NEA Student Chair Takes Student Debt Personally

Chelsey Herrig, chair of the NEA Student program, graduated recently from Southwestern Minnesota State University owing about $33,000 in student loans. In that way, she’s not very different from many Americans.

Seven out of 10 college seniors who graduated last year have student debt—and the average amount is just under $30,000, according to the Project on Student Debt. At these levels, student debt isn’t just a burden—it’s a barrier to higher education, especially for poor Americans.

All Americans deserve a fair shot at higher education, no matter their family income. We know that college graduates get better jobs, are less likely to be unemployed, and more likely to own homes. And we also know that this nation needs more college graduates to stay globally competitive.

For a future educator like Herrig, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, it’s obvious that student debt is scaring away too many future teachers who could be doing wonderful things in classrooms across the country.

“A lot of students never enter the [teaching] profession because they know they’ll never make a lot of money and they look at their debt and think, ‘I can’t do that!’” said Herrig. “And then there others who enter the profession, but leave after a few years because they’re thinking, ‘Okay, I love this, but with my debt I can’t afford to do it anymore!’”

Either way, Herrig says, something needs to be done about student debt.  She is joining thousands of other NEA members in calling on Congress to pass Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s student debt bill, which would allow student borrowers to refinance their student loans at lower interest rates—in exactly the same way that homeowners can refinance their mortgages.

There are realistic solutions to the student debt crisis: this bill would help make student loans more affordable. NEA’s Degrees Not Debt campaign has called on Congress to increase need-based aid, like Pell Grants, and expand loan forgiveness programs, especially for people working in public service careers like public education.

Surviving the Cost of College

For Herrig, not borrowing to pay for college was not an option. She grew up in a single-parent household in a small town in southwestern Minnesota. Her mom worked two jobs, as a bookkeeper for a chain of gas stations and as a waitress, and they sometimes struggled to pay the bills. On her fourteenth birthday, Herrig’s gift to herself “was a job—and I was super excited about it!” she recalls.

Since then, she’s worked part-time jobs at a movie theater, a Pizza Ranch, and a Subway sandwich counter, coached gymnastics and baseball, tutored other students, worked on the assembly line at a medical parts manufacturing plant, read aloud the sporting news and weather on a local radio station, babysat and babysat more, and also worked as a personal aide for people with disabilities.

During the school year, on top of a full-time load of college classes, Herrig routinely worked 20 to 30 hours a week to pay for everything that her loans, scholarships, and Pell Grants didn’t cover—which was mostly food, books, and classroom supplies for the kids in her student-taught classes. (During the summer, she often worked 60 hours a week.)

When it comes to buying for herself, Herrig is as frugal as can be. Her favorite restaurant is Subway, and she cuts those 6-inch subs into 3-inch subs to save for leftovers.

But when it came the kids in her student-taught classes, like so many NEA members, Herrig didn’t hesitate to spend money to create unforgettable learning experiences for her kindergarten class. Her dig-your-own-fossil science experiments involved student-made fossils, plus coffee grounds, plus tiny digging implements for every student.

“Nobody ever said to me, ‘You can’t afford college,’” says Herrig. “And I always said, ‘I’m going to college and I don’t care what it takes!’” Seeing her mother, who doesn’t have a four-year degree, struggling with two low-paying jobs helped Herrig understand the value of a college degree. Plus, she knew she needed to be a college graduate to get her dream job as a teacher.

But she’s facing the consequences in December—when her student loan payments come due.