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Readers Talk Back on Student Loan Debt

We've received an enormous response to "My Debt, My Life," the January cover story on the struggle to manage student loan debt on a beginning teacher's salary. Some educators wrote to commiserate, relieved to learn they're not alone, while others wrote to admonish new teachers to buck up and quit whining. Here are some of the responses that have been flooding our mailboxes.

Learn more about NEA's efforts to raise educators' salaries and to make college affordable for all students.

Told Kids Not To Become Teachers

I am in my 23rd year of teaching science in the rural Missouri Ozarks and a NEA member nearly as long. When I graduated from college in the 80s, I did not carry any student debt. I didn't own anything but my bike and clothes; however, I was able to start fresh and manage on low teacher salaries by living a simple lifestyle and having a working spouse. My children, however, live in a very different world. As they approached college I told both of them that I would do all I could to help them, but NOT if they choose a teaching profession -- they would NOT be getting help from me. Pretty sad, isn't it? I knew all too well that they could not manage the debt with the prospective wages of teaching.

Luckily my children were not set on a teaching career, so I don't have to feel guilty about my position just very sad and frustrated. The reality is clear and the numbers speak for themselves.

Mary Ann Mutrux, middle school science teacher,Willow Springs, MO

'Young people of today have been taught no responsibility'

I am in disbelief (almost) after reading your article. I have some opinions that do not support the "whining" of students with unbelievable student loans to be paid.

Upon applying for any position of employment, the applicant should ALWAYS be aware of what their lifestyle will be like should they accept the job. I always knew what my salary and working conditions were before I signed the required contract/paperwork. Isn't it possible to matriculate at a less expensive school of higher learning (or an in state institution) than the one a student wishes to attend? Again, a matter of choice and budgeting by an individual!

Are these "stressed-out students" (my description) living in economically available housing, using public transportation, etc.? How much of their income do they use for cell phones, eating out, alcoholic drinks, attending movies, concerts or ball games? I would assume, and I may be incorrect, the vast majority of the students in your article do not budget the money available to them.

The bottom line seems to me that young people of today have been taught no responsibility, achieve immediate gratification, and have certainly not been taught or have not learned to use their money wisely. They certainly have not been taught patience.

In case you are wondering, "What do you know?", I am a retired public school teacher and when attending college worked one and two jobs to avoid being in debt. No one owes us anything, especially pity when we put ourselves in financial straits! As most adults and children complain in today's society, "It's not my fault!"

James W. Pharris, retired NEA member

Scaring off future teachers

When I read your article, tears ran down my cheeks. I realized how much I wasn't alone. It's so unfortunate that so many talented teachers continue to struggle financially to pay back student loans, while doing something they value as a profession. I owe about $85,000 in student loans. Out of desperation, I wrote to my local representatives for help, and posted a website, http://helprepaymyloans.com/, to ask for donations, but nothing came out of these efforts. I even called the New York State Department of Education to see if there is anything they or that
I could do.

Although, I'm still trying to be optimistic, positive thinking can only take you so far. I wish  members of Congress could see the unfortunate situation that many of our nation's teachers are facing, and understand that not addressing this issue will only scare off our teachers
of tomorrow.

Audrey Padilla, teacher

An investment, not debt

I am writing to offer another perspective on educational debt. After years of school obtaining my bachelor's degree, teaching credential, and master's degree, I accumulated over $40,000 in student loans. However, I don't look at it as debt, I look at it as an investment in my future. Some people might think nothing of spending that kind of money on a car, a recreational vehicle, or a vacation. Who can argue that one's education is the most important investment of them all? I don't regret taking out student loans at all. I gladly write that check every month and it is a reminder that I followed my dream and am living it! Oh, and by the way, the interest is all tax-deductible.

