Student debt has soared to $1.7 trillion, and the triple crises facing the nation—the coronavirus pandemic, the economic recession and systemic racism—have not helped. In fact, each has magnified the problem: Borrowers who have lost work due to the pandemic will struggle to make loan payments; the recession will surely throw more people into default; and the depth of racial inequity has been exposed once again as Black people carry much heavier student debt burdens than their white peers.
At a telephone town hall June 23, AFT President Randi Weingarten described the grim facts, from the overwhelming volume of debt to the “Byzantine” systems set up to manage it, but she also offered hope. The AFT and its members are tackling student debt on every front and making real progress, she said. Weingarten, who was joined by several AFT members as well as attorneys involved in student debt litigation, described three primary areas of focus: improving the current system, holding loan servicers accountable, and voting for change.
Improve the current system
“The current system is Byzantine, but we still have to make it work better and not just throw our hands up,” said Weingarten. This is the “right now” solution for individuals who need help managing their loan payments as soon as possible. For them, the AFT offers members access to student debt clinics and online resources like forgivemystudentdebt.org and the new Summer student debt relief benefit to help navigate the system and lower payments. Summer, which is now free for AFT members, has already saved members an average of $170 a month in loan payments; that’s an average of $57,769 over the life of their loans, and a total of about $154 million.
AFT member Eric Oddo, a debate teacher in Skokie, Ill., thought he had a handle on his student debt, even though the cost of law school and education degrees had really added up. But even with his law school training, he had difficulty making progress. And he couldn’t trust his loan servicer to give him the information he needed, like whether he was on the right repayment plan to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a federal program that forgives student loans for people in public service after they’ve made 10 years of payments. When he read that only 3 percent of the people who had applied for PSLF were granted loan forgiveness, he said, “It terrified me.”
So when his union president reached out and told him about Summer, he jumped on board. “I am so thankful that I did,” he said. “The interface itself streamlines everything.” Staff at Summer showed him he was still paying more than he should, and saved him hundreds of dollars. “I just felt like Summer eased stress and anxiety, and I think we could all use that during these times,” he said.
Hold loan servicers accountable
The second focus Weingarten described was the work the AFT has been doing to hold “bad actors” accountable. AFT members, the AFT itself and Weingarten brought a suit against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for badly mismanaging PSLF and hurting borrowers—and although DeVos tried to have the case dismissed, a judge recently ruled that it will move forward. A group of AFT members also sued Navient, one of the largest student loan servicers, challenging how Navient was advising borrowers about the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
“The need for clear guidance on PSLF eligibility is paramount,” said Melissa Garcia, a New York City teacher and a plaintiff in the Navient case. “I wish I had these resources when I was going through this process.”
Weingarten, who remembers burning the old-style coupon book she had when she made her own final student loan payment, praised Garcia and the other AFT members who “bravely” stepped forward to sue Navient, and celebrated the recently announced preliminary approval of a settlement that resulted. “In the dark and troubled times we’re living in, this settlement is truly a bright spot,” said Lena Konanova, a partner at Selendy & Gay and the lead attorney in the case. She described the hard-fought lawsuit and the importance of getting borrowers the relief they need now—relief they were promised by the federal government. As a result of the settlement, Navient agrees to meaningfully enhance its internal practices and policies, including training customer service agents to take additional steps to identify borrowers potentially eligible for relief under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and provide them with information about the program and how to qualify. Navient has also agreed to pay $1.75 million to a nonprofit organization to provide student loan counseling and education to borrowers who work in public service.
“Knowing that [newer borrowers] have a better shot at federally promised loan forgiveness because of the lawsuit and the work that we have done, that’s something that this union and I are very proud of,” said Garcia.
Elections matter: Vote for borrower advocates
The third way the AFT is tackling student debt, said Weingarten, is working to change federal policy around student loans and the cost of higher education. She wants to drive down the magnitude of student debt and make college more affordable, but “this administration is never going to do any of this,” she said. “We’re going to need a new secretary of education who puts borrowers first, not lenders for for-profit colleges.”
“Elections matter,” Weingarten added. “We need to win the Senate” and elect more people like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar, who want to make PSLF work and want to reduce student debt. “And we need a president who’s going to push that too.”