Paying Back… or Giving Back?
Rising college costs put teaching dreams at risk. When I meet new teachers, they often tell me about the anxiety they feel as they prepare to begin their careers, and their concerns about translating their academic knowledge to a "real world" environment. I can relate to those feelings. They are familiar to anyone who has ever stepped in front of a classroom.
Today, however, many young teachers also face an additional source of worry: crushing debt from student loans.
People have long borrowed money to invest in their education, but something has changed in the past decade. Federal and state governments have reduced support for higher education, causing tuition and fees to soar while student aid lagged far behind. As a result, more students are leaving college with a heavy cloud of debt hanging over their heads.
These clouds cast a heavy shadow over the education profession. Almost one-fourth of all graduates from public universities will owe too much in student loans to repay on a starting teacher's salary. The reality is that those numbers are driving bright minds away from our profession at a time when we need to be attracting them.
We teachers have always made financial sacrifices to do the work we love, but nobody should be forced into unmanageable debt. If we want to produce the qualified and motivated teachers our children deserve, we must do a better job of making college affordable for educators.
The soaring cost of higher education is not only keeping many potential teachers out of the classroom, it is also slamming the door of opportunity in the faces of young Americans who can't find the means to pursue their dreams.
In 2002, more than 400,000 qualified students were unable to attend a four-year school because they couldn't afford it. Over the next decade, the high cost of college will likely prevent millions of high school graduates from continuing their education. This is happening at a time when college is becoming more important than ever.
It's wrong to let our students' dreams be dictated by dollars. So Team NEA is working to make the situation right.
Congress made a good start on college affordability last year by passing a law that increased Pell Grants for low-income students and reduced the amount of interest that can be charged on subsidized student loans. NEA's Student Program helped lead the fight for passage of this bill. Now we must all keep up the pressure on Congress and state legislatures.
College tuition costs must be kept as low as possible. Grants for low-income students must be increased. And private lenders must not be allowed to take advantage of students who are trying to prepare themselves for the future.
Finally, we must look at some of the existing limited programs that offer loan forgiveness for educators, and we must expand those programs or features that work the best.
We must provide a path for motivated and intelligent young people to enter the teaching profession without mortgaging their future. And we must keep the door of opportunity open for every student who is willing to work hard. If we fail to address this challenge, we will be failing our nation's public school students and all they represent for the future.
NEA President Reg Weaver
Photo: Patricia McDonnell/NEA