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Notes from Conference Breakout Sessions

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Breakout Session #1 – The State of Student Debt: What’s Next?

Breakout Session #2 – Delivering Debt Relief: What’s Next?

Breakout Session #3 – Looking Forward: What’s Next?

Breakout Session #4 – Protecting Our Progress: What’s Next?

Breakout Session #5 – Demanding Justice: What’s Next?

Breakout Session #1

The State of Student Debt: What’s Next

Key Takeaways & Things to Think About for the Future:

How did we get here: 

  • The power of organizing and centering borrower stories helped get us to this win. It helped us to effectively and organically broaden our coalition across issue areas and helped widen the tent to include those who may not be directly affected but know someone that is. We destigmatized debt which helped more individuals from all walks of life come out and share their stories. 
  • We were realistic with ourselves and the movement on how long this fight could be. Helped set expectations with ourselves and our movement organizers and helped prevent organizing fatigue and disheartenment time this could take. 
  • We built out an intentionally diverse and cross generational group of Congressional champions to help continue momentum and put our inside outside advocacy plan into action.

What is next:

  • We give ourselves permission to celebrate the win and rest. Rest is just as central to the movement as the fight. Our movement was people centered and people powered- by celebrating this win we demonstrate the power that they individually have in this fight and help us to keep them engaged in the fight that lays ahead. 
  • Continue to build a diverse narrative around debt cancellation–one that continues to destigmatize debt and points out the larger structural inequities that have led to this crisis. We need to move away from an exclusively “crisis mode” narrative and focus on the humanity of borrowers. A borrower shouldn’t have to be in default to get relief. A borrower shouldn’t have to be in a dramatic situation for their story to matter and for policymakers to acknowledge their humanity.
  • We need to continue building out the narrative for and justification of “free college.” We need to link the fight for free college as not simply a public good but a public necessity for everything from– a functioning democracy, a nation where people can thrive and support themselves and their families. Move away from a purely economic framework. Must be intentional about stressing that a higher education must be free, but not cheap.

Breakout Session #2

Delivering Debt Relief: What’s Next

Key Takeaways & Things to Think About for the Future:

Potential touchpoints with borrowers to leverage in cancellation outreach and support

  • Federal government and contractors:
    • Student loan servicers
    • ED / FSA
    • CFPB
    • White House
    • Congress / congressional mailers
    • Other federal agencies engaged in outreach, particularly to vulnerable populations:
      • VA
      • HUD
      • Social Security
      • Bureau of Prisons and federal parole offices
      • FEMA
  • State and local government:
    • Social support and public benefits offices (e.g., SNAP)
    • State AGs
    • State consumer protection and consumer assistance offices
    • State tax agencies (but take care re: the handful of states threatening to tax cancellation)
    • Public schools, community colleges, universities (esp. including financial aid and alumni offices)
    • State prisons/jails and parole
  • Non-government:
    • Social media / influencers
    • Faith communities
    • Legal services
    • VITA and other tax assistance or tax prep
    • Credit unions
    • Credit counselors
    • Financial counselors
    • Anti-poverty orgs
    • Shelters
    • Labor orgs/unions
    • Other membership-based orgs
    • Schools, including financial aid and alumni offices
    • Job training/ job search offices
    • Employers, especially via human resources / centralized HR networks and support 

Borrowers at Risk of Missing Out

  • FFEL and Perkins borrowers (esp. if they intersect with any of the below groups)
  • Defaulted borrowers
  • Older borrowers
  • Those with limited English language
  • Those with limited or no digital access or comfort
  • Borrowers who are sick or have disabilities
  • Incarcerated borrowers
  • Unhoused
  • Poor
  • Military / military families out of country
  • Borrowers for whom FSA lacks current contact info
  • Borrowers who left school during payment pause / likely haven’t ever had contact with their servicers or engaging with their loans
  • Spousal consolidation loans (even after bill is signed, implementation will delay access)

Other Concerns

  • Requirement for FFEL borrowers to consolidate
  • Scams
  • Private refinancing campaigns
  • Audit/verification process and risk of “paperwork failure denials”
  • Paper application version is essential, but may bring higher risk of technical defect denials, slower processing, lost applications
  • Taxes in a few states, and confusion and borrower worries about taxes even in other states
  • Borrowers eligible for other discharge programs / waterfall of relief

