Pushing forward to fight rising student debt

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April marks three years since U.S. student debt hit $1 trillion. Now $1.3 trillion and climbing—by thousands of dollars per second—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.

"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 and their families aren't crushed by unfairly high interest rates on their student debt."

Latechia Mitchell, a second-grade teacher who is 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, pay for high-quality child care, or take advantage of summer programs for the children. While she loves her job, Mitchell is not sure she'd have chosen to be a teacher 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 promises, she got less financial aid than was initially promised. The federal employee discount she was to receive never materialized, 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, increasing state and federal investment, and passing policies such as free community college to ensure that college is accessible to all;
  • Providing support to borrowers struggling to reduce outstanding debt, with policies such as student loan refinancing and programs that help borrowers meet their obligations without financial hardship; and
  • Stopping Wall Street's privatization of higher education by holding those who profit off the higher education system—like for-profit colleges and student loan servicers—accountable.

During a week of action April 27-May 1, informational campaigns such as letters to the editor and Twitter feeds with #DebtStrikesBack will work to ensure Americans understand the degree to which student debt threatens our nation. For those most affected—student borrowers—a new Student Borrowers Hotline is launching, and continued guidance toward paying off debt is available at higherednotdebt.org. Activists will meet face to face with legislators on Capitol Hill and begin a six-month countdown during which lawmakers can begin to bring down tuition and college debt.

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) is leading the way, launching the PRO Students (Protections and Regulations for Our Students) Act at an April 30 press conference. This comprehensive legislation would protect students from predatory, deceptive and fraudulent practices, particularly in the for-profit college sector.

Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) held a forum April 27, where they listened to Mitchell, Williams and others working to address the student debt crisis. 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."

[Virginia Myers]