Teachers have one of the lowest-paid professional jobs in the U.S. You need a bachelor’s degree, which can be costly — an equation that often means a lot of student loans. We’ve reported on the factors that make this particular job even more vulnerable to a ton of debt, including chronically low teacher pay, the increasing pressure to get a master’s degree and the many ways to repay loans or apply for loan forgiveness.
More than 2,000 teachers responded to our first survey about the issue, and we’re following up to hear a few of their stories:
Lauren Peńa is a 10th-grade English teacher in Oklahoma City with 10 years of experience. She’s married and lives with her husband, stepson and 10-month-old daughter. She makes $43,000 a year.
After starting off with $30,000 in loans, she has $6,000 left to pay off. She took out a 15-year loan, but she’s hoping to pay it off next year, 12 years after she took it out.
Some of her loans were forgiven because she worked in a Title I school and taught Spanish, a designated “high-need” subject.
“I tell my students: ‘If you’re going to be a teacher or a social worker, or have one of these important jobs that doesn’t really compensate very well — don’t take out loans, because it doesn’t make financial sense,’ ” she says.
Peńa says she wishes someone had given her that advice — that maybe she’d have gone to a cheaper state school.
“It’s just like this suffocating debt,” says Ashley Castelli, a middle school language arts teacher who lives near St. Louis. She has been a teacher for five years and borrowed $42,000 to get her bachelor’s degree. She has been paying her loans for six years, but owes the same amount she took out because she’s paying down only the interest each month, not her principal.
She makes $41,000 a year.
“I feel, like, kind of duped,” says 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.”
She thought about enrolling in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, but she doesn’t want to pay less per month and have that program go away. Her expected payoff date is in 2026, but she’s hoping she can do it by 2023.
Andrew Kirk, 29, is a geography teacher in Dallas, approaching his fourth year of teaching. He holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history. When Kirk, an AmeriCorps alum, started teaching, he had close to $150,000 in debt. By this time next year, he estimates he’ll have $100,000.
Kirk is enrolled in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and its income-driven repayments, which allows him to pay down his private loans. By next year, he hopes to have just federal loans left.
“Before I even knew about my options for repayments, I had a very pessimistic view about how things would turn out for me,” Kirk says. “I thought that I’d always be a renter.” He also worried about how “potential romantic partners” would see him.
But the low monthly payments and the potential for forgiveness in 10 years have Kirk optimistic. Last year he got married and bought a home.
“Those are some things I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do without the security of a program like Public Service Loan Forgiveness,” he says.
Michelle Smithers, 28, is a special- and general-education teacher at a middle school in the Queens borough of New York City. She has been teaching for five years and has a master’s degree — as required by the state of New York. She has about $80,000 in student loans — as does her husband. Smithers says they think paying off their loans is going to be “a forever thing.”
Smithers pays off her debt through income-driven repayments. She feels that her generation is “dealing with this ordeal,” and that past generations “kind of frown upon us for having this loan debt.”
“They always say things like ‘Well, I worked full time and went to school full time and paid off my tuition,’ ” explains Smithers. “But that wasn’t really a possibility for anyone that I know.”
Tiffany Sanford, 33, works as an autism specialist at a school district in Portland, Ore. She provides early intervention for children from birth to 5 years.
When she got her teaching licenses, Sanford had just shy of $30,000 in debt. Now she’s closer to $25,000.
“I think it’s just been so normalized,” Sanford says. “Everyone I know has student loans.”
Sanford got a federal Teacher Education Assistance grant, thinking it would be forgiven. But because she waited too long to get into the classroom — she first took a job in academia teaching other teachers — the $5,000 grant got added to her loans. She’ll now have to pay that back with interest.