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My Debt, My Life

NEA members are struggling with student loan debt of unprecedented proportions. Here's why it matters, even if your college days (and bills) are a thing of the past.

By Cynthia Kopkowski

Funny thing about educators, they're good at math. Some of them even teach it. So they know that if they make $28,000 a year and owe $15,000 on student loans, they're in big trouble.

Woodrow Price, 25
Fifth-grade teacher

Port Gibson, Mississippi

$28,000 in Student Loan Debt
I enrolled in grad school to defer my student loans. When you first enroll and fill out the forms, you really just care about getting your tuition and fees paid for. But once you start realizing how much you're going to have to pay back, it doesn't feel the same anymore. There was a time when I thought about changing my major, but I decided to stick it out. Still, when I think about these loans, I think about the burden on my family. I'm borrowing my mother's car; she's sacrificing her vehicle. I'm living somewhere I don't really want to live. There are a lot of things I really want to do but can't. I'd like to travel.
That's the kind of arithmetic that a growing number of them, especially new teachers and current education majors, are agonizing over as college costs balloon and salaries stagnate. Many young people, increasingly savvy about their future income-to-debt ratio, are making decisions about careers based on the reality of having to repay loans. So at a time when there is a great need for qualified teachers, young people are discouraged from entering the profession.

Today, two-thirds of four-year college graduates leave with student loan debt, compared with less than a third just 10 years ago, according to the State Public Interest Research Group's Higher Education Project. And they carry twice as much debt as they did 10 years ago, too.

"We absolutely see a chilling effect," on public service professions, says Robert Shireman, director of the Project on Student Debt. "Students are setting their sights on the future and saying, 'I can't afford to be a teacher or a social worker.'"

Read what our members are saying about this story.

Estimates by the research group found that 23 percent of public college graduates leave school with too much debt to manageably repay their loans on a starting teacher's salary. It jumps even higher for students leaving private colleges. Because of the cost of living and teacher salaries, graduates are in the worst shape with unmanageable debt in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Vermont, Utah, Maine, South Dakota, Montana, Connecticut, and Minnesota.

After completing his undergraduate career at Alabama A&M University, Anthony Daniels owed more in loans than he would make as a starting teacher. In part to defer the loans, and hoping to improve his salary prospects, he went to graduate school. Now he's $58,000 in debt and considering walking away from teaching in favor of law school. "Unfortunately my situation is not unique," says Daniels, the chair of NEA's Student Program. "In fact, it is becoming the norm. We are losing too many qualified teachers because of student loans. It's not just a burden, it's a barrier."

How Did We Get Here?

There is no "in my day, we walked five miles uphill in the snow to get to school" corollary for what's happening to today's college graduates. "Things are different for this generation compared to the last," says Shireman. "People say, 'Oh, I got through college and managed to pay,' but that's just not the case anymore because the costs are growing so significantly."

Since 1994, debt levels for graduating seniors more than doubled to $19,200, according to the Public Interest Research Group. (For 8 percent of graduates, their loans top a whopping $40,000.) Factoring in inflation, the average student debt burden in 2004 was almost 60 percent higher than in 1994.

Ashley Davis, 26
Student Member

University of Alabama - Birmingham
$15,000 in Student Loan Debt

My education is valuable to me; it will help me become the type of teacher I'd want teaching my daughter. But I'm a single mother and have to finance my education somehow. I started taking out loans about a year and a half ago. Knowing that I'm going into a profession that pays so little is very overwhelming. I want a new home but it doesn't look like it's in my future. The debt is taking away from money I could be spending on my daughter. I need a new car. Mine has 206,000 miles on it and I don't know how much longer it will last. But I have a love for children and education, and I knew from the very beginning I'm not doing this for the pay. At the same time, it's very scary knowing that I'm going to owe a lot more than I can make.

Black and Hispanic college graduates are hit even harder than their White counterparts, according to the Project on Student Debt. Black graduates have a higher amount of student loan debt and more of them have debt than White graduates. The number of Hispanic students with debt is on par with Whites, but they carry more debt.

Among NEA members specifically, a majority of those who have been teaching less than four years have student loan debt, according to a 2006 NEA Member Benefits poll. For half of that group, the bill totals more than $15,000.

Why did this become, as one author dubbed it, "Generation Debt"?

