Student debt has been an albatross around the necks of so many individual Americans, even dragging down the economy at large. At a virtual event Oct. 19, AFT President Randi Weingarten and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) talked about the gravity of this crisis and how we could turn it around if we elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in November.
“This election is absolutely critical,” said Jayapal, and thanks to young people, educators and labor unions, student debt is on the agenda. “It is a motivating factor for young voters to hear that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are going to take on this debt crisis.”
The Biden-Harris team has already adopted key areas of the College for All Act—which Jayapal introduced in 2017—including tuition-free college for all families with an income below $125,000. The act would also allow federal aid to cover the cost of books, housing, transportation and other expenses; increase investments in the work-study program; and provide funding for students at historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions.
Biden and Harris are also committed to canceling $10,000 of student debt per year per borrower as part of pandemic relief legislation.
Meanwhile, Trump’s administration has blocked any progress in alleviating student debt, with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos leading policy after policy that makes attending college harder.
“We send a message that college is really important … but then we never actually pay for it, nor do we pay for the colleges to have the kind of robust resources they need,” said Weingarten. “We pauperize adjunct professors, we make student debt unsustainable, and then, on top of it, you have people like Betsy DeVos who want to enrich the student loan servicers.”
Weingarten is referring to the corporations that manage student loans but frequently exploit borrowers. They withhold information about loan forgiveness programs and mislead borrowers so they sign up for programs that result in them paying more interest, rather than less. DeVos has maintained a Byzantine system for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a program that, when working, will forgive student debt for those who have jobs in public service and make their monthly loan payments for 10 years. She has also blocked student loan forgiveness for borrowers who have been scammed by rogue for-profit schools—paying tens of thousands of dollars from their student loan allotment but receiving no legitimate education in return.
To push back, the AFT has been doing three things, said Weingarten. First, a member benefit called Summer is available to help borrowers navigate the complicated loan system to lower their monthly payments and sometimes reach debt forgiveness faster.
Weingarten describes the benefit as “the Turbo Tax of student debt,” but it also includes personalized help from Summer staff. The discussion closed with Summer founder Will Sealy answering specific questions from callers about reducing their student debt. The Summer benefit, which has saved AFT members an average of $170 per month and $59,000 each over the life of their loans, is available free to AFT members. About 10,000 members have already enrolled.
Third, the AFT is working with legislators like Jayapal on policy that will provide student debt relief as well as more accessibility to higher education in general.
“At the end of the day we need student debt to not be a bar to anyone in terms of going to college, staying in college and graduating from college,” said Weingarten. “We need a president who’s actually going to do something to deal with student debt.”