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Press Release

“Teacher penalty” drowns educators with debt before they even enter the classroom, new report finds

--First-of-its-kind research finds disproportionate debt for educators of color, significant debt regardless of time in profession. --PSLF program still denying 98% of qualified applicants
Published: 07/27/2021

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                     CONTACT: Richard Allen Smith

July 27, 2021                                                                             202-716-6461, [email protected]



WASHINGTON —The National Education Association, America’s largest labor union, today released first-of-its-kind research into the impact of mountains of student debt held by educators, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the financial struggle for education workers. The study shows that outstanding student loans are a significant hinderance to the financial lives of all educators, regardless of years of experience. The report also found large disparities in amounts borrowed and owed for educators of color, particularly Black educators. NEA President Becky Pringle provided the following statement.


“No matter what we look like, where we live, or what’s in our wallets, all of us should be able to pursue our dreams at an affordable college or university,” Pringle said. “But today, the cost of college imposes a ‘teacher penalty’ on educators, saddling them with a lifetime of debt before they even enter the classroom. This illuminating research highlights the urgent need for the Department of Education to immediately forgive all outstanding debt for educators with 10 or more years of experience as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program was designed to do.”

The new report presents the results of a 2020 NEA survey of educators working in pre-K–12 and higher education institutions regarding student loan debt. It is the first research of its kind with new insights into the physical, mental and financial health of educators.  In line with research on student loan debt within the general population, the study found that student loans play a significant role in the financial lives of many educators and have disproportionate impacts on specific subgroups.

The Department of Education’s PSLF Program is supposed to forgive the student debt of public service workers—such as educators, fire fighters, health care professionals, and librarians—who have served their communities while making consistent payments on their student debt for ten years.  Yet only a tiny fraction of these workers have had their student debt forgiven. Educators, nurses, firefighters, and all of our public service workers have held us together during the pandemic. Now it’s time for the federal government to keep its promise to them.


Important findings within the report include:


  • About three-fifths (59%) of educators with unpaid loans reported that the debt had a bearing on their ability to build up their emergency savings and four in 10 said that paying off their student loans impacted their mental, emotional, and/or physical well-being. 


  • Black educators took on significantly more debt than other racial/ethnic groups, with an average initial total of $68,300 among those who took out loans, compared to $54,300 for White educators and $56,400 for Latin(o/a/x), Hispanic, and Chican(o/a/x) educators. Sixteen percent of Black educators who used student loans borrowed $105,000 or more compared to 11 percent of White educators.


  • Black educators with unpaid student loans also had the highest average current debt at $71,600, over $13,000 more than White educators and $20,000 more than Latin(o/a/x), Hispanic, and Chican(o/a/x) educators. This high average is due in part to nearly one in five Black educators with unpaid debt carrying a current balance of at least $105,000. 


  • Over a quarter of educators ages 61 and up who took out student loans still have a balance, and within that group, more than a third have $45,000 or more left to pay off.


  • Two-thirds of educators ages 61 and up with unpaid student loans report that paying down their debt has affected their ability to save for retirement. Even half of the youngest educators— those ages 18–35—said that this was a predicament for them.



NEA is making principals and experts on student debt available for interview regarding this report. Requests can be sent to Richard Allen Smith, NEA Communications, at [email protected].





The National Education Association is the nation’s largest professional employee organization, representing more than 3 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators and students preparing to become teachers. Learn more at

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.