Here’s one barrier to teaching we must break down!

We are getting toward the end of the spring semester, a time when many college sophomores will declare their majors and begin the journey toward careers.

I’m hoping that many of these sophomores will decide to become educators. If they do, they will discover that we have the best jobs on the planet; we get to teach, mentor, and nurture the scientists, leaders, and thinkers of the future. Nothing else compares to that, in my humble opinion.

But there’s a barrier standing in their way: the prohibitive cost of a college degree and teacher certification.

Way back when, I graduated from the University of Utah with maybe $4,000 or $5,000 in student-loan debt. But today, the average student who takes out loans graduates with more than $37,000 in debt. Given that burden, it is no surprise that many students are choosing careers that provide higher salaries, but in my view offer fewer rewards (after all, there’s nothing quite like the look of recognition when a sixth-grader who has been struggling with a lesson finally gets it).

The debt burden would be an albatross for anyone, but it is especially crushing for brand new teachers. They start out with an average annual salary of $36,141—a couple hundred dollars less than the average student-loan debt.

For African-Americans, Latinos, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans—the very teachers who are under-represented in schools even as classroom diversity increases—the debt is often higher. Compared to white students, these students enter college with an enormous disparity in family wealth, and therefore take out more loans.

NEA’s Degrees Not Debt campaign is one way we are speaking out for college affordability solutions. One of our priorities is enhancing the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which specifically targets those who choose careers in public service, such as educators.

Borrowers can qualify for loan forgiveness after making 120 on-time, full, separate monthly payments toward a federal Direct Loan while working full time in public service. Since faculty across campus programs work with teacher candidates to ensure that they are profession-ready and have demonstrated classroom readiness, we believe this program should include all faculty at colleges and universities, whether they are contingent or tenured/tenure-track.   

Even better than improving loan-forgiveness and repayment options, however, would be decreasing the need to borrow in the first place. The NEA is advocating an increase in grants to students and a reinstatement of year-round Pell grants. We are also advocating for more HOPE-type scholarships, modeled after the program Georgia created in the early ‘90s to provide tuition assistance to students who graduate from high school with a B average or better.  

NEA wants all students to have caring, qualified, and committed teachers who are fully trained and prepared to inspire and motivate them at every level. As today’s college sophomores are deciding on majors, we don’t want anything to keep them from joining us—including student debt. If you’re passionate about this issue, too, join me in advocating for Degrees Not Debt.

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