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The Student Debt Crisis

The Student Debt Monster

As it continues to gnaw on the low average salaries of new teachers and threatens the retirement security of older educators, NEA’s Degrees Not Debt campaign offers much-needed help.

By Mary Ellen Flannery


Meet Brittany Jones. This future teacher hasn’t taught one day in her own classroom, but she already owes $70,000 in student loans for her undergraduate education degree. “My mother keeps asking me, ‘Shouldn’t you get a business degree instead? I don’t know how this teaching thing is going to work out financially, Brittany,’” says Jones.

Now, meet Dave McDonald, a 36-year-old father of five, who after more than 10 years in the classroom still owes $35,000 for the master’s degree that helped him to become a better teacher. “As educators, we talk about poverty and its impact on children,” he says. “My concern is that my children are those children.”

Jones and McDonald are among the whopping 40 million Americans who owe a collective $1.2 trillion in student loans.“What kind of country have we become when people think going to college was a mistake?” asks NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. ““What kind of society do we have when a grandparent has his Social Security payments garnished to pay for his grandson’s student loan debt?”

Last year, seven out of 10 college graduates left school owing an average of average $29,400 each in student loans. At these levels, student debt isn’t just a burden any more—it’s become a barrier to the American Dream.

NEA stands upon the belief that every American deserve a fair shot at higher education, no matter their family background. And a career in the classroom should be affordable and accessible to anyone with the skills and passion to serve students well. Especially as the U.S. grows more diverse and as the gap between the rich and poor gets bigger, future teachers shouldn’t need millions in their pockets to fuel the social justice in their hearts.

That notion grew into NEA’s Degrees Not Debt campaign—a coast-to-coast effort to raise awareness of the student debt crisis and provide resources to besieged borrowers, including information on federal loan forgiveness programs.

We know there are real answers to the twin problems of college affordability and student debt, including expansion of loan forgiveness programs and income-based repayment plans. The tens of thousands of students, parents, and educators who already have signed NEA's Degrees Not Debt pledge are standing up for those solutions, holding and attending information sessions at their schools, and calling on Congress to increase student aid..

How Did We Get Here?

It’s no secret that the price of higher education in the U.S. has skyrocketed. Between 1980 and 2010, according to federal statistics, the average cost of a four-year public university jumped from approximately $9,000 a year to nearly $22,000. Less well known are the reasons for that astronomical leap. (Hint: It’s not faculty salaries. In fact, those same decades also saw a rise in the number of low-paid adjunct faculty, who now constitute more than three-quarters of all faculty.)

Instead, tuition increases are about state funding cuts. Thanks to the Great Recession, and also the creation of huge corporate tax cuts in states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Kansas, state lawmakers have slashed funds for higher education, essentially shifting the cost to students.

Consider Arizona, where the state legislature cut higher education funds by $3,508 per student between 2008 and 2012. During those same years—not coincidentally—the state’s public universities raised tuition by $3,674 per student.

Obviously, this makes it especially hard for low-income students to get the degrees they need to get good jobs. In fact, recent research identifies poverty as the single greatest predictor of whether a student will go to college. Tuition bumps also have caused difficulty for students of color. A 2014 Gallup poll shows that Black students, on average, owe considerably more in student loans than White students.

The phenomenon is called “the borrowing gap.” Carolyn Lumar, a paraeducator in Louisiana, who has worked with 3- and 4-year-olds for the past 30 years, is falling quickly into that borrowing gap. For her, a college degree could be a means to a better income. “I love early education and that’s what I want to do. … Basically, I’m looking forward to someday teaching that class.” But Lumar already has borrowed nearly $30,000 to pay for her first five semesters, and she’s still years away from graduating. “I didn’t go back this semester because every semester I have to borrow. I really can’t afford it,” she exclaims.

Here’s the Problem with Teaching and Debt

When it was time to pay for college, Chelsey Herrig, the NEA Student Program chair, thought less about the math, and more about her own family history. She grew up watching her mother, who doesn’t have a four-year degree, toil at two low-paying jobs—bookkeeper by day and waitress by night—and struggle to pay the bills each month. “I always said, ‘I’m going to college and I don’t care what it takes!’” Herrig says today.

She celebrated her 14th birthday by getting her first job. Since, she has juggled multiple jobs, and borrowed $33,000 to pay for her education degree from Southwest Minnesota State University. Meanwhile, new teachers earn an average $36,000 a year.

Many would-be teachers look at those numbers, see the struggle inherent in them, and say, “no thanks.” “A lot of students never enter the [teaching] profession because they know they’ll never make a lot of money and they look at their debt and think, ‘I can’t do that!’” Herrig says.

She’s right. It’s not easy to live with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans—not on a teacher’s salary. Dave McDonald and his wife haven’t been on a date in months. When they do go out, they never see first-run movies or order drinks with dinner. No cable TV. No gym memberships. “We live a very Spartan life,” he says.

For many mid-career teachers, who often borrow to pay for the advanced degrees that help them become better teachers, student debt can be a problem they’ll shoulder into retirement—and the consequences can be dire. Last year, Americans aged 65 or older owed $18.2 billion in student debt, up six-fold from 2005, according to a recent government report. Meanwhile, more than 36,000 retirees had their Social Security benefits garnished to pay overdue federal student loans.

