Editor's Note: On March 20, President Trump announced that federal student loan borrowers would be permitted to suspend payments for at least 60 days without penalty due to the coronavirus pandemic. Borrowers must contact their student loan servicers to take advantage of the benefit.
Cheryl Martin was worried sick for years about her student debt: $166,000 that hung over her like a cloud nearly a decade after she left graduate school. "The anxiety I had was tremendous," said Martin, a teacher at PS 449 in the Bronx.
But in 2019 Martin contacted the UFT's Student Debt Relief Program, where a loan specialist helped her navigate the federal programs that would bring her relief. Because Martin has been making income-driven repayments on her school loans for four years, the loan adviser was able to get her four years of credit in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which requires 10 years of payments. So instead of staring down 30 years of monthly payments of $675 and repaying $219,551, she will now make new monthly payments of $515 for only 72 more months. She expects to be clear of debt in six years.
"It gave me comfort knowing I'm not going to have to live with this the rest of my life," said Martin. "For years I tried to get into the federal program. The lenders told me I was doing the right thing, but they misled me."
Martin is one of the more than 3,500 UFT members who have received assistance from a loan specialist since the UFT launched the Student Debt Relief Program in November 2018.
"Our members let us know that student debt was one of their major concerns," said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. "It affects not just those starting out, but some who are nearing retirement and still have student loans hanging over them."
The UFT forged a partnership with the National Student Debt Forgiveness Center to provide its members with access to experts who can help them navigate the federal student debt forgiveness programs and make decisions tailored to their needs and circumstances.
To participate in the program, which is only open to UFT members, you must first sign up for a free one-hour information session or webinar. After that, you can have a free individual consultation with a loan specialist, who will create an action plan for you. Members have the option of taking it from there on their own or paying a fee to the loan specialist to ensure the proper filing of paperwork.
The 1,551 members who ultimately retained the services of the National Student Debt Forgiveness Center in 2020 saw their average monthly payment decrease by $268, according to the center.
Jon Licata, the chapter leader at PS 35 in Queens, owed $80,000 in student loans. "I would've paid into my retirement," he said. After attending the workshop and reaching out to a loan specialist, his student loan was restructured: his monthly payments have been reduced by $322 and if he makes regular payments for 10 years, he will eventually have a total of $30,000 forgiven.
Karyn Turner, an attendance teacher on Staten Island, also felt overwhelmed with a student debt of more than $20,000. "The interest on the loan is so compounded, it's terrible," she said. "It's like a recurring nightmare. I'm 65 and hoping to retire soon. I just wanted to get rid of it."
Turner talked by phone with a loan specialist, who developed an action plan for her. Because she had worked in a Title I school for five years, she was able to get about $18,000 forgiven right away under the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program for Title I teachers. She had a remaining balance of only $2,200, which she paid off immediately. She said it took about two months for her to be approved.
"The process takes time, but be patient," said Turner, who paid a fee of $500.
"People might get discouraged because it's costly, but it's worth it," she said. "The advisers work toward solutions to get you to the finish line."