Kristina M. Bogner, high school teacher, Corona, CA

'Stop complaining and start to work'

A small business person, farmer, merchant, professional opens or buys a business and goes into debt. A college student does the same thing, and both should pay the debt back with interest. I do not hear many business people crying about the debt they owe, they just work and pay it back. So why does today's college student think they are privileged or special in the world? Get to work, pay the debt, live within your ability to survive and be happy. If you can't do that, don't teach -- go into some other profession.

I survived a teacher's salary for 35 years, both the wife and I retired comfortably, our children both graduated from college -- both in the area of education, one has an MA degree, too, and no debt. Work, study and good economic ability to manage their funds helped. Stop complaining and start to work.

Charles De Vore, Iowa

Doing what she loves, with $150K debt

I recently read the article "My Debt, My Life," and although I was sad to hear how many people are in such desperate situations, I was also thankful to hear that I'm not the only one. I went to school for 13 years. Like many other teachers, I had wanted to be a teacher from a very young age, and I also wanted to go as far as I could in my discipline, so I pursued a Ph.D. I was granted an assistantship while working on my MA that paid $600 a month, and I was granted another while working on my doctorate that paid roughly $400 a month after tuition. When we told school administrators that we could not live on that amount of money, we were told to "take out a loan." After completing my undergrad, I had about $28,000 in debt; after my MA, I had about $50,000. When I heard stories of people at LSU in my program who had debt over $100,000, I thought to myself that they were crazy and that my debt could never go that high. I took out more loans, taking the maximum they would give me each semester.

My loan total is now $156,000, roughly four times what I make in one year. My loan payment is due at the beginning of each month, as is my rent. My rent is $678, and my loan payment is $675. It will increase every five years, and I will be paying on it for 30 years. Like many of the people in your article, I could live in a house -- and a nice one -- for that amount of money.

Thank goodness I teach in a school with a wonderful principal who has helped me out financially. I do get an extra $3500 a year for my MA and Ph.D, but my principal has come to my aid several times with extra duties that have increased my monthly salary so that I can afford to live. Of course, with the extra duty comes extra time at school, but the trade-off is worth it. I also teach a night class at a local community college to help make extra money and keep money in my savings account in case something happens.

People ask me all the time why I don't go into administration; after all, with the degrees I have, I could, and I could make a lot more money. I just love to teach. Unless something drastic happens and I just can't pay my bills, I'll continue to teach and scrimp where I have to and work extra jobs. It's frustrating. But it's also empowering to look around and know that I'm doing what I love every day, regardless of the debt.

-- Mary Pyron, Houston, TX

Teacher taken for granted

I attend Western Kentucky University full-time. I have a husband, two children, a mortgage, two car payments, and I am frightened at what my student loan payments will be once I graduate this year. I am a senior, so it is looming over my head constantly. I have about $30,000 at this point. I am 28 years old. I just hope and pray that the low-income county I live in will hire me and forgive my federal Perkins and Stafford loans. If this happens, then my story won't be as grim as some of the others in the article.

I think that our government take advantage of our nations' educators. The nation takes us for granted. It takes a unique and exceptional individual to educate the young minds of today. I do not think that this is realized. I love teaching and if I go broke doing it, then so be it... But our government MUST act now to increase teacher's salaries and benefits.

Emily Campanell, Western Kentucky University Student NEA Member, KEA-SP Student Member

Better salaries essential to education reform

I just read your article and felt every word. I have a BS in biochemistry and a MS in science education. I owe about $46,000 in school loans, and my husband owes $84,000. He is not a teacher (he's a physical therapist) but we make about the same salary. We barely survive our
payments each month. We are already putting every spare dime we scrape towards our son's college fund because we don't want him to have to deal with this staggering debt just to educate himself -- but I don't think it will be even close to enough.

