Tackling student debt, one AFT member at a time

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The AFT has launched a new program to help members save thousands of dollars and pay down their student debt. Available free to all AFT members, the Summer app—which has been described as Turbo Tax for student debt—helps you track your loans and enrolls you in savings programs, all online.

Tackling student debt

I’m really excited about this app,” says Joel Robert-Robles, a New York City high school teacher who took just two minutes to sign up at the TEACH Expo. He’s already used it to apply for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. “I didn’t have to go online and print it out. I didn’t have to run around and collect signatures. It’s all done electronically.”

Michelle Munger, a special ed teacher in Hastings, Minn., is hoping the app will help her reduce her monthly loan payments; she has $100,000 in student loans. “I’ve learned to live really great with coupons,” she says. Her student debt limits what she can do for her older children, who need help with their own student loans.

The AFT knows that student debt is an albatross around the necks of tens of thousands of Americans, including many of our own members who are dedicated to serving public school students and their families. The scope of the student debt crisis is national—the total owed has hit a whopping $1.6 trillion—but the impact is personal. In a survey of AFT members, 97 percent said that student debt increases stress in their lives, and 80 percent lose sleep over their loans. Many reported serious financial strain, including foreclosures, delayed medical procedures, worry over being able to pay for food, and the inability to purchase homes and start families. Some even reported having suicidal thoughts.

Tackling student debt

Summer and student debt clinics will not solve all those problems, but could help individuals like the woman who reduced her monthly loan payment by $600 after attending an AFT debt clinic. It was the biggest raise she’d ever gotten, she said. Summer will make that experience more possible for more members.

And the debt clinics will continue. Already hundreds of members have attended, hosted by affiliates across the country. The clinics (and now, Summer) help them enroll in income-based repayment plans that reduce their monthly loan payments, and also sign up for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a federal program that forgives student debt for qualifying public employees who have made 120 successful payments on their loans.

PSLF has been a linchpin of student debt relief, but in too many cases it’s also been a dismal failure. Too many qualified borrowers have applied for PSLF but been denied: Just 1 percent of the 32 million qualified borrowers have had their loans forgiven. The AFT is working at all levels to address that, not just helping individuals to be sure their paperwork is in order but going as far as suing the loan servicers who fail to keep their borrowers informed, and most recently suing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her Department of Education for failing to monitor those loan servicers.

Tackling student debt

Meanwhile, AFT members soldier on, with the union by their sides.

“I just found out from the Summer app that they can lower my payments by 100 bucks a month,” says teacher Roberts-Robles. “So I’m very happy right now.”

The Summer app will be available to all members in the coming months.

[Virginia Myers, Rachel Gottbaum/Mike Campbell photos]