Education News

NEA calls for cancellation of federal student loan debt

By Mary Ellen Flannery

In Georgia, a 63-year-old high school teacher has been making monthly payments on her student loans since 1997. Today, she still owes more than $100,000. When does she expect to make her last monthly payment?


She’s not the only one. Most college students must borrow to pay for the higher education they need to realize their potential, and then get trapped for a lifetime in a federal student-debt system that profits from their debt. These massive student-debt servicers—and the politicians who prop them up in Congress—have created a debt crisis that is crushing Americans.

This needs to be fixed, says NEA President Becky Pringle. “Our right to learn, grow and thrive should be based on how big we dream and how hard we work, not where we come from or how much money we make,” said Pringle this month.

The time is now, said Pringle, for the immediate cancellation of federal student debt. She and other NEA leaders support efforts by Senate Democrats to embed student-debt cancellation into future COVID-relief packages, as well as cancellation through executive action by the Secretary of Education.

Looking for a long-term solution

For many Americans, student debt cancellation is their only hope. In Illinois, a 50-year-old third-grade teacher has done the math. If her debt isn’t canceled, she’ll be making monthly payments to her student loan-servicer until the age of 80. In New Mexico, a fifth-grade teacher who owes $177,000 isn’t counting on living long enough to see a zero balance.

Take, for example, Washington science teacher Susan Armbruster, who is 61 and has been making student-loan payments for almost 40 years. Before the current coronavirus-related suspension of federal loan payments, she paid $550 every month to FedLoan, the massive loan servicer that rakes in about $200 million in profits annually. These payments basically just cover the 7.8 percent interest on Armbruster’s loans. (How is it that the government charges her 7.8 percent interest, while her privately held car loan is just 2.9 percent, she wonders.)

“I’m really sad about what this has deprived me of, over the years,” says Armbruster. Because of her debt, she couldn’t buy a home until her 50s. Forget new cars. Forget vacations.

Cancellation of their debt would honor the sacrifice that these teachers make to serve their students, and also help recruit and retain more educators into the profession, educators say. At the same time, it would promote racial justice. While student debt affects Americans of all races, because of longstanding structural racism embedded in systems of housing and banking, many Black, Latino and Indigenous families end up borrowing more and paying more to the federal government and their debt-servicing profiteers.

In the short term, some of these borrowers have been helped by the coronavirus-related suspension of federal Direct Loan payments, which NEA members helped accomplish through their countless emails and phone calls to elected leaders.

To help more Americans, suspension should be expanded to include commercially held Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL) and institutionally held Perkins loans, NEA leaders and other advocates are urging now. At the same time, lawmakers also should improve and expand federal loan forgiveness programs, like the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, so that they work more efficiently and fewer borrowers face bureaucratic roadblocks in FedLoan, the servicer that administers PSLF, or the Department of Education.

33 responses to “NEA calls for cancellation of federal student loan debt

  1. I want my car loan cancelled…and my home loan cancelled. And I don’t want to pay my phone bill anymore. And since I scrimped, saved, and did without a lot of other things and PAID OFF my school loan (Cal Poly SLO), I want that money reimbursed.

    Yes, I am teacher. In California. It is NOT about equity, it’s about personal responsibility and working within your means.

