02/15/2019

Student debt relief is union work

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AFT leaders in Massachusetts know that supporting our members goes beyond what happens in the classroom, or the schoolhouse, or even the Statehouse. That’s why, when the AFT started offering student debt clinics to help members struggling with student loan debt, AFT Massachusetts leaders decided to make it a statewide initiative. 

Student debt clinic in Mass.

In the summer of 2018, AFT Massachusetts leaders, including AFT Massachusetts President Beth Kontos, Lynn Teachers Union President Sheila O’Neil, Massachusetts Library Staff Association President Pat Kelly and MLSA Treasurer Matt Amory, were trained as AFT student debt clinic facilitators. Equipped with these new skills, they launched a statewide series of student debt clinics for AFT Massachusetts members, designed to help members learn how to access public service loan forgiveness and enroll in income-driven student loan repayment programs.

Since October, AFT Massachusetts has held debt clinics in Lowell, Lynn, Salem, MetroWest and Boston, and members have already begun to see relief. Empowered by what she learned at one of the sessions, Gayle Greenbaum, a member of AFT Amesbury, was able to reduce her monthly student loan payments from nearly $550 per month to $230 per month. Nicole Doucette, a recent graduate and second-year special education teacher in Lynn, has shifted to an income-based repayment plan and now intends to apply for public service loan forgiveness. This shift means her payments went from $290 to $23 per month, and she’ll pay thousands less out of pocket on the road to full loan forgiveness.

“Advocating for our members is what we do,” says Kontos. “So, as a union, we’re fighting to make college affordable and hold the student loan industry accountable for the debt crisis it has created. But we can’t just fight these big fights and ignore the reality of the massive student loan debt many of our members are struggling with. These debt clinics are about helping union members find relief so they can keep serving their communities.”

The United States is in the midst of a $1.5 trillion student debt crisis, more than the entire gross domestic product of Russia. The AFT is working to support members grappling with debt through localized programs like the student debt clinics, while also working to address the crisis on a national level with initiatives like a class-action lawsuit against Navient, a student loan servicer. Navient’s predatory practices have hurt borrowers, including AFT members, and have gone unchecked by Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education.

“We’ve heard our members’ concerns and complaints about the ruinous effect of the debt on their lives, and we’ve taken on the student debt crisis as a union issue,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “It’s an epidemic, and people are suffering. The stories from members haunt me: from new teachers who can’t stay in the profession because they’re defaulting on their loans, to experienced professionals who can’t retire because they can’t afford payments on their kids’ loans. This crisis affects us all.”

Amory is both a facilitator and a beneficiary of AFT student debt clinics. He says that after years of thinking he wouldn’t qualify for income-driven repayment, he recently applied and has seen his payments go down. “If I had known about income-driven repayment when I started paying back my loans, I could have saved a lot each month, since my income was lower earlier in my library career.” Even the modest monthly savings he’s seeing now stands to save him between $2,000 and $3,000 by the time he qualifies for public service loan forgiveness. 

If you’re an AFT member who is struggling with student debt, you may be able to reduce your burden or even qualify for debt forgiveness. Learn about your options now. Visit www.forgivemystudentdebt.org or contact AFT Higher Education at debtclinic@aft.org to find out if there’s an AFT student debt clinic happening near you.

[Leilah Mooney]