For starters, tuition costs are rising faster than inflation—they've ballooned 42 percent in the past five years (and inflation is outpacing teacher salaries, too). That's been the trend for nearly two decades. And wages have stalled. In 2006, the median U.S. household income dropped 2 percent. Consider that families are increasingly squeezed by health care and housing costs. Then factor in that the previous Congress hiked interest rates on student loans and cut $12 billion from the Federal Student Aid program. At the same time, today's economy dictates that one needs more than a high school diploma to join the middle class. College graduates earn $1 million more during their lifetime than those without a degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. "So it's becoming increasingly important and increasingly expensive," to pursue higher education, says Shireman.

When it's time to find the money, students are more and more often turning to private lenders who loan money freely but often on less-favorable terms than government loans. A decade ago, private lenders were responsible for only 5 percent of the education loan dollars in use. Now they comprise 20 percent and it's become a $17.3 billion market. Sallie Mae, the largest private lender in operation, reported $1 billion in profits last year. At one online retailer, 20 bucks buys a T-shirt that states in bold, black letters, "Property of Sallie Mae."

Two Generations of Debt

 Zoua Xiong, 28
Student Member

University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee
$28,000 in Student Loan Debt
$75,000 in Household Student Loan Debt
My husband and I are both students. He's been taking a loan out every year. He only qualified for financial aid after we got married and had our son. Seventy-five thousand dollars—this is how much we're going to owe. We're hoping that if we suffer a little now, we'll be better off down the line. When we get done with school we want to buy a house, but I think we're going to have problems. With our student loans out and credit card bills, we might not have that chance.
Some households would need two of those T-shirts. As career-changers enter the profession from other fields and current teachers go back to school for master's degrees in the hopes of eking out a better salary, their bills are mounting, too.

Susan Knable, a 46-year-old special education teacher in Collins, Ohio, has $51,000 in student loan debt. She accrued it between 1990 and 2000 while working to get her undergraduate and master's degrees. Living in a rental apartment, Knable—a divorced mother of four—says she would probably be able to own a home by now if it weren't for her loans, which she likens to a 20-year mortgage. Each month, one of her paychecks goes to rent and bills. The second paycheck goes to the student loan. "I have a personal goal to get rid of that debt by 50, but I don't know if I'll make it," she says. "I might extend it to 52." Her children have now graduated and they, too, have loans. But, she points out, when her son finished college and went into the Air Force, his starting salary as a second lieutenant was a figure she didn't see until her eighth year of teaching.

Fellow Ohioan Terri Crothers, a 44-year-old art teacher in Gallipolis, carries $50,000 in student loan debt, which she started accumulating in 1996 after switching careers. That was the amount that she came up short even after investing $20,000 of her own savings in her schooling. Like many teachers who have debt but have been working for a number of years, Crothers is left out of legislation that offers loan forgiveness. Provisions that allow for cancellation of Perkins and Stafford loans for teachers working in low-income schools are limited and available only to those who got the government loans on or after October 1, 1998. Many people don't understand that "a lot of the legislation is focused on people about to come out of school," Crothers says. "But I'm in a situation where my kid has braces, we've got a mortgage, and I've got student loan debt."

Anthony Daniels, 25
Student Member

Alabama A&M University
$58,000 in Student Loan Debt
I'm having second thoughts about going into teaching. How am I going to afford to have a family? Buy a house? My federal loan payment is $326 a month. My private loan payment, after I consolidated, is $300. Had I not consolidated, it would have been $600 or $700 a month. That's on a $34,000 salary. I would be living on the street at that amount. Along with my car payment and auto insurance, I was dropped from my parents' health insurance. It all adds up. It's forcing me to want to go to law school more and more.
On her salary, something has to give, and it's the student loans. Crothers admits that she is six months behind in her payments, a delinquency that keeps her awake some nights, wondering how she will ever catch up. "We're teachers and we're providing a public service," she says. "Since our pay certainly isn't keeping up, we could use help on this."

Even members who aren't personally hampered by student load debt will feel its effects. Lobbying strength at the bargaining table and in legislative halls is sapped when young members aren't involved because they're overwhelmed by student loans. Worse, their debt makes them susceptible to viewing union membership as a non-essential expense. Mike Langyel, a high school teacher in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and a veteran member of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association bargaining team, sees the corrosive effect on union advocacy in his area.

"These young people are really getting killed on student loans," says Langyel, who points out that many of his young colleagues work second jobs to stay afloat. "To try to get them involved in union activities when they are struggling with student loan debt isn't going to work." Teachers are also pressured to go back to school for advanced degrees to get more money, Langyel says, meaning higher turnover on school staffs and deepening debt for them. Everyone wants their schools packed with highly qualified teachers, but when it comes to financing those advanced degrees, educators are on their own.

