Boosting student loan debt forgiveness could pay off for cyber recruiting

DOD photo by Senior Airman Perry Aston  11th Wing Public Affairs 

Almost all Defense Department personnel who have sought student loan debt forgiveness through a federal program managed by the Department of Education have been denied -- a trend that, if unchanged, could make it even harder to recruit and retain tech talent.

According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, 94% of DOD employees, civilian and military, were denied student loan debt forgiveness through the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, with missing form information or being short on the number of qualifying payments being the most cited reasons.

The watchdog agency noted a lack of personnel awareness of the program and coordination between DOD and the Education Department, which administers the program, to be key issues.

“As its administrator, Education has specialized knowledge about the PSLF program but has not shared complete information with DOD,” the GAO wrote, including “information about its personnel who have taken steps to pursue PSLF or service members who may be eligible.

The GAO issued five recommendations, including for DOD to increase awareness about the program, for the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness to issue guidance to senior leaders, frontline managers, and human resources, as well as coordinate better with the Department of Education.

The report comes after Lt. Gen. Dennis Crall, the Joint Chiefs of Staff CIO and director for command, control communications and computers/cyber told lawmakers that higher salaries weren’t the only monetary incentive that could aid in recruiting tech workers from the private sector.

“I don’t think we know our target audience as well as we need to. We need to find out what really motivates individuals to want to serve in the capacity that we’re offering,” he told the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel on April 21.

Crall said many tech workers value student loan debt forgiveness and the flexibility to live where they want over potentially higher salaries. However, just under 4% of new civilian cyber workers were given student loan repayment in 2020, a modest bump from about 3% in 2019, according to submitted testimony.

The GAO concurred with those sentiments, noting in its report that DOD “does not widely use the PSLF program for recruitment and retention to promote readiness despite facing challenges in certain specialty career fields,” instead preferring other incentives that “DOD directly controls, such as bonuses or DOD’s student loan repayment program.”

DOD’s own program has some limitations, including that only certain positions are eligible to apply, an cap on how much borrowers can get, and that recipients must pay taxes on the aid received. DOD also funds the effort from its budget.

Comparatively, any DOD personnel can use the PSLF program, there’s no cap on the amount of debt to be forgiven, and recipients don’t pay taxes on the aid as the Department of Education also cancels the loan’s remaining principal and interest due.

“We continue to believe that DOD, as the nation’s largest federal employer, should provide its almost 3 million personnel with more information about the PSLF program, which could raise awareness of the benefit and its eligibility requirements among potential applicants,” the report states.

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is senior editor for FCW and Defense Systems, covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.


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