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On the Hill

My Debt, My Life

Cynthia Kopkowski

Education majors are struggling with student loan debt, but NEA is working on lowering the bill.

A $28,000 salary and a $15,000 student loan bill adds up to big trouble.   Forget advanced trig, that’s the kind of math that a growing number of education majors and young teachers are agonizing over as college costs grow and salaries stagnate.

Increasingly savvy about future income-to-debt ratios, students are making decisions about careers based on the reality of having to repay loans. At a time when there is a great need for qualified teachers, young people are discouraged from entering the profession.

Today, two-thirds of four-year college graduates leave with student loan debt, compared with less than a third just 10 years ago, according to the State Public Interest Research Group’s Higher Education Project. And they carry twice as much debt as they did 10 years ago, too.

“We absolutely see a chilling effect,” on public service professions, says Robert Shireman, director of the Project on Student Debt. “Students are setting their sights on the future and saying ‘I can’t afford to be a teacher or a social worker.’”

After completing his undergraduate career at Alabama A&M University, Anthony Daniels owed more in student loans than he could make as a starting teacher. In part to defer the loans, and hoping to improve his salary prospects, he went to graduate school.

 Now he’s $58,000 in debt and considering walking away from teaching in favor of a career in law. “Unfortunately my situation is not unique,” says Daniels, the current chair of NEA’s Student Program. “In fact, it is becoming the norm. We are losing too many qualified teachers because of student loans. It’s not just a burden, it’s a barrier.”

How Did We Get Here?

Since 1994, debt levels for graduating seniors more than doubled to $19,200, according to the Public Interest Research Group. (Eight percent of graduates owe more than a whopping $40,000.) Factoring in inflation, the average student debt burden in 2004 was almost 60 percent higher than in 1994.

Black and Hispanic college graduates are hit even harder than their White counterparts, according to the Project on Student Debt. Black graduates have a higher amount of student loan debt and more of them have debt than White graduates. The number of Hispanic students with debt is on par with Whites, but the amount they owe is higher.

Why did this become, as one author dubbed it, “Generation Debt”?

For starters, tuition costs are rising faster than inflation—they’ve ballooned 42 percent in the past five years. And wages have stalled. In 2006, the median household income actually dropped 2 percent. Add in that families are increasingly squeezed by health care and housing costs. Then factor in that the previous Congress hiked interest rates on student loans and cut $12 billion from the Federal Student Aid program.

When it comes time to figure out where the money for college is going to come from, students are increasingly turning to private lenders who loan money freely but often on less-favorable terms than government loans. A decade ago, private lenders were responsible for only 5 percent of the education loan dollars in use.

 Now they comprise 20 percent and it’s become a $17.3 billion market. Sallie Mae, the largest private lender in operation, reported $1 billion in profits last year. One online retailer sells a T-shirt that states in bold black letters, “Property of Sallie Mae.”

Fighting on the Hill to Lower the Bill

A substantial victory came this past summer with the passage of legislation providing $20 billion to increase grant aid for low-income students and cut subsidies to student loan companies. President Bush signed it in October 2007.

The College Cost Reduction and Access Act is a sweeping piece of legislation being compared to the G.I. Bill. It increases the Pell Grant program to $4,800 next year (and $5,400 by 2012) by replacing the $12 billion cut previously. Also, it slashes in half the interest rates on subsidized student loans.

Predictably, student lenders fought the reform vehemently. Left out of the final law—thanks in part to pressure on legislators by NEA members mobilized by the Association’s “College Affordability Concerns Me” campaign—was a troubling amendment that would have given student loan companies more than $4 billion at the expense of the grant aid to students.

But the work isn’t over. In addition to pushing for a $40,000 starting salary for all teachers, NEA continues to advocate for legislation that will make it easier for students and graduates to consolidate their loans. Leaders promising change must be held accountable, says Daniels.

Despite all the financial obstacles facing those with student loans, they remain staunchly optimistic about the importance of the work they’re doing. At left are some of your fellow NEA Student Program members’ stories.


Zoua Xiong, 28

University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee
Early childhood education major

  • $25,000 in personal student loan debt
  • $75,000 in household student loan debt

My husband and I are both students. He’s been taking a loan out every year.

It wasn’t until we got married and had my son that he qualified for financial aid. $75,000. This is how much we’re going to owe.

We’re thinking much further along, hoping if we suffer a little now, we’ll be better down the line. The biggest thing for us when we get done with school is to buy a house, but I think we’re going to have problems. With outstanding loans and credit card bills, we might not have that chance.

Anthony Daniels, 25

Student member
Alabama A&M University
Special Education Master’s candidate

  • $58,000 in student loan debt

I’m having second thoughts if I want to go into teaching. How am I going to afford to have a family? Buy a house? My federal loan payment is $326 a month. My private loan payment, after I consolidated, is $300. Had I not consolidated, it would have been $600 or $700 a month.

 That’s on a $34,000 salary. I would be living on the street at that amount. With my car payment and insurance and being dropped from my parents’ health insurance, it all adds up. It’s forcing me to want to go to law school more and more.


Ashley Davis, 26

University of Alabama—Birmingham
Early childhood and elementary education major

  • $15,000 in student loan debt

You have to finance your education somehow. I started taking out loans about a year and a half ago. Knowing that you’re going to come out [of school] into a profession that pays so little is very overwhelming. The debt is taking away from money I could be spending on my daughter. I need a new car. Mine has 206,000 miles on it and I don’t know how much longer it will last. I knew from the very beginning I’m not going into teaching for the pay. I enjoy the job. I don’t wake up in the morning and think, “Oh no, I have to go to work.”

Battling Debt

Visit NEA’s College Affordability page to access a collection of valuable resources for handling student debt and making college a possibility for all:

  • NEA’s College Affordability Concerns Me campaign on Facebook or MySpace, where you can meet and keep in touch with members across the country who are fighting to curb skyrocketing tuition costs and calling to rebuild federal financial aid.
  • Learn about proposals in Congress that will make college affordable and contact your representatives to tell them to take action!

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