Materials/Resources Needed

  • Two big buckets of resources
    • Direct to Borrower (online, hand-outs, videos, and social media)
      • Short
      • Plain language
      • Action oriented
      • Need both “standard/generic” materials and materials targeted to specific borrower populations and communities
    • Train the Messenger (online, hand-outs, webinars, in person trainings, videos, and shareables)
      • More detailed
      • Address more complex issues (considerations around consolidation, Parent PLUS, borrowers eligible for multiple discharge programs, dealing with income verification audits and denials)
      • Provide escalation info – who / where to go with issues the messenger is unable to help with (e.g., state tax issues, borrower defense applications, etc)
  • What to cover:
    • Consolidation – who needs to do it, how to do it, brief pros/cons, and what to watch out for (and being clear in distinguishing Direct consolidation from private refinancing)
    • How to navigate / setting up an FSA ID
    • Eligibility for relief
    • Understanding your student loan/Pell info 
    • How to apply for relief
    • What to expect (timeline, potential verification)
    • What to do if you’ll still have a remaining balance (info re: IDR, discharge programs, other borrower rights and relief options)
    • Tax consequences
    • What NOT to do (i.e., don’t refinance, don’t pay for help applying for cancellation)
    • How to get more info and help on student loans

Messaging question: What do we call the new broad-based cancellation program? 

Breakout Session #3

Looking Forward: What’s Next

Key Takeaways & Things to Think About for the Future

How to leverage the present moment for long-term structural change?

  • We should reframe the way that we think of higher education and the promise of postsecondary education. We should think of higher education like K-12 education, free college is not a new idea. We should also get ahead of opposition on framing and call the bluff on bad faith policy ideas.
  • We should use concerns on uptake and existing examples of system failures to push for larger reforms. This is also an opportunity to leverage experience from working programs in government to think through student debt implementation.

What lessons can we learn from other movements?

  • We can look to Medicaid expansion and the ACA as examples of large-scale opportunities to get benefits to people at-scale. There are also parallels in looking at state variance in state adoption and engagement on helping people enroll. In outreach we should also look to strong community networks where people are already seeking assistance, like VITA tax sites.
  • Framing is also an important lesson from ACA implementation that we should be mindful of in cancellation implementation. How do we get ahead on framing this as a win? We should even think through our use of “cancellation” v. “forgiveness” and the messaging it sends to broader audiences.
  • Getting 20-plus million people through the cancellation application is going to be a huge endeavor. We should get the White House and FSA invested on cancellation applications and uptake. We should broaden our coalitions to help make this process more of a one-stop-shop for borrowers. People should have access to this information wherever their touch points are for help in the community.

What does it look like to tackle student debt at the outset?

  • Postsecondary education should be about the “path of dreams, not price point.” We should have a true public option for higher education. Additionally, more work can be done in states or with federal subsidies to help offset the cost of graduate education.

Breakout Session #4

Protecting Our Progress: What’s Next?

Key Takeaways & Things to Think About for the Future

How do we channel pain points raised by borrowers to drive policy change? 

We should tap into interstate groups already doing this work (e.g., regular state ombuds meetings), collaborate with state-based non-profits and students groups, and need structured working groups within our national coalitions. We can use coalition power to lean on changemakers after identifying pain points.

What communities are most likely to miss out? What are creative ways to reach them?

  • Communities:  people working multiple jobs, people who are not on social media, incarcerated borrowers, borrowers with limited English proficiency, elderly borrowers, low-income borrowers, Black/Latino/Indigenous borrowers, rural borrowers/limited telecom access, military reservists
  • Opportunities for outreach: local papers, tactics like ‘Get out the vote’, door-to-door, social media, voter networks, train-the-trainers, FAFSA networks, incentives for taking action, radio

Breakout Session #5

Demanding Justice: What’s Next?

Key Takeaways & Things to Think About for the Future

  • Borrower complaints down across the board, but targeted efforts at public education– like press coverage of actions against predatory schools and raising civil rights abuses– motivate borrowers to come forward and share their stories. Are there other ways advocates can make sure that we are still identifying bad actors and emerging abuses in the student loan landscape?
  • Borrowers are both hopeful and distrustful of the recent announcements regarding student loan cancellation. What are advocates planning to do to address borrowers’ concerns and make sure that everyone who is eligible for cancellation actually receives it?  What can we do about predatory actors who might try to seize on the confusion surrounding the cancellation announcement?
  • While cancellation is the big news, borrowers still need urgent assistance with the PSLF waiver, IDR account adjustment, and the return to repayment. How can we help borrowers with these other crucial time-sensitive needs?
  • Private student loans, institutional loans, ISAs, and OPMs, are getting more creative and problematic – we need a fix. Beyond policy changes, how can we use affirmative litigation and bankruptcy tools to address these predatory products? 
  • Servicers are getting better at hiding their problematic practices. How do we continue to identify and prove these bad practices given this, and what more can we do to trace the monetary incentives for their actions? 

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