by Colleen Flaherty
Update: While Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s student loan refinance bill did not pass Wednesday, President Barack Obama signed an executive order on Monday to cap student loan payments based on income, introduce loan forgiveness after 20 years and a series of other actions around higher education to address access and affordability.
Ever since the second grade, Brittany Jones knew exactly what she wanted to do – become a second grade teacher. She has earned her undergraduate degree in teaching and has been accepted into a Master’s program that will help her achieve that dream.
Unfortunately, with all of her accomplishments, she is also $70,000 in debt from student loans.
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On behalf of herself and 40 million Americans who are also struggling with student loan debt, Jones shared her story in a hearing before the Senate Budget Committee.
“I think everyone should have the opportunity to pursue their dream,” said Jones. “If I can help by speaking about my student loan debt, then I will.”
Currently, student loan debt accounts for more than $1 trillion dollars in this country, and more than 70 percent of students need to borrow money to attend school. When testifying, Jones shared how her growing debt nearly got in the way of her future career.
When she finished her undergraduate degree and realized the staggering amount of debt she accumulated, she realized she couldn’t finished her teaching program, which required an additional year.
“When confronted with the decision to borrow another $20,000 dollars to complete my program, I decided it was best to postpone attendance,” said Jones.
After she left school, she found a job teaching at a preschool.
“I was excited to have a position, despite the low wage of $10 an hour, because unlike many of my colleagues, I was working in my desired field,” said Jones. “I was the lead teacher in my own class. I was elated! That is until the loan statements started to come.”
Over the next couple of years, she struggled to keep up with payments, sometimes working as many as three jobs to keep up. Now, two years later, she has been fortunate enough to be accepted into a Master’s program in Colorado where they will recoup the costs of her graduate degree. While she’s grateful for the opportunity, her problems haven’t gone away just yet.
“Almost $50,000 still awaits repayment. Student loan debt has been the driving force of my decisions for the last eight years of my life, and according to my current repayment plan, it is projected to be for the next 25 years of my life, well into the years for which I should be planning a retirement. It should not be that way.”
While Jones is worried about her debt, she is also worried about the future of her profession. “We’re losing potentially great teachers when they can’t afford their education,” said Jones.
As the president of the Student Education Program in Virginia, she had many classmates whose dreams of becoming a classroom teacher fell short thanks to debt.
I was like many of the students I encountered facing the difficult decision of whether to continue my education and follow my dream of being a teacher, or seek immediate employment. I recall one student who, having borrowed the maximum amount of student loans allowed for one school year, was unable to fill the gap in his cost of attendance. He later withdrew from the university and never returned. Another student, who, ironically served as our chapter treasurer, also left school for financial reasons. A full-time student in the master’s program, she also had a job in sales, and was offered the position of store manager. Faced with the decision of incurring more student loan debt, she decided becoming a teacher was no longer the career path she could follow.
Recently, Sen. Elizabeth Warren introduced a commonsense bill to help those who currently hold student loan debt by allowing them to refinance their loans at a lower rate. Jones supports Warren’s bill, as she would be able to save thousands.
Despite all the challenges that Jones has faced, she is still determined to teach.
“Ultimately, every decision I’ve made as far as becoming a teacher has been driven by the students. I love seeing kids grow, explore and learn about the world,” said Jones. “That’s why I continue to push, and I’m going to continue to do everything I can to become the teacher that I think they deserve.”