Originally publish in the Arizona Daily Star.
President Biden recently announced that he is weighing broad student loan forgiveness for nearly 43 million people. He should. It’s the right thing to do.
Many conservatives and wealthy Republicans have indignantly called President Biden “desperate” and mocked the president for its consideration, but the facts remain: Arguments against canceling student debt are arguments for keeping generations of Black and Brown borrowers in debt, held back from investing in their communities, and maintaining the racial wealth gap.
As student debt ticks higher, it’s clear that we need to immediately act to help those desperate individuals that are forced to take on student loans to afford a higher education, especially our educators.
The introduction of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program in 2007 was a godsend for educators. After 10 years of qualifying payments, loans would be forgiven. Sixteen years later, most educators have yet to receive that promise.
Educators and other public servants who were promised loan forgiveness under PSLF were met with frivolous and at times unlawful administrative barriers and errors. Countless borrowers were forced into administrative deferment — many numerous times — which added significant accumulation of interest when loans were transferred to other servicers. Servicing transfers led to months of processing delays and lost payments, which were not included in the recent revisions.
Recent revisions to the PSLF by the Department of Education restored hope by counting previously disqualified payments and ineligible loans. The Department estimates that these revisions will move 550,000 borrowers “closer to cancellation,” which may still not be enough to ease the financial burden of the pandemic on our nation’s educator workforce.
Our current public servant student loan forgiveness program is based on making 10 years of qualifying payments before qualifying for full student loan forgiveness. With low teaching salaries and high cost of education and certification, this system makes little sense and deters future educators-especially those in high needs areas and fields-from entering the profession. The future of the education workforce and well-being of our children is at stake.
To become a teacher, a 2022 high school graduate could take on as much as $39,500 in student loans for a bachelor’s degree. In addition to a bachelor’s degree, the average teaching certification program costs $15,000. For many teachers in Arizona and across the nation, the math does not add up.
In some states, teacher salaries are under $40,000 while the cost to become a teacher greatly exceeds that, forcing many educators to take on second and third jobs to make ends meet.
Ultimately, the greater impact of these costs are on educators of color, who disproportionately take out student loans, compared to their white counterparts, and are desperately needed in communities that look like them.
The pandemic underscored the financial insecurity of the teaching profession. While many degrees afford social mobility, degrees in education often fail to offset the cost of entering the teaching profession or provide a living wage.
Many educators have said enough is enough. Arizona is one of many states currently facing a teacher shortage and less than one in five vacancies were filled in 2021, and over half by non-certified teachers.
In celebration of Teacher’s Appreciation week, the best gift the Biden administration could give is to immediately forgive student loans for teachers and wipe away debt for millions of families and professionals struggling to build their wealth. There is no excuse to delay much needed student loan forgiveness, which was a key part of its platform upon entering office.
In the meantime, the Biden administration should update the PSLF program to provide necessary financial security and incentivize educators to remain in the profession. The Department of Education should shift to a tiered system of partial and sequential forgiveness based on years of service.
We should further fix the administrative errors and accommodate teachers by changing qualifying student loan payments to qualifying years of service. The Department of Education should also consider reimbursement of educator credentialing costs and absolve teachers who qualify of their student debt.
Performing duties as a public servant should be rewarded, rather than forcing educators across the nation to their breaking point. Teachers should be celebrated for teaching through a crisis, not punished if they must choose between life and livelihood during a global pandemic.
We all likely have a teacher to thank for guiding us on our journey. They have encouraged students and people, including myself, to pursue knowledge and become lifelong learners. Dr. Jill Biden is a daily reminder of the importance of teachers.
Immediate action should be taken to cancel student debt. It’s time for the Biden administration to show their appreciation for educators and other public servants before student loan repayments restart. There are nearly 50 million students in public school; failing to support teachers will be detrimental to this generation and the future leadership of our nation.