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Lily's Blackboard


We Need Degrees Not Debt

How do you tell a promising student with the heart and mind to be a fantastic teacher that she can’t afford to join us in the world’s best profession?

How do you explain that the devastating combination of student debt (so big!) and teacher pay (so not big!) means she should probably walk across campus and join up with the computer scientists, or maybe the geologists, to better shoulder the tens of thousands of dollars in student debt dumped on poor and middle-class Americans?

When I went to the University of Utah so many years ago (okay, not that many!) I borrowed from the federal government, and when I graduated I might have owed $4,000, maybe $5,000. I think my total tuition was $726 per year. Now a full-time student at that same “public” university pays $6,888 per year in tuition.

And that’s the in-state rate!

As president of the National Education Association, this terrifies me. I look into my crystal ball of obvious issues and I see classrooms without teachers. I see students of color, students whose parents don’t make a million dollars a year (and there are lots of these students out there!) being unable to afford to follow me into the greatest profession on earth—a profession, by the way, that our democracy, our economy, and our very health depends upon.

Especially now, as the U.S. becomes more diverse, and income inequality grows, we need to make sure all Americans have a fair shot at higher education.

That’s why, alongside tens of thousands of NEA members from every corner of the nation, I have signed NEA’s Degrees Not Debt campaign pledge and am working to bring awareness and solutions to the crisis of student debt. Last year, seven out of 10 college students graduated with student debt, owing an average $30,000 each. And we know NEA members who owe much, much more.

I don’t believe that those of us with social justice in our hearts should need millions of dollars in our pockets to become public school teachers. There are solutions to the student debt crisis! And there’s so much we can do as activists.

The long game is to pressure state legislatures and governors to reverse the 25-year slide in support for public colleges and universities. And as activists, all of us have to demand that Congress pass the bill to allow former students to refinance their high-priced student loans. We must also tell Congress to increase Pell Grants for students in need and improve students’ opportunity for loan forgiveness and restructure. If you agree, take the NEA’s Degrees Not Debt pledge, and raise your voice alongside mine.

 --Lily Eskelsen Garcia

For more on Lily Eskelsen Garcia's perspectives and activities, visit her popular blog, Lily's Blackboard.

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