By Mary Ellen Flannery
In Georgia, a 63-year-old high school teacher has been making monthly payments on her student loans since 1997. Today, she still owes more than $100,000. When does she expect to make her last monthly payment?
She’s not the only one. Most college students must borrow to pay for the higher education they need to realize their potential, and then get trapped for a lifetime in a federal student-debt system that profits from their debt. These massive student-debt servicers—and the politicians who prop them up in Congress—have created a debt crisis that is crushing Americans.
This needs to be fixed, says NEA President Becky Pringle. “Our right to learn, grow and thrive should be based on how big we dream and how hard we work, not where we come from or how much money we make,” said Pringle this month.
The time is now, said Pringle, for the immediate cancellation of federal student debt. She and other NEA leaders support efforts by Senate Democrats to embed student-debt cancellation into future COVID-relief packages, as well as cancellation through executive action by the Secretary of Education.
Looking for a long-term solution
For many Americans, student debt cancellation is their only hope. In Illinois, a 50-year-old third-grade teacher has done the math. If her debt isn’t canceled, she’ll be making monthly payments to her student loan-servicer until the age of 80. In New Mexico, a fifth-grade teacher who owes $177,000 isn’t counting on living long enough to see a zero balance.
Take, for example, Washington science teacher Susan Armbruster, who is 61 and has been making student-loan payments for almost 40 years. Before the current coronavirus-related suspension of federal loan payments, she paid $550 every month to FedLoan, the massive loan servicer that rakes in about $200 million in profits annually. These payments basically just cover the 7.8 percent interest on Armbruster’s loans. (How is it that the government charges her 7.8 percent interest, while her privately held car loan is just 2.9 percent, she wonders.)
“I’m really sad about what this has deprived me of, over the years,” says Armbruster. Because of her debt, she couldn’t buy a home until her 50s. Forget new cars. Forget vacations.
Cancellation of their debt would honor the sacrifice that these teachers make to serve their students, and also help recruit and retain more educators into the profession, educators say. At the same time, it would promote racial justice. While student debt affects Americans of all races, because of longstanding structural racism embedded in systems of housing and banking, many Black, Latino and Indigenous families end up borrowing more and paying more to the federal government and their debt-servicing profiteers.
In the short term, some of these borrowers have been helped by the coronavirus-related suspension of federal Direct Loan payments, which NEA members helped accomplish through their countless emails and phone calls to elected leaders.
To help more Americans, suspension should be expanded to include commercially held Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL) and institutionally held Perkins loans, NEA leaders and other advocates are urging now. At the same time, lawmakers also should improve and expand federal loan forgiveness programs, like the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, so that they work more efficiently and fewer borrowers face bureaucratic roadblocks in FedLoan, the servicer that administers PSLF, or the Department of Education.