Observing the bind his younger colleagues are in, he thinks, "this is going to be a tough life for them."

Fighting on the Hill to Lower the Bill

Jenna Miller, 21
Student Member
Waldorf College Forest City, Iowa
$30,000 in Student Loan Debt
I was lucky to get some scholarships, but I've still got a little more than $30,000 in debt. I'm responsible for $17,088 and my parents are covering the remaining $13,000. I'm growing concerned about next semester. I'll be student teaching, which means I can't hold another job and I have bills to cover and car payments to make. Books alone are expensive. So I'll probably have to take out another loan to cover me while I'm student teaching. I miss being able to go out to eat or go to a movie, the simple things that add up each week. But I have such a deep passion for teaching kids and seeing their faces light up when they learn something new. I will love being a part of that. My dad is a teacher and hearing his stories is a big part of why I want to teach.
Assistance for future students came this past summer with the passage of legislation providing $20 billion to increase grant aid for low-income students and cut subsidies to student loan companies. The new law increases the Pell Grant program to $4,800 next year (and $5,400 by 2012) by replacing the $12 billion cut previously. Also, it slashes in half the interest rates on subsidized student loans.

This College Cost Reduction and Access Act is a sweeping piece of legislation being compared to the G.I. Bill. Student lenders fought the reform vehemently. Left out of the final law—thanks in part to pressure on legislators by NEA members mobilized by the Association's "College Affordability Concerns Me" campaign—was a troubling amendment that would have given student loan companies more than $4 billion at the expense of the grant aid to students.

But the work isn't over. NEA is redoubling its efforts to push for a $40,000 starting salary for all teachers, says Bill Raabe, director of NEA Collective Bargaining and Member Advocacy. "We have a real opportunity to help engage younger members," he says. "We can show them that involvement with the Association will help them help themselves to improve salaries to, in turn, pay off those loans."

And NEA continues to advocate for legislation that will make it easier to consolidate loans. Daniels, a leader in the affordability campaign, also calls on educators to be careful observers of what candidates in the 2008 races have to say about making college more affordable. If they say nothing, or give unsatisfactory answers, they must be pushed by grassroots activism, Daniels says. "We must hold these people accountable." He'll be visiting college campuses this year, urging students to register to vote and to cast their vote based on their education priorities. "We're going to make this a turnout issue," vows Daniels.


Kristi Uzzo, 23
Second-Grade Teacher

Oswego, Illinois
$15,000 in Student Loan Debt
My grandparents set up a college fund for me. I thought that was going to be enough, but because of the tuition increase it ended up not even being enough for four years. Everyone wants good teachers to educate our youth and yet we're leaving educators with so much debt. I'm seeing people who could be really great teachers, but because of the debt they've left the field. Now that I'm officially on my own, I'm living paycheck to paycheck. I wouldn't be able to afford a mortgage. With groceries and all of my bills and insurance it's kind of scary. And I'm not even supporting a family. My district is really encouraging us to go back for our master's because the first-year teacher pay isn't all that great. A lot of people have expressed concerns about getting through it financially.
Despite all the financial obstacles facing those with student loans, they are optimistic about their work. "I see in our young teachers a real goodness," says Milwaukee's Langyel. "They are really committed and they're really caring. The big challenge for us is to help them survive."

A little help is all Kristi Uzzo, an earnest suburban Chicago teacher, is asking for as she begins her career with a $37,000 salary and a $15,000 student-loan debt. "If you really love the profession, you'll find a way to make it work," says Uzzo, who has wanted to teach since second grade—the very grade she teaches now. "I'm committed to budgeting my money and making it work."

Wouldn't it be nice if she didn't have to "make it work" just to be able to do her work?

Your Debt, Your Life

The Conversation Doesn't End HereAlmost immediately after we posted a query seeking teachers' student loan debt horror stories in our online forum, members began posting their amounts. $8,500 here, $169,000 there.

The amounts are staggering. A few examples:

"Finally, someone that's in the same boat....I currently owe $90,000+ in student loans. I went back to school when I suddenly found myself without a spouse and three children to support. Because I didn't have a way of paying for the education I so desperately wanted, I had to apply for student loans." — Lois Johnson

"I'm a junior in college majoring in elementary education. My current student loan debt is about $20K, and will be higher by the time I graduate. I'm terrified at the thought that when I start my new teaching career I won't be able to afford the payments on my student loans. I will not have the comforts that most college graduates can afford. Karen Mcleroy

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