The U.S. Department of Education announced last week that it would automatically forgive student loan debt for any veterans who became totally and permanently disabled because of their military service.
Veterans who qualify for loan forgiveness will receive a letter letting them know about the benefit. They have the choice of opting-out within 60 days of the notification.
President Donald Trump signed the executive order on Wednesday. This comes after Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes led a bipartisan coalition of 51 attorneys general which sent a letter to the Department of Education in May calling for the change.
“In many cases, these veterans were injured so severely that they’ve greatly compromised their quality of life and ability to earn enough in order to pay off their debt quickly,” Reyes said in a Wednesday statement. “I can’t think of a more deserving group of individuals than American heroes who have served, risked their lives and sacrificed their health to protect our nation.”
The U.S. began discharging student loan debt for veterans who are permanently and totally disabled after the passage of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 under President George W. Bush. The Department of Education has identified more than 42,000 veterans who qualified for the loan forgiveness program, but less than 9,000 of those veterans had applied for the benefit as of April 2018, the attorneys general said in their letter. Some 25,000 were in default on their loans.
Before Wednesday’s action, the process to apply for loan forgiveness was rigorous, said Larry Schmidt, a Utah National Guard veteran who works at the Utah Attorney General’s office. He suspects there was also a lack of awareness of the benefit among the veteran community.
“It was a mountain too high for many folks or they weren’t aware of it,” Schmidt said.
Utah State University student Erin Alexander is a totally and permanently disabled veteran who had her debt forgiven. She accumulated about $6,000 worth of student loan debts for courses she took at Eastern Florida State College before she enlisted in the Navy in 2015.
Alexander welcomes the change.
“I think it’s one less thing we have to stress about — especially as veterans with disabilities, we already have a lot that we stress about,” she said. “This will help take the load off.”
In April of 2018, The Department of Education did create a program to identify eligible veterans, and has since provided more than $650 million in student loan relief to more than 22,000 people, the department said in a statement.
Schmidt fears that qualifying veterans will receive notification letters about the benefit and think it’s a scam. But even if they don’t believe it, unless they opt-out, the veterans’ student loan debt will be automatically erased.
This article first appeared on KUER.org