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NEA News

The Depth of Educators’ College Debt

The rising cost of higher education has led to mountains of student debt among college-educated Americans. New NEA research shows the pervasiveness of this problem among educators, young and old, White, Black, and Hispanic.
Person with a calculator and credit cards deals with financial issues.
Published: 07/27/2021

Key Takeaways

  1. Educators under the age of 35 are more likely to have taken out loans than educators over the age of 61—65 percent compared to 27 percent, NEA researchers found. However, many retired educators are still paying off their college debt.
  2. Black educators have significantly more student debt than White educators ($68,000 compared to $54,300, on average). One reason is Black families have less generational wealth. If their children want to become teachers, they're going to have to borrow more.
  3. The failure of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program—98 percent of applicants have been rejected—is making matters worse. With PSLF's promise to educators unfulfilled, the best and only hope for many educators is broad cancellation by the Biden administration.

Nearly half of all educators took out student loans to pay for college, and they still owe $58,700, on average. Among them, one in seven still owes more than $105,000, according to new NEA research.

Headshot of Alexis Brisby, Texas middle-school teacher
Alexis Brisby is a Texas middle-school teacher struggling with student debt, even after 15 years in the classroom.

These debt-burdened educators include Alexis Brisby, a Texas middle-school teacher since 2005, whose student-loan balance is a whopping $184,000—despite more than 15 years of monthly payments to the federal government’s loan servicers. They also include Illinois high-school teacher Christina Sukley, who still owes $120,000-plus after more than 10 years. 

“If I didn’t have this debt, the quality of my life would completely change,” says Brisby, who borrowed to pay for bachelor’s and master’s degrees at a Texas state university.

The widespread burden of educators’ college debt greatly impacts the way many educators live, NEA research found. Many are struggling to pay basic bills, including rent and food. 

Making matters worse, the promise of federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which is supposed to forgive educators' federal student loan balance after 10 years of payments, has gone unfulfilled. Ninety-eight percent of applicants have been rejected for reasons that often don’t make any sense to them.

At this point, for many educators and other public-service workers, the only hope is broad cancellation of federal student debt, an action that NEA leaders have strongly urged. 

“No technicalities, no loopholes, just cancel the debt,” NEA President Becky Pringle told Education Secretary Miguel Cardona earlier this year. “That what educators and other public-service workers were promised, and that’s what they deserve… It is simply the right thing to do.”

Educators are Drowning in Debt

The NEA report, entitled “Student Loan Debt Among Educators: A National Crisis,” also shows that:

  • Overall, educators borrowed an average of $55,800—and still owe an average $58,700 because of low salaries and hefty interest rates—but those amounts vary a lot, depending on age and race.
  • It’s worse for young educators. Because of rising tuition costs, two of out three educators under the age of 35 borrowed for college, compared to 27 percent of those 61 and up. Additionally, nearly half of young educators borrowed more than $65,000, compared to 13 percent of educators 61 and over. Nonetheless, many older educators are still struggling. In fact, more than a quarter of educators over the age of 61 still haven’t paid off their student debt. Of those, more than a third still owe at least $45,000.
  • This is a racial justice issue: Because many Black families have been excluded from typical forms of generational wealth due to racism in housing and banking practices, Black educators are much more likely to have borrowed—and to have borrowed more. More than half of Black educators (56%) took out student loans—with an average initial amount of $68,300—compared to 44 percent of White educators, who borrowed $54,300 on average. One in five of those Black educators still owe more than $105,000.
  • Among the various groups of education employees, education support professionals (ESPs), which include paraprofessionals and school administrative staff, are the most likely to have college debt. The highest unpaid balances, however, belong to higher-ed faculty. Nearly half of faculty (48%) with current college debt still owe more than $65,000.
  • NEA’s survey data also shows how this debt impacts the lives of educators. Among younger educators, more than a third said their debt has affected their ability to buy a home. Among older educators, more than two-thirds said it has made it harder to save for retirement. During the pandemic, educators with debt said it was harder for them to pay their credit card balances, make rent or mortgage or utility payments, cover their medical expenses, and buy food.
Student debt is an educator recruitment issue.
NEA's report found that no segment of educators is immune from the burden of student loan debt—and that this crisis affects their recruitment, retainment, and well-being.

This week, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren recognized NEA's findings, calling it a powerful report that "drives home what educators already know—student debt has become a national crisis." The numbers knocked her over, she said.

A failed promise

The answer to educators’ college debt was supposed to be the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. But the program has been plagued by mismanagement by the Department of Education’s loan servicers, which have grown rich on taxpayers’ dollars. Since 2017, when borrowers first became eligible for forgiveness, 98 percent of applicants have been denied.

In reality, it’s probably even worse. “Many more educators have never bothered to apply,” says Pringle, “they have simply given up because the system is so broken.”

Signs saying cancel student debt outside the White House.
NEA led a coalition of labor unions, representing more than 10 million public-service workers, asking the Biden administration to immediately cancel the cumulative debt of public-service workers who have served their communities for at least 10 years.

Sukley, who borrowed to pay her dual master's in special education and reading, consolidated her loans a few years ago, so that she could get into an income-based repayment program. She had no idea—because her loan servicer didn't tell her—that her pre-consolidation payments wouldn't count toward PSLF.

"I feel like I followed all the rules. I've been teaching for 10 years and paying for 10 years," says Sukley. "I consolidated to get my payment lower because—let's face it—I'm a teacher and I don't make a lot of money."

Brisby didn't even know about PSLF until 2017, she says—and the decade of payments she made before then, as much as $700 a month on a young teacher’s salary, aren’t eligible, she believes. “There were times I had to figure out, do I get the groceries I need for my two children and myself, or do I pay my student loans?”

It doesn’t have to be this way. In April, NEA led a coalition of labor unions, representing more than 10 million public-service workers, asking the Biden administration to immediately cancel the cumulative debt of public-service workers who have served their communities for at least 10 years. For all other borrowers, NEA has urged cancellation of $50,000 per borrower. After cancelation, the administration can focus on fixing PSLF, NEA urged.

"I didn't get into the teaching for the money. Let's be honest. I did it for the kids and because I love helping them learn," says Sukley, who teaches special education. But the debt is an enormous burden on her and her family—she'd love to take her 10-year-old twins on the first vacation of their lives—and she also worries about the implications for her profession.

"It breaks my heart to think about the students who might want to be teachers."

How You Can Help

We can make sure students don’t have to choose between basic living expenses or their education, and that families who do attend college are not forever weighed down by a lifetime of crushing student debt.  Join us: ask Secretary Cardona to cancel the student debt of longtime public service workers, and $50,000 in student debt for all other federal loans.

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.