Lightening the Load of Student Loan Debt

Randi Weingarten

For people who choose educating others over enriching themselves, college debt can seem insurmountable — because it is insurmountable. To cultivate a well-educated, globally competitive American work force, we must make college affordable.

The American Federation of Teachers recently started a series of student debt clinics to help our members mitigate the crippling college debt incurred by millions of American students and their families. In 90-minute sessions, these clinics provide information on how to enroll in income-based student loan repayment programs and to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. For some participants, the clinics have been life-changing.

The A.F.T. is fighting on the front lines — warning students and their families about the risks of predatory behaviors by servicers, lenders and for-profit educational providers, educating them on repayment options and cultivating a new generation of activists who have the potential to halt this national student debt epidemic.

In October, a young adjunct professor from Miami attended a two-part A.F.T. debt clinic. Crushed by more than $168,000 in student loan debt and monthly payments exceeding $2,000, this professor, a single mother, was desperate. On the first day of the training, she kept to herself. That night, she applied for income-based repayment and was able to reduce her monthly payment to $700. On the second day of the training, she told the group that it was the first good night’s sleep she’d had in three years. She is now a trainer herself, helping others better understand how to relieve their debt.

The economic and professional advantages of earning a college degree are well established. And a highly educated work force is essential to the nation’s economic future. But many people simply can’t afford to seek higher education, or they pay dearly when they do. Forty-seven states are spending less per student than they did at the start of the recession, after adjusting for inflation. As a result, tuition costs have skyrocketed, putting more of the burden on students and their families.

These debt clinics help alleviate the costs of attending college, but the clinics alone do not make college accessible to all Americans. When our country realized the value of educating all students through high school, we made high school universally free. The same should be done for college today.

Our country needs a comprehensive plan — one like Hillary Clinton’s New College Compact — that addresses all the flaws in this broken system. (Bernie Sanders has also called for free tuition). Mrs. Clinton’s plan ensures that students can attend a four-year public college without loans for tuition, books or fees, and can attend community college completely tuition-free. It gives states incentives to reinvest in higher education to reduce costs for students. It cuts interest rates on student loans, and it makes income-based repayment simple and broadly available.

The men and women who teach in our public schools, colleges and universities have invested in their own education so that they can, in turn, invest in the students in their classrooms. They know they won’t be rewarded with huge paychecks, but neither should they be punished with crushing college debt.

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