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Project 12M

Joshua Watson Says Community Service Can Conquer Student Loan Debt

Lenders are beginning to listen

By Nicholas Sella


The average U.S. college graduate enters the job market with more than $35,000 in student loan debt, and a lot of them would’ve jumped at the chance to begin loan payments before graduation—especially if they were receiving college credits, too. This year, NEA Student Program member Joshua Watson hopes to launch Project 12M—a non-profit program designed to help his fellow students do just that.

“While still actively enrolled, students can participate in community service or service learning to help pay back their loans,” says Watson, an Arizona State University graduate student.

Named for the more than 12 million students who take out loans to finance education in the U.S. each year, Project 12M pilots are planned for Arizona State University, plus three other Arizona colleges, Watson says.

The start-up is based largely on potential brokered agreements with federal loan providers, like Sallie Mae, to reduce or partially forgive student loans in exchange for enrolling in service learning courses.

If lenders agree to discount the amount of money students have to repay, even by “one percent or two percent, that support goes a long way,” he says.

Watson is earning a master’s in Social and Cultural Pedagogy, and he’s much like the students he hopes to help. His own student debt—undergraduate and graduate, combined—is about $64,000.

He came up with the idea for Project 12M during his freshmen year while searching for ways to reduce his borrowing. “There had to be some other solution,” says Watson who first explored established debt forgiveness programs like AmeriCorps, but didn’t find a good match or one that fit into his crammed school-work schedule.

Today, Watson is spirited by his vision for Project 12M, hoping to ultimately take the loan repayment plan nationwide.

And his work is winning praise from ASU campus officials. Melissa Pizzo, the school’s executive director of Financial Aid and Scholarship Services says, “[Project 12M] is a great idea. We are always trying to understand the borrowing of our students and [the] ways students might be able to still pursue, achieve and receive degrees by keeping costs at a minimum.”

As Watson shepherds his independent venture, he’s also organizing on behalf of NEA’s Degrees Not Debt campaign. Launched last year, Degrees Not Debt is engaging state affiliates and NEA student campuses like Arizona State University. If you’ve got student loan debt, you’re not alone. Find resources and information you can use today. Want to organize on your campus? Join Watson and thousands of other Student Program members who are speaking up for college affordability. Visit and learn more.

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