Labor Voices: Address Michigan’s educator shortage by reducing student debt

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

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.

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5 thoughts on “Labor Voices: Address Michigan’s educator shortage by reducing student debt

  1. The other issue at hand for the teacher shortage is the MTTC, an exam required to pass to become a teacher in the State of Michigan. My daughter decided to become a teacher after getting her bachelor degree from Aquinas College. She began subbing her senior year while finishing her classes at AQ and loved it. They offer an accelerated program to become a teacher and she was ready to take that step. She has completed all that is required to become certified and yet still is trying to pass the MTTC (already taken it twice without passing). I’m trying to understand how she can pass the requirements (classes) necessary to become a teacher, but is unable to pass this exam. Her level of frustration is understandably high. And then there is cost to take the exam each time which surely is a benefit to the State. She was told by her advisor to not give up; that many are in the same predicament that she is in (trying to pass it; taking it multiple times). They have found that since the MTTC was changed to try to make it easier for those to pass; the pass rate has declined. We need teachers! We need teachers now!!! She is in her second year working at a parochial school. She loves working with her students. A test should not stand in the way of her being a teacher!!!

    I am a teacher. I have taught for 22 years. Taking/passing a test did NOT make me a good teacher. Being in the classroom, having quality professional development; learning from my collogues; etc… has made a highly effective teacher. Come on State of Michigan….solve this problem!!!

  2. I’m 38 and have been teaching for 10 years and I’m still 48k in education debt. So why is there only a focus to retain new young teachers? Michigan should make an effort to retain all teachers. And teachers who have stuck around before and during this pandemic should not be forgotten and should be rewarded with some financial relief as well.

  3. It would also help if we weren’t axing educators for not being able to complete 5 years worth of PD in their first 2 years of teaching. During covid…

  4. Apparently my comment was too much to get posted, so I will be more detailed and less emotional this time. As an educator with student loan debt, and a below average starting salary, I am very happy to hear this news. However it is only one step in the massive amount of overhauling our whole system needs. My specific comment was about loosing my certification because I was unable to work (as a teacher) for the first 3 years of my cert. My first year teaching was 2019. Even without covid happening it was a near impossible task for me to have to complete 5 years worth of pd in only 2 years. I was unable to complete that task and when I called the state about options was just told that I am not a teacher anymore, but that they made it easier to recertify… Our current PD system only works in one scenario, one where you are able to find / do a teaching job right after receiving your certificate. For each year you are unable to teach this problem compounds; miss 1 year and you have 4 years to do 5 years of pd, miss 2 years, now its only 3 years to do 5 years worth of pd, and so on. In a time were there has been a teacher shortage since I’ve had memories, it would also be helpful if we did more to help keep the teachers that are currently fighting out there in the field. My district had roughly 1/3 of our teacher leave at the end of last year. I ONLY have a job because of emergency need. All of this is just my example of the systemic issues I have personally experienced and ignores all of the other personal issues that have cropped up because of this. I find it safe to assume that there are others out there with similar experiences; and thus untold amounts of teachers just cut off and left behind. Also untold amounts of mental health and other damages. In hopes of another issue reaching more ears I hope that this comment might make it through this time. Stay strong everyone.

  5. It is time to get rid of any teacher certification testing. A college degree with a 3.5 or higher GPA, 90 hours of observation and 14 weeks of student teaching is enough.
    Add the fact these tests are expensive, poorly written and and overview of results are not given for almost month in today’s world of technology. The teacher shortage abyss is lurking just around the corner.

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