    1. With respect,
      I was raised by a mentally ill parent in extreme poverty. I didn’t go to school much. My last day was in 8th grade. I lived on my own at 16 and had a child at 19.
      I’m disclosing this because I agree, had it not been for my tenacity, sacrifice, HARD work (including working multiple full time jobs and raising a child), I would absolutely not have been able to use my gifts and talents to teach and serve in elementary, middle, and high school. I would not be a highly qualified science teacher as well as certified in K-8, as well as secondary and adult education.
      Today, I am a summa cum laude graduate, with graduate studies in curriculum and instruction, as well as a fully endorsed ESL teacher.
      But… had it not been for student loans and grants I would never have been able to survive, much less thrive. I went on to pay a lot of taxes and make very little money. I spent 10 years teaching at exclusively title I schools, However I was able to give to my community in a way that I find profoundly fulfilling.
      Hard work and responsibility are necessary yes. But if you have absolutely no resources, they can easily be wasted. In fact, I can’t think of anything that even the most resourceful person could do to achieve advanced education, under those circumstances, without help.
      I appreciate that some are able to pay off their loans, some are able to go to school without borrowing any money, and some have paid back their loans and feel it would not be fair to forgive others, I sincerely hope,and encourage all to remember, that if you have not been in that circumstance it is very easy to oversimplify and say that hard work and tenacity are all you need.
      Finally it must be an amazing feeling to be debt-free. I would love to see this feeling extended to all teachers, but I must say especially to those who faced such adversity.
      Please remember children do not choose to come from these environments. Children do not choose to not be equipped with what they need to even look for resources that might be available. And as far as loan forgiveness, if I had the ability to pay it back I would trade places with someone who had in a moment and be grateful that they were receiving some relief.
      In the end, I could go on and on but strong healthy teachers, who are not burdened with unpayable debt and massive amounts of education that they thought would allow them the salary that corresponds to the work they put in are 100% best for kids. And isn’t that what this is about?
      It breaks my heart to see students that were in my position and have no idea that there is help for them. It also breaks my heart that I know that that help will be a burden to them for the rest of their life. Their lives will improve, but the very thing we all aspire to here-higher education and income to benefit everyone in our our world- Will come with more suffering later in life.

  2. When you take on a loan, you sign a contract. It is a commitment that you will repay the loan. For some reason, the word commitment doesn’t mean anything anymore. I worked all through college and went to a local college so I could live at home. That saved me a lot of money. I feel for the people who have been paying off loans for years. I cannot imagine having that held over my head. However, the choices they made have led them to where they are now. Is that hard to hear? Yes, it is. I think the government should work to set low interest rates for student loans. Borrowing for school should not end up costing more than borrowing for a home.

    1. That’s wonderful, perhaps we can now look forward to a future where other students have a home to live in while they go to school. I agree that their commitment would benefit everyone in ways we can’t imagine

  3. Society should not pay for people to go to college. Some students go because it’s expected of them, not because they need the degree for the career they aspire to. Why isn’t there a push back on the ridiculous expenses universities putting on their students? Look into the cost of all the fancy perks students get these days and the crazy cost of professors’ salaries. Colleges have gotten out of control because government has been throwing money at them for years in the form of grants, etc. I would be in favor of reducing student debt if the colleges had to eat it, not the citizens. I paid for my college and my son’s. I am not interested in paying for everyone else’s education, too.

  4. I have been a teacher for 24 years. I began doing my Masters program in Education 14 years ago. Midway through the program my husband was deployed for the 2nd time to Iraq
    for a year. I decided that it would be ridiculous to teach, go to grad school and parent three young children. The debt accrued from my loans, in spite of getting a 5,000 grant for work in Title I. I still have over $23,000–up from $17,000 due to interest. The reality is I have no idea when I will be able to pay. I wish they would grant some kind of help for those whose families have served our country. It irks me that the interest rate is so high. Couldn’t they help teachers and in addition teachers who have also had to make great sacrifices in their families to help our nation? I feel passionate and yet helpless at the same time.

    1. Passionate yet helpless! perfectly said. I just wanted to tell you that I admire both your service, your husband’s service and your eye on the good of the whole. Good luck to you

  5. l am a member of the teacher’s union but do not agree with cancelling student loan debt. My reasons:
    A relative has worked very hard at a local grocery store and I do not feel it is fair to have her hard earned tax dollars go to pay off college debt. My hairdresser also works hard and it is not fair to her either. What about the receptionist in my doctor’s office? Not fair to her either.
    A lady I use to work with always complained that she had no money to pay down her debt but she drove a car that cost $55,000, has granite countertops in her kitchen with new hard wood floors and every break took her two children on expensive vacations.(Disney is not cheap for four people for a few days) She is not the only one I know who feels these things are necessities but you can drive a $30,000 car, hold off on the expensive kitchen re-do and vacation trips till the debt is paid off. Or at least not complain that you have no money when it is all about how you spend your salary.
    I think it gets to what my mother called financial responsibility. She lived through the Depression and knew the difference between need and want.

