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When Lisa Mulhall raised her hand at the recent student debt clinic in Woodbury, New York, she had no idea that she was about to hear something that would change the rest of her life.
The fifth-grade teacher, who is carrying around $30,000 in student loans, explained that she'd been told by her servicer that she didn't qualify for the popular public service loan forgiveness program, in which not-for-profit and government employees can have their federal loans canceled after 10 years of on-time payments.
That was incorrect, however, explained one of the clinic leaders. She was eligible. Mulhall fell back in her chair in relief.
The exchange occurred at one of the growing number of "student debt clinics," popping up around the country, everywhere from Louisiana to New Jersey. The American Federation of Teachers, a union that represents 1.7 million people, organizes these sessions in which people learn about the debt they're in, and the best ways out of it.
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.
Connie Budd, a teacher's assistant at a local public school, came to the clinic to learn about how she could help her son who is about to graduate high school. She watched her oldest son struggle to repay his more than $50,000 in student loans. "He really got into a lot of problems after college," Budd said, adding that he eventually fell into default after being laid off from work.
With the information she learned at the clinic, she plans to sit down with her younger son to make sure that doesn't happen to him. "I want him to be able to be aware of the programs out there," Budd said.
Many student loan borrowers say they're in need of a place for clear, objective information.
A recent government report found some schools don't present student loan borrowers with their best options. Meanwhile, one of the largest student loan servicers — Navient, is being sued by five states and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for misleading borrowers. (Navient disputes all allegations.)
Mulhall, the fifth-grade teacher, said she hopes these clinics reach more people faster, because servicers don't always give out the best information. Of her situation, she said: "I feel extremely discouraged and almost taken advantage of. People need this knowledge and I wish it was explained like this a few years ago."
Throughout his career as a custodian and then teacher on Long Island, Kevin Pollitt saw just how burdened people were by their student loans. He and his wife are still paying off their education debt.
When he learned that his union, New York State United Teachers, an AFT affiliate, was looking for people to run these clinics, he raised his hand. Then he went up to Albany for two days to train. "I wanted to learn more and share that knowledge," Pollitt said.
He recognized one of the attendees at the clinic in Woodbury, which he was running, as someone he went to high school with. "We've been out of school for 20 years, and she's still struggling with her student loans," he said, shaking his head.
At the end of the workshop, a few people came up to Pollitt and asked how they could bring more student debt clinics to Long Island. They made a plan to do so.
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