Pushing forward to fight rising student debt

$1 trillion image, On Campus Summer 2015April marks three years since U.S. student debt hit $1 trillion. Now $1.3 trillion and climbing, unpaid student loans are a burden for more than 40 million American families. 

It’s time to turn it around.

That’s why the AFT has joined a broad coalition of organizations, from its sister unions to Student Veterans of America, from the National Young Farmers Coalition to Jobs with Justice and the Center for American Progress, to demand that elected officials take action and address college affordability within the next six months. They are expected to sign a pledge “to act before debt strikes back,” suggesting that if the burden does not ease, students may “strike” and refuse to pay back their loans. 

In fact, some Corinthian Colleges students already went on strike, refusing to pay their loans because the college failed to educate them as promised (see page 18 for story). 

“Students shouldn’t face a double whammy of skyrocketing higher education costs and high interest rates that will lock them into debt even longer,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “We need to ensure that young people aren’t crushed by unfairly high interest rates on their student debt.”

Latechia Mitchell, a second-grade teacher saddled with $60,000 in student loans, couldn’t agree more. She and her husband, who carries an additional $25,000 in student debt, are raising two children and living paycheck to paycheck, unable to save or trade up to a larger home for their growing family. While she loves her job, Mitchell is not sure she’d have chosen it had she understood how deeply she’d be affected by long-term debt. 

Sharon Williams is also struggling: An army veteran, widow and mother of two, she enrolled in the University of Phoenix to advance her career and support her family. Despite the for-profit college’s assurances, she got less financial aid than she was promised, a federal employee discount she expected never materialized, and she had no access to instructors and was unable to transfer credits. “I spent my money on a bogus education,” says Williams, and she is still paying for it.

The pledge against student debt promises to change the situation by:

  • Restoring public funding to higher education, and passing policies such as free community college  so college is accessible to all; 
  • Providing support to borrowers with policies such as student loan refinancing; and
  • Stopping Wall Street’s privatization of higher education by holding those who profit off the higher education system accountable. 

A week of action April 27-May 1 included letters to the editor and Twitter feeds with #DebtStrikesBack, plus a new Student Borrowers Hotline and meetings with legislators, challenging them with a six-month countdown during which they can work to bring down tuition and college debt. 

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) launched the PRO Students (Protections and Regulations for Our Students) Act designed to protect students from predatory, deceptive and fraudulent practices. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) held a forum to hear stories from borrowers struggling to pay off their loans. In spite of the enormity of the student debt challenge, “We’re going to keep on pushing,” said Cummings. “If we don’t push, it can only get worse. We want to make sure it gets better.”

AFT On Campus, Summer 2015 Download PDF (2.18 MB)
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