How Black Student Debt Affects the Teacher Pipeline

black student debtPublic school students are more diverse than ever, but their teachers? Not so much. Even as research shows that students, especially students of color, benefit from a diverse workforce, more than eight in 10 teachers in American public schools identify as white.

One reason—which is receiving more attention from policy makers—is the unequal amount of money that students of color, on average, must borrow to pay for college. On the day they graduate from college, black students owe about $7,400 more than white students, according to a Brookings Institute analysis.

That kind of debt, paired with the prospect of low teacher wages and other factors, makes education an impractical choice for many black and Latino students, say the authors of a 2019 report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) that takes a close look at student debt among teachers of various races.

Many think they simply can’t afford to be teachers.

And they may be right: CAP researchers found that 91 percent of black students who studied to become teachers were forced to borrow from the U.S. Department of Education to finance their college education, compared to 76 percent of white students. Among Latino students studying to be teachers, it was 82 percent. In graduate school, which may be required by states for licensure and certification, the disparity grows even larger: about half of black teachers borrowed, compared to about one in three Latino teachers and one in four white teachers.

These include educators like Tremayne Wootten, a Maryland high school teacher who owes around $115,000 for his undergraduate and master’s degrees. Until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he was driving Uber to pay for his summer wedding. And Shaniqua Williams, a Virginia school counselor, who owes about $97,000 for her degrees, and testified on Capitol Hill about the problem of educator debt last year.

And yet, students need more teachers who look like Wootten and Williams. Research shows that all students benefit from diverse teachers, but black students specifically do better on tests, attend school more regularly, and have fewer discipline issues when they’re paired with a black teacher. Black students also are more likely to be identified as gifted by black teachers than by white teachers.

These effects may be true for other ethnic-minority groups—Native American teachers and students, for example—but those groups are smaller and have been less studied.

Meanwhile, the trend is heading in the wrong direction. Federal education data shows that the percentage of black teachers actually has declined over the past decade.

“Without specific policies designed to address these issues, the United States is unlikely to solve its persistent diversity problem,” the CAP authors conclude.

What are the answers?

For its part, NEA and its state affiliates have long acknowledged the value of a diverse educator workforce and have invested in programs to develop—and sustain—teachers of color. These programs range from a Nebraska initiative to increase passing rates on the Praxis exam to an anti-racism, professional development program by Education Minnesota. Recently, Connecticut Education Association members advocated for a new state law that would help high school students to consider a career in teaching.

Meanwhile, NEA leaders also are pursuing legislative solutions to the specific issues of student debt, including:

* Increasing Pell Grants, which are federal grants to low-income college students. They helped sustain 57 percent of black college students in 2016;

* Protecting Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which erases the student debt of educators who make 10 years of qualifying payments.

* Increasing support for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions (MSIs), which confer 33 percent of the degrees earned by black students; 44 percent of the degrees earned by Hispanic students; and 28 percent of the degrees earned by Asian students.

NEA lobbyists and members also are asking lawmakers to provide a minimum of $30,000 in student debt cancellation, per borrower, in their next COVID-19 relief package. In a letter to Congressional leaders, NEA and its partners note that the “student debt crisis has hit Black and Latinx communities and women particularly hard,” with half of Black borrowers and one-third of Hispanic borrowers forced to default on their loans within 20 years.