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Teachers have one of the lowest paid professional jobs in the U.S. You need a four-year degree, and that can be costly. An expensive degree plus a low-paying job equals a whole lot of student loan debt. Elissa Nadworny of the NPR Ed team talked with teachers who are trying to work through that math problem.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: When we talked to teachers about their student loans, we heard a lot of this.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: I mean, it's just like this suffocating debt.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #2: It feels like we're stuck to a ball and chain.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #3: Oh my gosh, but it's like never ending, it seems like.
NADWORNY: Those are some of the 2,000 teachers that answered our call for their experience with student debt. We wanted to understand what makes this particular job even more vulnerable to a ton of debt. The first factor, of course, is chronically low teacher pay. On average, a teacher starts out making 32,000 a year. That's not super helpful for recent grads, considering the average student loan debt is about 34,000.
LAUREN PENA: Professionals and with a college degree and look at the way they pay us.
NADWORNY: Lauren Pena often hears that in the break room at school. She teaches 10th-grade English in Oklahoma City. And she remembers getting her first classroom job.
PENA: After waitressing, it sounds awesome to make $35,000 a year. But you find that $35,000 doesn't go very far.
NADWORNY: Especially when you're trying to pay off 30,000 with interest, like Pena is.
PENA: I tell my students, if you're going to be, like, a teacher or a social worker or have one of these important jobs that doesn't really compensate very well, don't take out a bunch of loans because it just doesn't make financial sense.
NADWORNY: Pena says she wishes someone had given her that advice. Maybe she'd have gone to a cheaper state school. Another big factor in all this debt, the increasing pressure to get a master's. Some schools and states require that teachers have that extra degree. And often, it's the only way to get a salary bump.
ASHLEY CASTELLI: Yeah, I feel, like, kind of duped a little bit.
NADWORNY: That's Ashley Castelli, a middle school language arts teacher who lives near St. Louis.
CASTELLI: The best I can hope for, for a raise, is to go get my master's. But that would require more student loans. So it's a Catch-22.
NADWORNY: That would be on top of the 42,000 she took out for her bachelor's. Castelli is trying to clear that debt in just 10 years, which means her monthly payments are about half her income.
CASTELLI: I don't ever look at myself as a teacher making enough money to get ahead of the loans that I had to have for the degree that was required for my job.
NADWORNY: And the teachers who do get masters', they're saddled with even more debt and, some told us, regret. That's combined with the rising cost of tuition and the seemingly limitless loans you can take out.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #4: Right now, I have about $60,000.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #5: $30,878.15.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #6: Eighty-thousand dollars in debt.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #7: About 80,000 right now.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #8: About 100K.
NADWORNY: Once teachers have that debt, there are many ways to repay. Some plans make payments more affordable. Others forgive balances altogether. There are specific programs that offer teachers some relief. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness is one. Qualifying teachers have their loans forgiven after 10 years of repayment. There's also forgiveness programs for teachers in low-income schools and for those who teach state-designated, critical-needs subjects, like science or special education. But this plethora of options can be really confusing.
DANIELLE BERGERON: It's a mess.
NADWORNY: That's Danielle Bergeron of Kansas City. She's in her eighth year of teaching middle school history. And she still owes about 40,000 from getting her bachelor's and master's. She says there's so much information, it just adds to the frustration.
BERGERON: And every time you talk to these people on the phone through the loans, everyone gives you a different answer.
NADWORNY: To keep track, she has a Google Doc with passwords, balances and pay-off dates.
BERGERON: I mean, I have pages of notes from what people have told me about my loans and what to do. And everyone says something different.
NADWORNY: She did get $5,000 of her federal loans forgiven because she taught in a low-income school for five years.
BERGERON: I always thought that the government was more lenient with student loans for education, like you were granted a lot of forgiveness. And if I would had known it's just a tiny, tiny fraction, you know, maybe I would have done something differently.
NADWORNY: But is she ready to leave teaching for a more lucrative career?
BERGERON: What's the point in going to school and having all this debt if I'm just going to leave the - leave education?
NADWORNY: And teacher after teacher told us they love their jobs. They don't want to leave. But as districts struggle to fill up open teaching positions and parents and policymakers pushed to improve the quality of our teaching force, it seems like something's got to give. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.
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