05/12/2020

Finding student debt relief with AFT’s new member benefit

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Helpful. Responsive. Patient. Totally worth my time.

These are not the words usually associated with people assigned to help navigate student debt—like student debt servicers—but thanks to the AFT’s partnership with Summer, an organization that helps borrowers with repayment and forgiveness options, AFT members are experiencing less personal stress around the student debt struggle.

student loan maze map

Available as a member benefit, Summer works like TurboTax for student debt—but with more-personalized assistance. After a successful pilot run in Minnesota and in AFT-sponsored student debt clinics, the AFT’s partnership with Summer has recently expanded and is available to all AFT members at no cost. Thus far, members have saved an average of $170 per month and $57,769 on their lifetime loan balance through Summer.

Here’s how it works: Members access the program through the AFT’s member benefits page, then use Summer’s online service, phone consultations and application assistance to see how they might be able to decrease their student debt and work toward a debt-free future. Users can check their eligibility for programs like income-driven relief, which allows for monthly payments as low as zero dollars, determined by current income (or lack thereof), and public service loan forgiveness, which forgives student debt after 10 years of regular payments for people working in public service jobs like teaching. Unlike other providers of similar services, Summer also checks borrowers’ eligibility for state- and occupation-specific forgiveness programs and makes recommendations about the best path for the borrower, given that borrower’s own priorities.

Summer also covers COVID-19-related information, like the new legislation that waives student loan payments for six months, and best ways to reach student loan servicers at a time when phone lines are overwhelmed and offices are short-staffed.

David Uhlich, an archival librarian at the University of California, San Francisco and an AFT member, says Summer was “totally worth my time.” When he mistakenly missed a detail in his paperwork—easy errors to make, like sending the wrong form or missing a signature requirement from a spouse—staff at Summer were on top of it. He wound up saving more than $100 a month on his student loan payments, and will save up to $5,000 in interest payments over the course of his loans.

“Summer helps me understand my student loans,” says Clare Peterson, another AFT member. “I wish I’d known about Summer when I first took out the loans in 2005 because I would have understood the whole process 100 percent better and signed up for a better deal.”

Sue Davies, a recently retired art teacher in Minnesota, used Summer to help untangle loans from her own school days, her husband’s return to school and the Parent PLUS loans she used to help her three children through school. “It was so hard to figure out the system,” she says. “If I didn’t have help from Summer I don’t know what I would have done. They made it manageable.” Summer staff got on a conference call with Davies and her loan servicers at one point, and their persistence paid off: Her family’s monthly loan payment decreased by half. 

Student debt across the nation is at $1.6 trillion—but it is made up of individual stories like these. The AFT is tackling it on multiple levels, fighting for policies that promote debt relief, using the courts to win justice for borrowers, and also offering individual debt relief resources like Summer. We also maintain the online resource, forgivemystudentdebt.org, hold student debt clinics and recently presented a webinar on the impact of COVID-19 on student debt, on the AFT’s Solidarity Academy (scroll to bottom session).

[Virginia Myers]