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Degrees Not Debt!

On campuses, and on Capitol Hill...NOW!

By the time Vanessa Gonzalez graduates from Michigan State University, her student loans will add up to an estimated $160,000.

“Yes, you heard that right,” she laughs ruefully. “One hundred and sixty thousand dollars. It’s pretty scary.”

Scary, yes.

It’s also “astonishing and unacceptable,” says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García in a recent Lily’s Blackboard blog post about the college affordability crisis in the United States. “No one should have to deny themselves an opportunity for higher education because they cannot afford it, nor should any student be forced to take on excessive loans in order to earn a college degree.”

Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for teachers or other service-minded professionals to incur jaw-dropping amounts of student loan debt to pursue their career dreams. In the U.S., student loan debt has topped $1.3 trillion—and the total is increasing at a rate of $3,500 a minute. The average borrower owes nearly $30,000, and the average borrower with a graduate degree owes nearly $60,000.

For Gonzalez, whose career dream is to be a high school teacher, that $160,000 means that she could be spending her entire teacher paycheck on loan repayment, “and living at home, and working three jobs,” she predicts, “just because I want a good education and to become a teacher.”

But Gonzalez is fighting back—and so are tens of thousands of other NEA members through NEA’s Degrees Not Debt campaign. Through organized efforts on campuses, and on Capitol Hill, too, NEA Student members are calling for all Americans to be able to fairly access an affordable higher education.

“I really want to go into secondary education,” says Gonzalez. “The fact that teachers are so grossly underpaid, or the fact that college is so grossly expensive, isn’t going to change my career decision.

“But it does make me want to work on this campaign.”

From Lansing, Mich. to Washington, D.C.

At Michigan State, and on many other campuses from Arizona to Pennsylvania, NEA Student members are petitioning college presidents to support President Barack Obama’s Student Bill of Rights (see sidebar) and also to provide quality exit counseling to graduating students about their loans, so that students can learn about income-driven repayment programs, federal public service loan forgiveness programs, and more.

“People are coming up to us and saying, ‘Oh yeah, who wouldn’t want to sign this?’” Gonzalez says.

“There are students who are absolutely brilliant who cannot achieve a higher education simply because of how expensive it has become,” writes Sara Galik, a Michigan State University student, in a published letter to the Lansing State Journal. “The Degrees Not Debt campaign, happening at Michigan State University this fall, is bringing attention to this issue and urging legislators to look at the growing problem of student debt. This is a nationwide problem and needs to be addressed.”

NEA Student members have taken their case to Capitol Hill, where lawmakers will work on the next Higher Education Act (HEA)—the federal law that includes funding for Pell Grants, federal student loans, and more.

In October, first-year teacher Jess Sanchez, past president of the Student California Teachers Association, testified to a U.S. Senate panel about the effects of student debt, and urged them to take specific actions to make higher education more affordable. Sanchez holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from California Student University (CSU) San Bernadino, and the single father owes $91,000.

Sanchez told senators that he has been turned down for a mortgage and a car loan because of the debt, which he estimates will take him about 25 years to pay back. He urged them to take the opportunity of HEA reauthorization to expand Pell Grants and other need-based aid, to give students the opportunity to refinance their loans at lower interest rates, and to expand public service loan forgiveness programs.

“We owe it to our children, and to their children, to make the dream of a college education an affordable reality for everyone,” Sanchez told senators. “I came here today hoping that you will help make that possible.

Victory Can Be Ours!

The many voices of NEA Student members can make a difference— in fact, it already has. Last fall, after hearing from thousands of NEA members about problems with private student lenders, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced it will develop the first-ever industry-wide standards for student loan servicing companies.

These new regulations will cover the servicing of all public and private student loans, so that all 41 million borrowers in the U.S. can know what to expect from their loan servicer and get help when they need it. These actions were prompted, CFPB noted, by the many, many problems that NEA members and others brought to their attention over the summer, including the bad information often given to borrowers.

“This represents another victory in correcting the problem of excessive student loan debt,” said Mark F. Smith, NEA’s senior policy analyst for higher education.

Also, thanks to Degrees Not Debt and other advocates for student borrowers, more Americans then ever are learning about and enrolling in income-driven repayment programs, which limit their monthly payments to manageable levels. Participation increased 50 percent over 2015, with federal servicers enrolling, on average, more than 5,000 borrowers a day in income-driven plans.

“I am not the first person in this situation, incurring this crazy amount of debt, and I won’t be the last,” says Gonzalez. “But I am really passionate about this campaign and what we can do to make a difference.”

Two Things For You to Do Right Now!

Learn more about NEA’s Degrees Not Debt campaign at

Sign the NEA petition for a Higher Education Act that puts the interests of students first at

Student Bill of Rights

NEA’s Degrees Not Debt campaign has endorsed President Barack Obama’s Student Aid Bill of Rights, which has four central tenets.

Every U.S. student should:

  • Have access to a high-quality, affordable higher education.
  • Be able to easily find the resources they need to pay for college.
  • Be able to choose an affordable repayment plan for student loans.
  • Receive quality customer service, reliable information, and fair treatment when repaying loans.

Get Involved!

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

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