NYSUT and its higher education affiliates are vocal key players in the national uprising against college student debt, an economic emergency that could destroy the dreams of a generation.
Student debt is widely considered one of the worst fallouts of the Great Recession — less visible than foreclosed homes, but every bit as damaging to the recovery.
The burden of student loan debt for 40 million Americans is slightly more than $1 trillion, which places student debt between mortgages and credit cards. Student debt can drive career decisions, wreck credit scores, delay home ownership and deplete a family's savings.
"Our higher education members have long witnessed the corrosive effects of disinvestment, spiraling college costs and crushing debt for graduates," said NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino, who oversees higher education policy. "Through our alliances with students and our national affiliates, and by working with innovative campaigns to address student debt, we are pressing our federal and state lawmakers to support real solutions and increased funding."
Some progressive lawmakers are trying to ease the immediate burden on recent college graduates, an effort that NYSUT also supports. New York's junior U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is a co-sponsor of a bill by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, that would allow people to refinance their student loans to attain a lower interest rate, similar to the way people refinance homes.
New York's senior senator, Charles Schumer, has promoted greater knowledge and use of the federal loan forgiveness program, which offers a variety of options up to forgiveness of the student loan in exchange for public service.
NYSUT's largest higher education affiliates — United University Professions, which represents 35,000 academic and professional faculty at the State University of New York's state-operated campuses, and the Professional Staff Congress, which represents 25,000 faculty and staff at the City University of New York — are members of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE). This grass-roots effort also advocates free public higher education, and has published white papers by members explaining how this could be accomplished. The idea is hardly new or radical: CUNY was tuition-free until New York City's fiscal crisis of the 1970s.
Nearly $150 billion spent by the federal government on Pell Grants and student loans, and by states on financial aid programs, could cover the cost of public college, especially if the federal government stopped giving Pell Grant money to for-profit colleges, advocates note.
"For-profit higher education is more expensive, and these schools are getting huge amounts of federal dollars," said UUP Secretary Eileen Landy, who is coordinating the CFHE this year. Student debt and higher education are profitable enterprises for banks and rife with hidden costs to borrowers.
"One of the things we know is that every year, $45 billion is taken from higher education, and goes straight to Wall Street," said Chris Hicks, organizer for the Debt-Free Future campaign at Jobs with Justice in Washington, D.C. That money comes from institutional debt incurred by universities; Wall Street ownership of for-profit universities; and student loan interest.
"In our opinion, there's $45 billion on the table, and instead of giving it to Wall Street, we need to give it to campuses and the students," said Hicks.
Among student debt activists, there is no greater target than the SLM Corp., which is best known by its nickname "Sallie Mae." Sallie Mae is the largest private lender in the country: a publicly traded corporation that manages more than $180 billion in loans, and processes federal student loans for the U.S. Department of Education.
It is increasingly a symbol of the predatory practices of the student loan industry. AFT President Randi Weingarten joined anti-debt protestors at Sallie Mae's shareholder meeting last spring. Sallie Mae just settled with the federal government for charging service members unfairly high interest rates, and for processing student loan payments in a way designed to increase late fees.
"It's very important for students and labor to come together on this issue," said Biola Jeje, who graduated from CUNY's Brooklyn College last year.
Jeje is the statewide coordinator for New York Students Rising, which is affiliated with the national Higher Ed Not Debt campaign.
Her family income qualified her for Pell Grant aid and the state's Tuition Assistance Program to cover her $5,000 yearly tuition. But she had to take out a $9,000 federal loan for housing, an obligation that looms as she seeks full-time work. Jeje has friends who are far more deeply in debt for college than she is, and not only from traditional student loans. "A lot of students are undocumented and can't get state or federal aid, so they end up putting this on their credit cards," she said.
The outrage over student debt is not limited to public colleges. Stephen Rechner, a NYSUT Board member and president of the Union of Clerical, Administrative and Technical Staff (UCATS) at New York University, noted that private student loan debt is more insidious than federal debt.
"The interest rates are higher and the few government programs that mitigate debt do not apply," Rechner said.
Rechner believes students at private colleges must explore alternatives to combat rising costs.
"This is war and we need to start arming students and families with the financial literacy they need for the battle," he said.