U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., asked NEA members Wednesday night to “raise their voices” for solutions to the student debt crisis in the U.S.
“You guys are the ones on the front lines who will make change,” said Warren. “We may not have armies of lobbyists or armies of lawyers, but we have our voices. And we’re going to keep speaking out and fighting back.
“Campaigns like NEA’s Degrees Not Debt are a great way to get involved,” said Warren. “It creates opportunities for you to share your story and make sure your message is heard in Washington.”
Warren and NEA President Lily Eskelsen García hosted a “telephone town hall” Wednesday, in which thousands of educators participated. The event was part of NEA’s Degrees Not Debt Week of Action. During this week, more than 30 events are being held across the country, from college campuses in Alabama to Arizona, to raise awareness of student debt and provide resources to borrowers, including information about important loan repayment and forgiveness programs.
More than 40 million Americans currently owe more than $1.2 trillion in student loans. At these levels, student debt isn’t just a burden — it’s become a barrier to higher education. It also has become an enormous drain on the national economy, Warren noted. “It’s harder for young people to buy homes, to start businesses, to do things to move this economy forward,” she said.
Earlier this year, NEA leaders launched NEA’s Degrees Not Debt campaign to help its members who are drowning in debt and to find long-term solutions to the crisis of college affordability. One such solution is Warren’s “Bank of Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act,” which would allow borrowers to refinance their college loans at lower interest rates, potentially saving each of them thousands of dollars, just like homeowners refinance their mortgages when interest rates decline. This summer, the bill was blocked by Senate Republicans.
“The basic fact is that the U.S. government makes a profit on these loans. It is making money off the backs of people trying to get an education, and I believe that is fundamentally wrong. It’s not what we should be doing,” Warren told NEA members Wednesday.
But the government already has pre-spent the projected billions of dollars in profits that it gets from student loans — so the Warren bill would offset the loss of those dollars by “limiting tax loopholes available to millionaires and billionaires,” explained Warren. “It says, in effect, that they have to pay at the same rate as middle-class families. That would give us more than enough money to refinance these loans.”
Warren urged NEA members to call their Senators, no matter their vote this past summer, to urge them to move the legislation forward. “Make sure they’re hearing from you!”
Eskelsen García praised Warren’s efforts Wednesday night, calling her a “hero” to educators and students and noting that Warren’s first job was as a teacher. In response, Warren told the NEA president, “This is a fight we fight shoulder to shoulder. From one teacher to another, I’m saying we need to do this together.”
“It’s time to make people a little nervous, to let them know we’re watching them and expecting action!” Eskelsen García added. “This is, as the Senator said, an economic emergency.”
In response to a question from Alexis Ploss, a NEA-Student member at UMass-Lowell, who will owe more than $100,000 by the time she becomes a teacher, Warren urged future educators to get organized on their campuses. “Call your Senator or Congressman or Congresswoman. Write an op-ed to your campus newspaper. Write a petition or forward a petition. These are things that matter in Washington. My colleagues and I actually talk about how many people call, or how many people have signed a petition,” Warren told Ploss. “The more students you can get involved, the more you can organize, the more your voice is magnified!”
Warren also responded to a question from Theresa Montaño, president of NEA’s National Council for Higher Education and a professor at CSU Northridge, about the need to expand federal loan forgiveness programs for teachers and others who work in public service fields.
“I agree it needs to be expanded — not just protected, but expanded. That’s the right way to think about it,” Warren said, who added that she would support a “forgive-as-you-go” model, so that “borrowers could forgive a portion of their loans each year that they spend teaching or in public service.”