    1. Not everyone has that fortune in life. For some of us their just isn’t the job market to support everything. At $12/hr my family is barely over the federal poverty line before taxes. Rent and utilities are almost $700 a month and we don’t even live anywhere fancy. That plus a basic and small cheap vehicle, food and medicine means I have maybe $300 a month left over, so exactly how should I be able to pay the $400/month they say I need to for student loans for an associate’s degree?

  6. Is there a way that NEA Education Votes devise letters of support for this issue that we could electronically send to our representatives. I have received emails in the past that have provided this service for other issues. Forgive me if the availability of this option is already available. I haven’t seen it yet. Thanks for keeping us informed!

  7. I’m a New Jersey teacher, who would like to retire but can’t, who’s been paying my student loans for more than eight years and my balance is still $46,000,

  8. I am a public school teacher. I have been teaching in Public Schools for 14 years. I make payments that don’t appear to make a dent in the balance at 7% APR. I am 55 years old and I have not grown a savings account to help realize retirement.

    1. Right there with you!!! 25 years of teaching and I still owe $60,000. And whoever said the principal never goes down is exactly right!! They will be taping bills to my grave stone!! Swear to God!!!

  9. I am a public school educator. I have been teaching for 14 years. I am 55 years old and continue with a debt will not enable me to contribute more to my future – I do not see myself in retirement since I have payments for student loans that don’t seem to decrease as I make payments.

  10. Yep. I owe a lot. Trying to be qualified to teach science I have several degrees I have borrowed for to accomplish. I had a lender during my house buying process tell me that I owe enough I should be a doctor. I will never forget that insult. I did go to another lender.

  11. I have a parent plus loan for my son who has graduated and is now an instructor at the college he graduated from…I’m finally back in college to get the degree I wanted 29 years ago before he was born to become an elementary school teacher and I’m killing myself trying to graduate early so I don’t have to pay four years worth of loans for myself. I will never see an end to the loan I took out for my son’s education without the forgiveness of the Parent Plus loan and I’m sure I’ll never find the end to my school loans! And both of us furthered our educations to become teachers!

    1. Teachers should be paid for the education required for the job. That’s the problem. I have a master’s degree in education and make half what my dad makes as a heavy equipment operator who barely graduated high school.

  12. Where the hell did she go to college? Obviously the most expensive and the full cost of tuition and room and board she paid for totally with loans. I worked had schools d toy paid off all loans 36 years ago. No way she could owe $100,000 still

  13. Yes our student loans should be cancelled! We work long hours for little wages to service underprivileged kids, yet we suffer because we pay most of our salary to loan companies. I’m 51, and probably would never see a zero balance either. I never owned a home either. I can’t afford it due to paying loans.

  14. “Our right to learn, grow and thrive should be based on how big we dream and how hard we work, not where we come from or how much money we make,” said Pringle this month.
    So, those who worked hard in high school to get scholarships while also working a job to save for college and then worked their way through a college that was economical and graduated with little or no debt should be saddled with paying the loans of those who didn’t? Sorry but big dreams don’t pay the bills. The quote seems a little contradictory. Yes, some are born on third base already, but that fact doesn’t excuse my poor decisions.

    1. With respect, I find myself wondering how being born on third-base, is not an excuse. If you don’t like the word excuse, may explanation. There are so many other factors than money that go into being born on third-base

  15. It’s a question of fair play. No one forced anyone to take on college debt. If you are forgiving debt, then what are you going to give to those who struggled to pay off their educational debt?

    1. Are you even in education? If you were, you would see that it’s about equity not fairness. Yes, you struggled and were successful in paying off your loan, therefore not needing anymore help. You’re the “advanced student” who’s doing just fine and will be successful on your own—no help needed. However, others have struggled equally, if not more so, and will continue to struggle seeing no success. They are the ones that need the help, just like special needs students that need and get extra support in school. Should the students that don’t need the extra support complain because they aren’t getting the same treatment?

