Naomi Holmes will run out of deferments on $57,000 in student debt this winter. Howard Terry took out a $30,000 loan to finish his graduate degree at the University of Phoenix. Tom Laabs’ wife, Liz, will graduate next year from the University of Minnesota with six figures’ worth of debt.
“When that school loan comes back, it’s going to be like a house payment,” Laabs said.
But Holmes, Terry and Laabs have more in common than their daunting student debt loads. The three are taking action to get relief for themselves – and bring more fairness to the student lending industry – through a series of clinics sponsored by their union, the Communications Workers of America.
[Free, public Student Debt Clinics, sponsored by CWA Minnesota State Council and CWA Next Gen, will continue Dec. 8-10 at the CWA Local 7200 offices in Minneapolis. For more information or to register, email email@example.com.]
The first thing clinic participants learn is that they’re not alone. About 30 million Americans carry student debt, and it’s a major barrier for many families looking to work their way into the middle class.
“It’s surprising … the number of people who came to the class who have student debt or know someone who does,” Terry said after a clinic at the Local 7200 offices last week, which drew 31 participants.
What’s more surprising, he added, is how few people with student debt – about 200,000 – are taking advantage of free government programs for student debt relief, including loan forgiveness for people who work in public service and income-based repayment plans that can reduce interest costs.
Giving people the tools they need to take advantage of those programs – without paying a third party – is a big part of the CWA-sponsored trainings, which are open to the public.
“There are a lot of scams,” CWA organizer Richard Shorter said. “You can scroll through Facebook on any given day and see the advertisements.
“These organizations promote themselves as doing a good thing, but they charge fees to do the work for you when it’s free to apply. It only takes like an hour to sit down and do it yourself.”
The best resource for more information about dealing with student debt, Shorter said, is forgivemystudentdebt.org.
The clinics also provide an overview of the national landscape around student lending, including why so many people are forced to take out loans to cover the cost of higher education and the impact student debt has on families down the line.
Laabs said he was outraged to learn the inflation-adjusted cost of attending a four-year public college had quadrupled since 1980. He planned to contact his elected representatives about making college more affordable “because it’s gotten out of whack, and the cost has become just exorbitant.”
Terry added, “We pay for police forces and all these other things that are part of the public good, why don’t we start including education in that?”
CWA members said they also learned about the need for more regulation of for-profit colleges and universities, which are oftentimes not transparent with prospective students about whether their credits will transfer to most traditional institutions.
“Basically, they’re lying to people about being able to transfer credits,” Shorter explained. “A lot of people have to start all over again someplace else, myself included.”
Next Gen, the union’s young-worker contingent, developed curriculum for the clinics after surveying members about what mattered to them outside contract language and negotiations. An issue that affects 30 million Americans, Shorter said, is ripe for organizing.
“Working with our partners, we’re trying to build a movement around student debt,” he said. “This affects everybody.”