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Press Release

Student Debt: A Growing Crisis for Educators

Public Service Loan Forgiveness promised educators loan forgiveness after 10 years of service; it’s long past time to keep that promise, NEA President Becky Pringle urges
Published: 06/23/2021

Remarks as prepared by NEA President Becky Pringle to the Department of Education on the public hearings on student loan cancellation and other issues related to student loan repayment:

As President of the National Education Association, I am honored to represent more than 3 million teachers and education support professionals throughout the nation—from pre-K to public colleges—and to fight for the students we serve.

Our educators are counting on this Department of Education to address the myriad higher education problems that were overlooked or intentionally made worse by the last Administration.

But today, I want to focus your attention on the problem of student debt for educators. Our right to learn, grow, and thrive, should be based on how big we dream and how hard we work—not the size of our family’s bank accounts.

Yet, the Department of Education and the private loan servicers that manage the vast federal student debt system have failed our educators. The system has worked very well for the banks who service student loans—they have received billions from the Department of Education just over the past decade—but not the students.

Today, 45 percent of all current educators have had to take on student debt to become educators, and those who still have student debt carry more than $58,000. An astounding 14 percent of educators have loan balances over $105,000.

Student debt is worse for young educators. Because of the skyrocketing costs of higher education, they borrow at much higher rates than previous generations. They owe more. They pay longer. Sixty-five percent of educators ages 18-35 have taken out student loans and 4 in 10 have incurred more than $65,000 in debt. These numbers are significantly higher than they were just a generation ago. This reality keeps too many talented young people out of the profession and pushes out those who do enter it.

Student debt disproportionately burdens educators of color, especially Black educators. Because of structural racism’s compounding inequities—in housing, education, credit, employment, and more—Black families have significantly less family wealth, which means young Black borrowers who want to become educators borrow more often, at higher levels, and take much longer to shed their debt. Today, the average Black educator with student debt owes more than $70,000. One in five Black educators owe more than $100,000. This reality keeps too many talented young aspiring educators of color out of the profession and pushes out those who do enter it.

Student debt even harms our mid- and late-career educators. Today, student debt has become a generational burden. I know retired educators who are still saddled with their own student debt as well as the debt they accrued in supporting their own children’s higher education. Nearly 10 percent of mid- to late-career educators owe more than $100,000 in student debt.

It was not supposed to be this way. In 2007, Congress passed the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, promising to forgive the student debt of educators who serve their communities for 10 years. That promise drew educators into the profession, and for 14 years, educators have been counting on it. But since 2017, when the first public service workers should have become eligible for forgiveness, 98 percent of applicants have been denied for forgiveness. And recent data from this Department of Education shows that 98 percent of applicants continue to be denied. Of those denied, half would be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness but for servicer malfeasance and needless technicalities in the program. Meanwhile, many more educators have never bothered to apply—they have simply given up because the system is so brokenNEA has done everything we can to help educators navigate this byzantine and unfair system. We have student debt workshops, webinars, and trainings; and we even provide individualized support for every single NEA member. I am proud that we were able to help Sean Manes, a music teacher in New Jersey, cancel over $100,000 in student debt. But it took a FOIA request, the help of a U.S. Senator, a team of NEA lawyers, and the threat of a lawsuit to get the relief Sean was entitled to.

Unfortunately, Sean’s story is the exception that demonstrates just how broken this system has become. We’ve also tried to help James Stewart, a high school biology teacher from Maryland. James has been paying student loans for more than 18 years. His debt should have been forgiven under PSLF years ago. We have done everything we can to help. But because of needless technicalities and servicer misconduct, he has been deprived of the forgiveness he was promised. There are so many others like James. Now, Sean and James and tens of thousands of other NEA members have become activists demanding change.

PSLF regulatory reform needs to be a very high priority for this Administration so that the program works right going forward. But before reforms, there must first be recompense. That is why NEA has led a coalition of labor unions representing more than 10 million public service workers, plus hundreds of other community groups, calling on the Department to keep the promise of PSLF and cancel the debt of public service workers who have served their communities for 10 years or more.

No technicalities, no loopholes, just cancel the debt.

That’s what educators and other public service workers were promised, and that’s what they deserve. Administrative forgiveness would lift educators, nurses, social workers, firefighters, and more—and the communities they serve. It would close the racial and gender wealth gaps. It is simply the right thing to do.

We need to press the reset button, and then meaningful reforms can take place to ensure that the program is working in the manner it was intended.

This problem is all the more urgent because federal student loan payments are set to resume in October. Just as educators start to get their schools, their students, and their communities back into rhythm this fall, they will begin to receive the student debt bills. And then, for too many who cannot afford the payments, next will come the delinquency notices, and ultimately, default notices.

So let me be clear: 1. The Department should continue the payment pause until PSLF reform occurs. 2. PSLF reform must include administrative debt cancellation for all public service workers who have served their communities for 10 years. 3. Once the cancellation occurs, PSLF regulatory reforms should be put in place to ensure that PSLF finally works and keeps its promise going forward.

NEA, and I as its president, are eager to assist you in the vital work before us.

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National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.