06/07/2016

AFT student debt clinics save borrowers thousands

Share This
Print

Student debt is holding back millions of Americans, and the AFT is addressing it not only on a policy level, but one borrower at a time, holding student debt workshops that help individuals drop hundreds of dollars from their monthly loan payments and even qualify for loan forgiveness.

The program, led by the higher education division of the union but available to AFT members across all divisions—teachers and paraprofessionals, early childhood educators, higher education faculty and staff, nurses and health professionals, and public employees—expands beyond the AFT's big-picture policy work to reach the people most affected by student debt.

Student debt challenge graphicElated. Empowered. Hopeful. Awakened. These are some of the words participants have used to describe what it felt like to learn they could ease their student debt. "I've been burdened by the student loan debt I've acquired, [and I've been] questioning my choices about the education I value so much and now use to help my community," wrote one New York City teacher, Elizabeth. "Learning about public service loan forgiveness takes so much of that doubt and guilt away."

"I will save money" after this workshop, said Antonio Jacobs, a music teacher and AFT chapter leader in the Bronx. "[There will be] no cloud over my head, I will improve my credit and balance my finances."

Workshop participants are among the 40 million Americans who owe money on their student loans. And while policies are now in place to help many of them get out from under their debt, many people are unaware of their options. An estimated 33 million people qualify for debt forgiveness for public service, for example, but just over 222,000 have taken advantage of it. Even more qualify for adjustments so their monthly payments are more manageable, whether it's through income-based repayment or by preventing loan servicers from overcharging borrowers on interest and fees.

At the same time individuals are finding relief from debt, the AFT and other advocates continue to fight to change the paradigm of overwhelming student debt. A government campaign launched in April by the Department of Education, and the Department of the Treasury and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and supported by the White House, modernizes credit reporting, so that loans contribute in a positive way to credit history; protects borrowers from inaccurate information, inconsistency and lack of accountability among loan servicers; requires that borrowers receive personalized and easily understood information about payback options; and provides the website StudentLoans.gov/Repay as a way for individuals to navigate complex loan repayment options in five steps tailored to the user's loan profile.

The AFT has joined hundreds of other employers in taking the Student Debt Challenge, educating employees about student debt relief options. LaTia Scott, who attended a workshop at her AFT office, reduced her monthly loan payment from $406 to $266 by signing up for an income-based repayment plan. She owes a total of $46,000 on student loans, but the information she got in the mail and online was overwhelming and confusing. "The class was absolutely wonderful, and it gave me the confidence I needed to sit down and fill out the paperwork," she said. "I definitely feel like the government has taken its thumb off of my neck."

In turn, AFT members and staff are holding workshops on campuses, in workplaces and in community centers. So far, events have been held in New York City; Lindenberg, N.Y., Los Angeles; and Philadelphia.

"We can't be a country that tells students higher education is essential, then saddle them with crippling debt and a compromised financial future," says AFT President Randi Weingarten. "We started the AFT's student debt clinics not only to help student loan borrowers and their families lessen and manage their debt, but to empower a new generation of grass-roots activists to work to eradicate the national student debt epidemic."

The AFT's commitment to reducing student debt runs deep and includes a concern over its disproportionate impact on communities of color, its impact on lower-income people striving to reach the middle class and its dampening effect on the economy, issues covered in AFT On Campus last fall. For individual stories of debt, see our online higher education blog, Voices on Campus.

[Virginia Myers]