I teach in the Syracuse City School District — a low-income, high needs, high poverty district. Under the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program, I would be eligible to have $17,500 of my loans forgiven because I am a science teacher in a high needs district -- however, my first loan was taken out too early to qualify. I think it is completely unfair that teachers who carry fewer loans but are two years younger qualify and I don't. I am still teaching in this district—which I LOVE but at a lower salary than surrounding areas. I don't leave because I love my job and I am invested in the district — my seniority in the district now ensures I won't lose my job if there are position cuts.

Everyone gripes about the state of education — but you get what you pay for. If we continue to pay teachers these dismal salaries (especially in New York where they are required to have a master's), we will never see the change we desire because the people who would effect that change do the financial math and choose a career that will allow them to sleep at night. That leaves too many districts without the best and brightest to choose from. If this country is ever going to reform education, it will need to recognize that the teachers are going to be responsible for implementing that reform on a daily basis in the classroom and pay them accordingly.

Julie J. Sherman Fogu, high school teacher, Syracuse, NY

Paraprofessional abandons plans to teach

I recently read your article. It unfortunately reinforces my conclusion that I will not be seeking any more education to get a teaching degree. I have been a paraeducator for the past seven years working with severe ED/BD students in a special school program. I have recently been trying to research ways that I might be able to gain my teaching certificate. I am 46 years old, I don't qualify for a Pell Grant, and there is no guarantee that I might be awarded a scholarship.

After looking into the special-education programs, it is estimated that I could graduate in four years with a BA, but I would also be in debt around $40k. It just doesn't make sense for me to go into debt for that amount of money for a starting salary of $26,000 (Utah). I have decided to not further my education because of the amount of debt that I would incur. It just isn't worth it.

I love what I do and will continue to work where I am currently. I am heartbroken that I cannot further my education because of rising education costs. It is so sad that a country that has so many freedoms and opportunities is slowly making it too difficult for those willing to put forth the effort to better not only their lives, but the lives of future generations.

Tamera Ortega, West Jordan, UT

Problems of their own making

I read your article "My Debt, My Life." As I read I kept getting the feeling that the problems these kids have is partly of their own making.

The majority of these kids must have not given any thought to the mess they were getting themselves into. If they didn't have money for a 4-year college, go to junior college for two years. I also didn't hear any of them talk about a part-time job. I worked my way through college and owed nothing at the end. I've had one debt in my life which was a mortgage that I paid off early. I hope all of these kids find a way out of their problems, but it won't be easy.

Bruce Falk, Joliet, IL

'Attitudes of entitlement'

This article and the students' comments are so representative of the blame-everything game, yet they are so into not seeing responsibility for choices. Instead of empathy, it's really laughable. Yes, I'm an older teacher that "walked up hill to school both ways" a few times and am not that worse for wear for it. I'm in my second go at teaching and am now 60 years old.

I see young teachers come to the job with these attitudes and comments. My concern is that these attitudes of entitlement are passed on to the students. Where is the part called personal
responsibility, rational choice, and natural consequences? Just because "I miss being able to go
out to eat or go to a movie" doesn't mean life is unfair or you should be supported by the rest of us. Wake up, guys. Just because your parents possibly didn't teach you personal responsibility or money management doesn't mean you can't learn it on your own. So are we not perpetuating more of the same?

Wanting for, or even being hungry are very good lessons that can build character if a person is not automatically rescued every time the occasion arises.

George McCuistion, Dekalb, IL

Thanks for the advocacy

Your article stuck a chord with me. I am sure that it did with many other teachers, as well. I just finished my first year teaching. I have over $35,000 in student loans. I owe about $10,000 more that I made in one year! Thank you so much, NEA, for your hard work for new teachers. Please continue to push for an increase in teacher's salaries. We desperately need it and you advocating for us!

Brandi Sheridan

Considering bankruptcy

I am soooo glad to know that this problem is bigger than just my wife and me. We are both educators, and together share between $70K and $80K in student loan debt. We began this Christmas holiday in an attorney's office for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy consultation. We are seriously contemplating going through with it just to protect our assets.

Roland Wilson, middle school choral director, Memphis, TN