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NEA News

How Student Debt Cancellation Would Help Educators Breathe

NEA and other advocacy organizations are urging President-elect Joe Biden to immediately cancel federal student loan debt as an act of racial justice and economic advocacy.
student debt
Published: November 29, 2020

Key Takeaways

  1. College debt is a particular burden for educators, who earn less than similarly educated professionals.
  2. Immediate cancellation would enable those educators to save for retirement, buy homes, invest in their children's college educations, or simply "breathe" without worry, they say.
  3. It also could help with recruitment and retention of teachers, a national crisis.

What would it mean to Las Vegas teacher Vicki Kriedel to have her college debt canceled? It would mean the 57-year-old, who has sacrificed her financial health for decades, could help her own children with their college costs, travel home more often to California to visit her elderly parents, and not feel sick when she thinks about the money she borrowed to pay to become a teacher.

 “It’s like a dark cloud that’s over me. I literally get panic attacks when I have to renew my income-based repayment plan each year because I’m afraid it’s going to go up,” says Kriedel, who has worked in public schools for more than 17 years and also serves as her local union president.

 Across the nation, Americans owe a collective $1.7 trillion in student debt, a number that far exceeds credit card debt or home mortgages. For teachers, who are paid less than similarly educated professionals, it’s a particular burden, and it’s especially severe for teachers of color who often borrow more to pay for college. Debt cancellation would honor the decades of financial sacrifice that educators make to serve students, and also help to recruit and retain future teachers into the profession, educators say.

 “Even before COVID, there were 40 percent fewer people graduating from teacher education programs,” notes Kriedel, who told her own children to pick a different career path. “If we could get some relief, it would make such a difference,” she says—not just to her, but to the teaching profession as a whole.

For Kriedel and other educators, immediate relief could be provided through federal student debt cancellation, an option available to President-elect Joe Biden on the first day of his new administration. This week, more than 235 civil rights, health, student advocacy, and labor organizations, including the National Education Association, sent a letter to Biden, asking him to do exactly that.

Later, when NEA asked its Twitter followers what "student debt forgiveness would mean to you," the responses poured in. "Everything. Absolutely everything," wrote Emily Neal, a St. Louis community college professor.

My husband and I could finally buy a home, writes one teacher. "Save for retirement" and "Buy a car!" write others.

"My mom could finally retire," wrote Nickie French, a Kentucky teacher whose 65-year-old mother still helps pay French's student loan payments.

"Breathe," wrote Indiana teacher Tisha Bowman-Ashby.

What is Cancellation?

Cancellation of federal student loan debt—that is the money that students borrowed from the federal government to pay their tuition—would stimulate the economy, promote racial justice, and help Americans out of the pandemic’s economic depression, advocates said.

“Before the COVID-19 public health crisis began, student debt was already a drag on the national economy, weighing heaviest on Black and Latinx communities, as well as women,” says the letter. “To minimize the harm to the next generation and help narrow the racial and gender wealth gaps, bold and immediate action is needed to protect student loan borrowers, including Parent PLUS borrowers, by cancelling existing debt.”

In September, U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced a resolution, which was joined by 11 senators, asking the next president to use his presidential authority to immediately cancel, through an executive action, up to $50,000 in federal student debt for every borrower.

They also urged the next president to insulate borrowers from any tax consequences of cancellation.

“Education is supposed to be a ladder up, but for too many the burden of student debt has become an anchor holding them down,” said Schumer.

 Last week, Warren wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post saying debt cancellation would be “the single most effective executive action available to provide massive consumer-driver stimulus.”

Agrees Kriedel: “I’d spend more money if I had it!”

“Paying Off the Past”

Kriedel borrowed to finance her college education while simultaneously raising her children as a single parent — and today, she still owes “a horrifying amount,” she says. (In some parts of the country, you could buy a house with what she owes.) Even on an income-based repayment program, she has to pay nearly $700 a month.

Federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) is one answer for educators—but it can be hard to navigate and borrowers must have specific kinds of loans to qualify. While some teachers have been able to successfully earn (PSLF), most have not. Only 2,860 of the first 159,274 applicants for PSLF were approved, and state attorneys have taken notice.

[NEA has a free tool to help its members. Check out the NEA Student Debt Navigator to find out if you qualify for PSLF or other loan forgiveness programs, or if you could be saving money on an income-driven repayment program. The service will even help with the annual paperwork required for PSLF, and has experts available to talk by phone.]

French, a Kentucky music teacher, pays nearly $400 a month. It would be more, except that French’s mother also helps to pay on French’s student loans so that French, 34, can afford to pay her other bills. She and her fiancé, a U.S. Army sergeant, “live very humbly in a small, renovation-project home,” says French.

It’s fine for them, she says, “but my heart hurts for my children (ages 3 and 7). I really and truly struggle to save money for them, for their futures, because I’m still paying off my past.”

Young woman figuring out finances

Affordable Higher Education for All

By working together, 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.

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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.