NEA Launches Campaign to Help Reduce Student Debt

Every American deserves a fair shot at higher education. But these days college debt isn’t just a burden—it’s a barrier to accessing the American Dream.

That’s why NEA has launched the new Degrees Not Debt campaign, which aims to reduce student debt and make college affordable for all Americans, regardless of their family income. It’s about educational equity for all, and making sure every student can get the education they need to get a good job, own a home, and eventually send their own children to college.

“My students are not statistics. They are real and their college debt is real,” said Theresa Montano, president of NEA’s National Council for Higher Education, and a professor at CSU Northridge, where up to two-thirds of the students are the first in their families to attend college and most borrow to pay for tuition. “I am constantly reminded of the hardships and sacrifices my students make for their college educations… College debt is a high price to pay for the attainment of a dream.”

Elizabeth Warren’s Student Loan Bill
About 40 million Americans would get relief from student loan debt through Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act, introduced in early May. “Exploding student loan debt is crushing young people and dragging down our economy,” said Warren. “These students didn’t go to the mall and run up charges on a credit card. They worked hard and learned new skills that will benefit this country and help us build a stronger middle class and stronger America.” The bill would allow recent graduates to refinance their loans at current interest rates. In order to cover the cost of refinancing, it also would make sure the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share of taxes.

College debt has reached a staggering $1.2 trillion in the United States, outpacing credit card or consumer debt. Seven in 10 college graduates owe money, and the average amount is $29,400. At those levels, student loan debt has become an economic albatross, restricting economic growth in this country.

And many NEA members owe much more than the average. California Teachers Association-Student President John Belleci owes about $80,000, he said, while his daughter, a recent college graduate and Head Start teacher, owes an additional $65,000. “My biggest fear is that the debt accumulated by me and my daughter will handcuff my grandchildren’s ability to reach the middle class,” he said. “How can I help them go to school when I’ll be paying off my own loans for decades?”

The jobs of the future—actually, the jobs of today—increasingly require a post-secondary degree or certificate, and that includes the job of a highly qualified teacher. Brittney Johnson, a graduate of a Virginia public university that required her to borrow about $40,000 to pay for four years of tuition, is now pursuing a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction that will require her to borrow another $68,000. Her graduate program will help her to be a highly qualified teacher—the kind every student deserves, and that state and federal policies increasingly require. But is Johnson sacrificing her own financial health for her students’ well-being?

“Cost is a factor that makes students second guess themselves when picking a career,” Johnson admitted. “They don’t want to go into fields that require higher-level degrees because they likely won’t be able to pay them off within their general life expectancy! My mom asks me all the time, ‘Don’t you want to go into another field? Like maybe business administration?’”

NEA members from California to Massachusetts to Florida to Texas, from students to K12 teachers to higher-ed faculty and education support professionals, will be working together to advocate for these four policy goals:

1. Need-based student aid must be increased, especially Pell Grants, which don’t currently cover even 40 percent of college costs.
2. Student loans must be made more affordable. (NEA has encouraged the federal government to lower interest rates and further limit the percentage of their income that borrowers can spend on loan repayment.)
3. Public-service careers, like teaching, must be encouraged through expanded loan-forgiveness programs.
4. Institutional aid must be increased.

If you want to raise your voice in support of these goals, take the NEA Degrees Not Debt pledge.