insured student loans as a recruitment or retention incentive for candidates or current employees of the agency."

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) says that under this program, employees are eligible for up to $10,000 relief per calendar year, to a total of $60,000 per employee. However, to qualify, employees must "remain in the service of the paying agency for a period of at least 3 years."

According to the most recent publicly-available report to Congress on the Federal Student Loan Repayment Program, 10,412 employees from 34 agencies received repayments in 2018, totaling $78.7 million.

The Ruling

Fact Check - False

False.

The claim is false. Families of Members of Congress and of congressional staffers have to pay student loans. It is true that repayment plans are available to federal agency employees in general, not just those in Congress. However, these support measures are conditional, requiring employees to have already contributed towards servicing their debts and/or to have remained in federal employment for a number of years.

FACT CHECK BY NEWSWEEK

False: The claim is demonstrably false. Primary source evidence proves the claim to be false.
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