“I love to learn and I love to teach,” says Cynthia Burkes, 57, of Las Vegas. Her borrowing financed a master’s degree in technical education, and she will continue to repay the debt in retirement. But Burkes also noted that her advanced degree enables her to teach exciting career-oriented classes in robotics and 3D printing to low-income 10- to 14-year-olds who love science and engineering. “I am giving students opportunities that they would not otherwise have,” she says.

Basically, Burkes made an investment in her students’ learning—something teachers do all the time, from spending hundreds of dollars of their own money on the makings of excellent science experiments, to the tens of thousands of dollars they borrow for advanced degrees that help them enrich students’ lives. Betty Blanton is another example. The 66-year-old Tennessee instructional coach still owes $15,000 for the Ph.D. that “totally changed my teaching and learning. I use my knowledge every day as I work with teachers and students,” she says.

Shouldn’t the investment be worth something to society—or the government lenders to whom Blanton will still be writing checks, even after she retires? “I went back to school to learn for my kids, but I will be paying for it even after I can help others,” Blanton says. “If America truly wants the best teachers, at what point should this debt become a non-issue?”

NEA’s Degrees Not Debt Campaign

The initiative is founded upon a simple belief: Teachers shouldn’t have to sacrifice their futures, or the futures of their own children in order to improve opportunities for their students. “There is something really wrong with this picture,” says Kentucky reading teacher Jim Sidebottom, who is 60 years old and still owes more than $60,000 for his undergraduate and master’s degrees.

Recently, Sidebottom and other NEA members called on Congress to pass a bill to allow borrowers to refinance their federal student loans at lower interest rates—just like homeowners refinance mortgages. Although the “Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act,” sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), was blocked by Senate Republicans in September, it likely will return to Congress this spring.

For older teachers especially—who may be repaying student loans at 1990s-era interest rates of 8 percent or more—the Warren bill would effectively cut their monthly bills. For example, Oregon teacher Paul Voas, 47, pays almost 8 percent interest on the $28,000 he borrowed for his two degrees. “Strange how I had to pay interest first,” he notes. The interest rate on his car loan? A mere 1.9 percent.

NEA’s Degrees Not Debt campaign also has called for expansion of federal repayment programs, like Pay as You Earn, which determine the size of monthly loan payments according to the borrower’s income. For Dave McDonald, income-based repayment means he currently pays nothing at all on his student loans. He appreciates the relief, which is based on his low income and family size, but points out, “that means I don’t know where this is going to end.”

It’s possible McDonald may someday be a candidate for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which will dismiss entirely the federal loans of some teachers, social workers, police officers, etc. NEA’s Degrees Not Debt campaign has called on lawmakers to expand that program as well—and increase advertising to educators. About 6.8 million educators may be eligible, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but only 1 million have filed the paperwork. (For more information on federal loan forgiveness, see

Earlier this year, future Denver teacher Brittany Jones—the future teacher with $70,000—testified to a Senate committee: “Student loan debt has been the driving force of my decisions for the last eight years of my life, and according to my current repayment plan, it is projected to be for the next 25 years of my life, well into the years when I should be planning for retirement,” says Jones. “It should not be this way.”

Download Student Debt: 6 charts that explain it all

Sign NEA’s Degrees Not Debt pledge and stand up for college affordability. Also, learn more about the “5 Steps to Kick Student Debt.”

The Faces of Debt

The 40 million Americans with student debt range from 20-something teachers, struggling to pay loans on an average $36,000 new teacher salary, to retired educators who still owe for their mid-career master’s or Ph.D. degrees. One thing they all have in common: A desperate need for more manageable repayment plans and loan forgiveness.

By the time Alexis Ploss finishes her degree at University of Massachusetts Lowell, where she is studying to be a high school astronomy teacher, her student loans will top an incredible $100,000. “I didn’t go into teaching to make a fortune, but I never expected my degree would put me nearly $100,000 in debt,” said Ploss. “It’s hard to imagine how I’ll ever pay my loans back.”

A future teacher in the Denver Teacher Residency program, Brittany Jones testified before Congress about her student debt. “My story begins as a second-grade student at Birdneck Elementary School, when a decision was made: I, Brittany Jones…would one day become a second-grade teacher,” Jones told Congress. But after borrowing $70,000 to make those dreams come true, the story shouldn’t end in personal bankruptcy.

For more than 30 years, Carolyn Lumar has worked with 3- and 4-year-olds as a paraprofessional in Saint John’s Parish, La. “Basically, I’m looking forward to someday teaching that class,” says Lumar, who has been working toward a college degree in early education. But with nearly $30,000 in student loans, and a few more semesters to go, Lumar can’t do it anymore. “I didn’t go back this semester because every semester I have to borrow. I really can’t afford it!”

Dave McDonald is a fourth-generation teacher, married to a teacher, whose mother also was a teacher. But with $35,000 in student debt and five kids of his own to send to college someday, he’s thinking about getting out of the “family business. “As educators we talk about poverty and its impact on children. My concern is that my children are those children.”


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