By Andrew Lewis

At every NJEA Preservice event members are asked to fill out a “debt dollar” where they write down how much student loan debt they estimate they will have upon graduation. Over the last few years this informal surveying of our members has shown that total debt in a room of a couple of dozen members has grown from $700,000 to over $1,000,000.

One member refused to write down her debt because she was embarrassed to write down how much debt she would have upon graduation. Embarrassed? She was earning a college degree. This member felt ashamed that she had to take out so many loans just to graduate and enter the profession.

Degrees Not Debt webinars

While our preservice members were calculating how much debt they would have upon graduation, our early career members were dealing with the reality of making their first student loan payments. During a conversation with members, someone noted that NJEA offers “XYZs of Retirement”’ for members at the end of their careers, but what financial advice do we offer members who are at the start of their career?

That question was the start of our Degrees Not Debt webinars.

Since they began in September 2017, more than 500 members have attended one of NJEA’s Degrees Not Debt webinars. The webinars cover loan consolidation, income driven repayment, and programs that will help our members reduce or even eliminate their student loan payments including Public Service Loan Forgiveness and Teacher Loan Forgiveness.

Joining forces to fight student loan debt

During the summer of 2019, Organizational Development Field Representative Marguerite Schroeder and I met with staff from New Jersey Communities United (NJCU) and the Work Environment Council (WEC). We developed an organizing plan.

NJCU has been holding stakeholder interviews and collecting stories from New Jersey residents who are struggling to pay back their student loans. NJCU has made student loan debt one of its  priority initiatives and has dedicated a portion of its website to hearing from NJEA members. Members are encouraged to visit unitednj.nationbuilder.com/studentdebt_njea to complete a brief survey and share their student debt story.

Partnering with WEC’s campaign organizer for “Public Need Over Corporate Greed,” Brandon Castro, we began the process of researching the history of student loan debt and the complex relationship between loan servicers and Wall Street.

Castro and I attended the Legislative Action Team meetings in the NJEA’s central zone to present information on the student loan debt crisis and the financialization of the issue. Members at these meetings have been asked to take the information back to their local associations and collect stories from members who are struggling to pay their student loans.

The New Jersey Student Loan Debt Alliance

Knowing that our work with WEC and NJCU would not be enough to make even a dent in the issue of student loan debt, we formed the New Jersey Student Loan Debt Alliance. In December, our three organizations were joined by the New Jersey Department of Education and the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority for the first meeting of the alliance. During this meeting, each organization shared their individual work around the issue and discussed possible future collaborations.

Meeting again in February, this time joined by New Jersey Citizen Action, the alliance furthered their work through discussions on legislation, organizing, and movement building. The New Jersey Student Loan Debt Alliance will work to develop goals to assist those who are seeking a college degree and accumulating debt as well as those who have graduated and are struggling with the burden of paying back student loans.

Student loan debt is a substantial financial issue affecting our members and residents across New Jersey. Working with the alliance, we will make progress on the issue, but this work must be done throughout the state. Members need to raise the issue to crisis level, members need to speak to each other and their legislators about the issue.

Andrew Lewis is an Organizational Development Consultant with NJEA. He can be reached at alewis@njea.org.

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