THE BLOG
11/18/2014 01:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Degrees Not Debt

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How do you tell a promising student with the heart and mind to be a fantastic teacher that she can't afford to join us in the world's best profession?

How do you explain that the devastating combination of student debt (so big!) and teacher pay (so not big!) means she should probably walk across campus and join up with the computer scientists, or maybe the geologists, to better shoulder the tens of thousands of dollars in student debt dumped on poor and middle-class Americans?

When I went to the University of Utah so many years ago (okay, not that many!) I borrowed from the federal government, and when I graduated I might have owed $4,000, maybe $5,000. I think my total tuition was $168 per term. Now a first-year student at that same "public" university pays more than $1,000 per CREDIT, and the price of just a single year's tuition is approaching $20,000.

And that's the in-state rate!

As president of the National Education Association, this terrifies me. I look into my crystal ball of obvious issues and I see classrooms without teachers. I see students of color, students whose parents don't make a million dollars a year (and there are lots of these students out there!) being unable to afford to follow me into the greatest profession on Earth -- a profession, by the way, that our democracy, our economy, and our very health depends upon.

Especially now, as the U.S. becomes more diverse, and income inequality grows, we need to make sure all Americans have a fair shot at higher education.

That's why, alongside tens of thousands of NEA members from every corner of the nation, I have signed NEA's Degrees Not Debt campaign pledge and am working to bring awareness and solutions to the crisis of student debt. Last year, seven out of 10 college students graduated with student debt, owing an average $30,000 each. And we know NEA members who owe much, much more.

At these levels, student debt isn't just a burden anymore. It's become a barrier to higher education, and I don't think that's right. I don't believe that those of us with social justice in our hearts should need millions of dollars in our pockets to become public school teachers.

We can help Brittany and Lauren, and all the other future and current educators of the U.S. There are solutions to the student debt crisis! Income-driven loan-repayment programs, like "Pay as You Earn," make it possible for new teachers to pay down their students loans each month -- and also have enough money to cover their rent, pack a lunch, and buy the supplies they need for those great hands-on classroom lessons.

And loan forgiveness programs for those who work in public service, like our teachers, classroom aides, social workers, public librarians, police officers, etc., make it possible for those people who work so hard for society's betterment (but not much pay!) to someday buy their own homes -- or even send their own children to college.

Finally, the long game is to pressure state legislatures and governors to reverse the 25-year slide in support for public colleges and universities. The cuts have been deep and students who worked hard in high school and are ready to begin preparing for a bright future are slapped with the reality of a price out of control. It's not like buying a car. I could choose to buy a luxury sports car or a used car or take the bus... but if I want to be a doctor or an accountant or a teacher, I need a college degree. And that means I have to find a way to pay the price. It also means that all of us have to demand that state lawmakers and governors reverse the the de-investment in state higher ed.

It means that all of us have to demand that Congress pass the bill to allow former students to refinance their high-priced student loans. It means we demand they increase Pell Grants for students in need and improve students' opportunity for loan forgiveness and restructure. There's so much we can do as activists.

Check out NEA's video about these issues and programs.

Despite the cost, a college degree is still a reliable ticket to the American Dream--to a good job, to home ownership, to entrepreneurship--and I believe all Americans, no matter their background, deserve a chance at it. If you agree, join me in taking the NEA's Degrees Not Debt pledge at nea.org/degreesnotdebt, and raise your voice alongside mine.

PHOTO GALLERY
States With Highest Average Student Debt - TICAS - Class Of 2012