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Pressure builds as PA groups call for student loan forgiveness

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Groups like the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties (APSCUF), the Debt Collective, and the NAACP have been putting pressure on President Biden to forgive federal student loan debt.

When the U.S. Department of Education lifts the student loan repayment freeze on Aug. 31, a local borrower says she might have to choose between buying groceries and paying back the loans. Others are hoping for federal debt forgiveness.

Megan, a teacher from Schuylkill County, is $87,000 in federal student loan debt.

“As a 17-year-old kid that thought she was going to change the world and become an educator,” she said, “I signed on the dotted line.”

The mother of three, who asked that her last name not be used, noted that she hasn’t been required to make payments on those loans for more than two years. In March 2020, the U.S. Department of Education gave borrowers a reprieve, freezing payments and dropping interest rates to 0% on most loans during the pandemic. But come Aug. 31, Megan’s situation will change dramatically. And she knows she’s not the only one.

“The amount of money that was put towards those loans has done nothing. Any amount that I’ve paid so far, the loan has increased,” she explained. “When my repayment starts, I’m looking at about a $250 a month payment. That’s like making a choice between two weeks worth of groceries and paying student loans.”

In recent weeks, Pennsylvania-based groups, such as the Association of PA State Colleges & University Faculties (APSCUF) and chapters of the NAACP have renewed their calls for broad federal student debt forgiveness.

Dr. Kenneth Mash is the president of APSCUF and a professor at East Stroudsburg University. His organization released a statement this spring calling on President Joe Biden to cancel all federally-held student debt.

Mash said that a few decades ago, states had a larger role in funding higher education, which limited the amount of federal debt that students amassed.

“It used to be that the state picked up two-thirds of the cost of a college education for students, and now we’re down below 25%," Mash said. “That’s especially true in Pennsylvania.”

While Mash’s organization wants President Biden to cancel student debt, APSCUF is also fighting for less expensive higher education in the commonwealth. Mash said debt is only a small part of the equation.

“We’ll always have student debt unless we work to make our universities more affordable for students to go to in the first place,” he said.

Jimel Calliste is the chapter president of the Wilkes-Barre NAACP. He’s also an advisor for the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference. He works closely with the organization’s national Youth and College Division director, Wisdom O. Cole.

Calliste said Cole and the NAACP are leading a campaign that stresses the importance of canceling federal student debt without a “means test,” or financial eligibility requirements akin to those needed to receive food stamps or Medicaid.

President Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign often mentioned student loan forgiveness. He has more recently entertained the option of forgiving $10,000 worth of student loans for those who earn below a certain income.

“We don’t want $10K, we want $50K and beyond,” Calliste said. “Ten-thousand just scratches the surface – it’s just the taxes.”

Earlier this month, the Department of Education discharged the largest amount of student loan debt to date. June 1 marked $5.8 billion in debt cancellation for more than half a million borrowers who’d been enrolled in schools under the umbrella of Corinthian Colleges Inc.

The for-profit college group, which folded in 2015, had been investigated for fraudulent behavior. Parent company Corinthian had 24 subsidiaries, including Everest College and Everest University Online. In-person campuses existed in both the U.S. and Canada.

According to the Department of Education, Corinthian used inflated statistics such as high job placement rates for their graduates to attract students. The company was also found to have created a spate of other misleading marketing

Although the Education Department wiped out an historic amount of debt, the $5.8 billion erasure makes up less than 0.5% of all federally-held student debt. Borrowers currently owe a collective $1.7 trillion.

Like the organizations led by Calliste and Mash, labor organizers and activists are rallying behind a similar message of debt forgiveness.

Nick Marcil is a West Chester-based organizer who believes in total student debt cancellation, including private loans. He’s a member of a nationwide debtors’ union, The Debt Collective, and he organizes locally with the PA chapter. He also co-founded a group called PASSHE Defenders that is pushing for free higher education in Pennsylvania. PASSHE is Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education.

“Student debt shouldn’t exist, it’s immoral,” he said. “I believe, and so many other people believe, that education is a public good.”

Marcil spoke about the role of activists in the Department of Education’s landmark debt cancellation. A group of 15 debt strikers led a campaign for roughly seven years to have their Corinthian College debt forgiven.

“This is just a big win for debtors," Marcil said, adding that the Corinthian debtors’ strike gained momentum and eventually swelled to over 100 students refusing to pay back their loans to the education company.

Marcil said while President Biden could decide to cancel student debt for a larger swath of Americans, it might take more pressure from organizers. He wants to remind people of fights by labor movements in the 20th century including safe workplaces and the now-common eight hour workday.

“Labor unions got us the weekend,” said Marcil. “And it’ll take a debtor’s union to get us cancellation.”