Outstanding education debt in the U.S. now exceeds $1.5 trillion, posing a greater burden to Americans than auto or credit card debt. Average debt at graduation is currently around $30,000, up from $13,000 in the late 1990s.
The federal student loan system is famously complicated. There are some 14 ways to repay your student loans, a web of forgiveness options and a soup of wonky terms like “forbearance” and “deferment.”
At the recent debt clinic on New York’s Long Island, attendees were asked who in the room had heard of an income-driven repayment plan – in which monthly payments are capped at a percentage of a borrower’s income. Just three hands went up at the gathering of a few dozen people. Attendees were handed packets on their repayment options and each one was explained to them.
“Negotiating debt forgiveness and debt repayment in this country is like being hit by a tsunami with no warning,” wrote Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in the U.S., in an email. “Our debt clinics are life preservers for AFT members.”
In a recent survey of AFT members who are struggling financially, 80 percent of respondents said that their education debt was either “challenging” or “a major burden.” So far, the union has held more than 130 clinics, and reached some 10,000 people.
For now, these clinics are mostly open to union members and their families. But the ones in Washington state have welcomed all college students, and the AFT is working to expand its reach by coordinating with local community groups.