democracynow.org

“I was convinced that I would simply keep working and paying down my loans until I dropped dead—and even then, I wondered if my loans would die with me.”

So begins a powerful Op-Ed written by Lorelei Salas, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs. She was describing the heavy burden of student loan debt that haunted her for years after there was no other way to finance her education than to take out federal student loans.

Like so many Americans, Salas lived paycheck to paycheck while struggling to pay down her student loan debt. Still, she felt lucky that she was repaying her loans under an income-driven repayment plan designed to make student loan debt more manageable for lower-income earners by tying it to salary levels. The plan was a godsend for her, but it is now unfortunately tagged for elimination by Congress as part of a bill known as the PROSPER Act.

The bill would overhaul the Higher Education Act of 1965, ignoring the lessons of the past decades by rolling back important safeguards – especially for low-income students, enacted over the years.  In addition to getting rid of income-driven repayment, the PROSPER Act would restrict eligibility for Pell Grants, remove protections for students who are left with debt while their college engaged in fraud, and eliminate all loan forgiveness programs. According to a policy brief filed by the Center for Law and Social Policy the act fails to address any of the issues that are most important for student success: affordability, equity, and a pathway to work and careers.

Salas argues that given the size of the federal student loan debt – which has increased to nearly $1.4 trillion, more than twice as much as it was a decade ago, there are clearly more people than ever pursuing college degrees – meaning more reasons than ever to address the looming student debt crisis.

“At this price tag, policymakers should be working to improve degree attainment, certification quality, repayment options, and financial stability; but instead they are advancing legislation like the PROSPER Act.”

Salas’s personal account of her own ordeal also includes some good news for New Yorkers thanks to steps that the City is taking, under her direction, to address the widespread confusion and misinformation circulating about student loans, repayment options, and the availability of discharges. One such initiative is a new series of Student Loan Debt Clinics being conducted in targeted neighborhoods in partnership with NYLAG and other advocacy organizations to provide free confidential one-on-one financial counseling and legal assistance to people struggling with student debt.

Still, the problem cannot be fixed at the local level alone.

“I am lucky enough to live in New York City, where I know my City is fighting for me. While these programs help individuals tackle their debt and better understand their finances, more needs to be done on the federal level to lower the overall cost of student loan debt.”

Read Commissioner Salas’ Op-Ed, published in The Hill, here.