09/29/2021

Guiding faculty to student debt relief

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Student loan debt doesn’t just affect students, or even recent graduates. It affects their professors as well.

At a webinar Sept. 21, the Student Borrower Protection Center partnered with the AFT and the American of Association of University Professors to help adjunct faculty untangle the specific challenges they face when they apply for student loan relief.

The session focused on Public Service Loan Forgiveness, the federal program that is supposed to cancel student loan debt for people who work in public service for 10 years and make monthly loan payments for the same period of time. But the program is so broken it has drawn lawsuits (including one led by the AFT), and so full of obstacles and glitches it is often described as “labyrinthine.”

Money cubicles

One of the biggest reasons adjunct faculty miss out on PSLF is lack of awareness. “It’s likely that most of my colleagues don’t even know about this program,” said Caprice Lawless, an English professor at Front Range Community College in Colorado and the chair of the AAUP committee on contingency in the profession. “I have friends who have been teaching so long they’re ready to retire; they’re still paying their student debt.”

Another common obstacle is the notion that adjunct faculty do not qualify for loan relief. Jeri O’Bryan-Losee, secretary-treasurer of United University Professions, the faculty union for the State University of New York, holds student debt clinics every two weeks. She finds that many attendees believe that because they work several part-time jobs, teaching at several institutions, they will not meet the requirement of at least 30 hours a week in a public service job. O’Bryan-Losee tells them all those hours count, even if they are at different institutions.

Many faculty members are also ashamed of their student debt—sometimes staggering amounts of it—and so are reluctant to research relief programs.

“I have been paying on my loans for about 30 years, but there is literally no end in sight,” wrote Jenny, a community college employee in Illinois whose last name is not included for the purpose of anonymity. “I am ashamed and stressed over this every single day.” Jenny’s comment was part of a collection of submissions to the Department of Education regarding the need for PSLF reform, currently under consideration by the department.

But there is no shame in student debt, the recent panel assured participants. First of all, the burden is in large part due to an inaccessible, bureaucratic student loan system, not because of moral delinquency or irresponsibility on the borrowers’ part. Secondly, borrowers are far from alone. In the last decade, student debt has grown by more than a trillion dollars, said Chris Hicks, a senior fellow at the Student Borrower Protection Center. “It is impacting 1 out of 5 households today. This is impacting young people, this is impacting people who have been in repayment for the last decade, this is affecting people who are retirees.”  

Getting to the details

Hicks led participants through the most common issues applicants encounter as they apply for PSLF, starting with four basic requirements:

  • The type of loan must be a direct loan.
  • The repayment plan must be income-driven repayment.
  • The employer must be a public service employer.
  • The number of payments must reach 120 (the equivalent of 10 years of monthly payments).

Hicks also offered guidance on details like how to bundle letters from multiple employers to verify public service employment, where exactly to sign the paperwork, and how important it is to make precise payments—one borrower was off by 47 cents, and the error resulted in months of uncounted payments.

The AFT has been offering guidance on loan relief for years. Its website forgivemystudentdebt.org focuses on PSLF, and debt clinics held through AFT affiliates across the country walk participants step by step through their own applications. More recently, the AFT partnered with Summer, a loan forgiveness assistance organization that has successfully saved AFT members an average of $180 a month in their loan payments. Summer is free to AFT members, as a member benefit.

[Virginia Myers]