January 25, 2019

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UUPers get smart about student debt

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The problem with America’s $1.5 trillion student loan debt isn’t simply that an alarming number of college graduates owe increasingly large sums of money. It’s that the system is often rigged to mislead borrowers and force them deeper into debt.

System Administration Chapter member Jennifer Redinger, above, is a prime example of the disturbing trend of predatory lending. Redinger owes a staggering $175,000 for her undergraduate and graduate education, which she completed at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1996 and 2009, respectively. About 75 percent of her current debt is interest—the result of misinformation from her student loan servicer about available, and better, repayment options.

UUP members like Redinger have been searching for answers, and reached out to their union for help. UUP responded.

Working with its national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, UUP is training a core group of member activists to conduct Student Debt Clinics at campuses around the state. The goal: to provide members with the tools and information to lower their monthly payments and put them on a path toward a debt-free future.

Those clinics haven’t been scheduled yet; plans are being formulated to set the clinics up at campuses later in 2019.

“Many of our members have been telling us that they are finding it more and more difficult to deal with their college loan payments, and we are listening,” said UUP President Fred Kowal. “When you combine on-the-job issues—such as workload creep, bullying and low morale—with seemingly insurmountable debt, it can affect how you do your job and how you live your life.

“All of us together, as a union, must get involved and be part of the solution,” he said. “That’s the power of organized labor.”

Redinger was among a handful of UUPers and their family members who braved icy roads to attend UUP’s first clinic, Jan. 24 at union headquarters in Latham. Chris Hicks, an associate in AFT’s Higher Education Department, led the debt clinic. Earlier that day, he led the first of a two-day training workshop for UUP professional organizers and other leaders to hold clinics at the chapters.

“I fell into the interest trap,” admitted 44-year-old Redinger, program coordinator for the University Faculty Senate. “The problems started after I earned my master’s and became a full-time professor at SUNY Delhi. I tried to consolidate my loans with Great Lakes (Educational Loan Services Inc.) They ‘lost’ my paperwork seven times in four years.”

When it finally came together, Redinger followed the advice of Great Lakes, a U.S. Department of Education student loan servicer, and an affiliate of Nelnet Diversified Solutions. She deferred her loans for more than six years.

“I took their word for it,” she added. “And I’ve doubled, almost tripled, my debt.”

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Albany Chapter member Penny Ng’s debt situation is different, but her experience with the Sallie Mae-backed loans is disturbingly similar.

Ng, above, a 38-year-old manager of finance and operations in UAlbany’s School of Education, owes nothing for the graduate degree she earned at UAlbany in 2017 because she took advantage of the UUP-negotiated tuition-waiver program; that program allows union members to take SUNY courses at no charge on a space-available basis. She is still paying off about $42,000 in loans for her undergraduate degree.

“Once the grace period ended, my student loan payment jumped to about $300 a month,” Ng said. “I was unemployed and couldn’t afford to pay it.”

Unlike Redinger, Ng often rejected the advice of her Sallie Mae loan service provider.

“They mentioned forbearance,” she said. “I asked about the interest payments. We settled on a graduated payment plan.”

“I’ve been lucky, I’ve never missed a payment,” Ng added. “But I had to keep on them. I’d call whenever I couldn’t make a payment. I was negotiating along the way.”

For both women, the student debt clinic provided answers to the questions that have nagged at them for years.

“This has been immensely helpful,” Ng said. “I was told there was no chance to move my consolidated loans into a consolidated direct-loan program. I now know that’s not true. It’s like they’re trying to keep you from getting out of the hamster wheel you’re caught in.”

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