Skyrocketing student loan debt is a major contributor to Michigan’s educator shortage crisis. Addressing college affordability is a critical step to ensure we have enough teachers and staff to meet student needs.
Student debt has forced many talented young teachers out of Michigan classrooms as they struggle to make ends meet while making large monthly loan payments on some of the nation’s lowest starting salaries. Recent National Education Association rankings show Michigan as 41st among states with an average starting teacher salary of $37,549.
In the last decade, one in five new teachers has left the profession within the first five years — many because of low starting salaries and high student loan debt. At the same time, teacher education programs have seen a precipitous drop in enrollment, with the number of Michigan college students preparing to become teachers plunging 70% in eight years.
The debt numbers among educators are staggering. In a 2020 national survey of educators, NEA found:
- Nearly half — 45% — had taken out student loans to fund their education, with an average total debt of $55,800.
- 14% of educators with unpaid student loans have a current balance of $105,000 or higher.
- 65% of educators under age 35 needed to take out loans to pay for their education, versus only 27% of educators now over 61.
- Black educators reported significantly higher debt than their white counterparts, with an average initial debt of $68,300.
The result is that young teachers and teachers of color — those we desperately need to retain in our classrooms — are most likely to leave the profession. The survey also showed that high student loan debt negatively affected educators making major life decisions such as buying a home, getting married, and starting a family.
What’s driving these numbers? Spectacular disinvestment in higher education over the past several decades at both the state and national level has dramatically shifted the cost of higher education from institutions to students and families. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the total cost of higher education (tuition, fees, room and board) increased 28% in just one decade from 2008-09 to 2018-11.
For those seeking to alleviate Michigan’s severe educator shortage, addressing student loan debt is a good place to start.
Earlier this summer, Michigan House Democrats introduced their “Respecting Educators” plan. Two bills in that package address student loan debt relief. House Bill 5099, introduced by Rep. Darren Camilleri, (D-Trenton), himself a former teacher, creates a student loan forgiveness program for current teachers providing up to $300 per month in student loan debt relief as long as they remain in the profession. House Bill 5100, sponsored by Rep. Brenda Carter (D-Pontiac), would amend the tax code to make these student loan payments tax free. These legislative efforts, if enacted, would significantly reduce the burden of student loan debt on early-career and aspiring educators.
Another potential way to reduce student loan debt on prospective teachers would be providing compensation for student teachers. The fifth-year internship model in place at many colleges and universities requires students to pay tuition while student teaching — without pay. This creates a double financial burden — one that is especially difficult on low-income students. The cost to complete teacher preparation programs typically exceeds annual salaries for first-year teachers and greatly increases their student loan debt.
At a time when Michigan is facing a severe educator shortage, made only worse by a global pandemic, changes must be made to reduce student loan debt so that we can retain educators and remove a major obstacle that prevents many college students from even considering a career in the classroom.
Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Ray Curry, Teamsters President James Hoffa and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.