      1. No, it’s like the child who blows off homework and goes out with friends instead of studying. A child born with a special need or who experienced a traumatic brain injury and is struggling with school should NOT be compared with a capable adult who CHOSE to go to a $30,000 a semester college to get a degree had little chance of leading to a career.

  16. I am a school teacher in a public school system. I would like to see it expanded to Parent Plus loans for teachers considered in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). We are facing the same struggles that teachers who have taken out student loans face. The loans are in our names and were for our children, some who are serving the public as teachers and first responders. It would be great if we can be part of this forgiveness program and for the President to sign an executive order to forgive $50,000 worth of student loan debt. During this COVID 19 time, we are still making a difference in a child’s life, whether it is in the building or virtually. Our love for teaching spreads across all disciplines, even though I am a Marketing Education teacher. Our passion knows no boundaries.

      1. I have been a public school teacher for 36 years.
        My wife and I saved, scrimped and sacrificed for 20 years to help our 4 children earn their college degrees without one penny of borrowed money.
        If people who took out student loans get up to $50,000 forgiven can we get $50,000 given back to us for each kid we put through school?
        That seems fair.

    1. Your article only gives one side of the story. You complain ‘why is her debt at 7.8% interest and her car loan at 2.9%?’ without answering the question. When a student takes on debt through the student loan program the federal government sells long term treasury securities to cover that debt at current T-Bill rates. The loan servicing companies get a fee for doing the paperwork and tracking payments etc., but the lions share of the money paid by the borrower goes to the federal government to cover the treasury bills. That rate remains the same throughout the life of the loan vs. current loan rates. Borrowers can also forego payments but the loan will continue to accrue interest. There are also graduated payment programs. You also don’t mention how much the individual borrowed to begin with. It would be more helpful if government lowered the interest rates for all existing loans to current rates but it is complicated. The student loan system unfortunately makes it too easy for a borrower to take on debt without realizing the full financial consequences, and a degree is no guarantee of a wage sufficient to retire the debt.

      1. I may have been mistaken that Treasury actually SELLS T-bills to cover student loan debt, but by law, the student loan interest rate is set every 6 months based on the current rate for 10 year Treasury securities plus an small increment. Again, that rate remains constant throughout the life of the loan. As for your comments in the article regarding FedLoan Servicing, the ‘company’ is part of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Authority (PHEAA), established by the Pennsylvania State Legislature in 1963. They have a 20 member board of directors, 4 appointed the the governor (currently Tom Wolf, Dem., elected 2014) and 16 more appointed by the Legislature (currently Republican controlled). Again, one of the biggest factors effecting student payback of their loans is the interest rate, established at time of borrowing and remaining fixed until the loan is entirely repaid. A former student with excellent credit and a loan with a 6%+ interest rate could refinance at a commercial bank and cut the rate nearly in half. Unfortunately, most in these tough financial circumstances won’t qualify for a low rate at a commercial lending institution. Don’t forget, the reason student loans basically never go away is some borrowers who went to school for an education in very highly compensated professions as well as others, simply declared bankruptcy to entirely wipe out the student debt, leaving the taxpayer holding the bag. Government was smart enough to put a stop to that. The current federal loan rate can be found online with a simple search, and it is under 2% I believe these days. Again, the high interest rates of pre-2006, prior to federal ‘quantitative easing’ of fed. interest rates which continues to this day, are a real killer to the ability of someone to repay their loan. Perhaps rather than entire loan forgiveness across the board, loans should be evaluated for 1) principle borrowed, 2) interest rate, 3) years the loan has been outstanding, and 4) total interest and principal repaid. Perhaps some equitable formula could come out of this. Totally forgiving 100% of outstanding loans for everyone is unfair to those who scrimped and got by with less in order to repay loans they signed for.

      2. You’re right. I wonder though; oh yeah ever understand that equity and equality don’t mean everybody gets the same thing. If I did, I would’ve started on first base

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