The teacher’s life: K-12 teachers plagued with high college debt, low wages

    Young teachers attempting to start their careers with K-12 students are burdened by high college debt, which might be one more factor behind the teacher shortage.

    According to the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), Wisconsin ranks in the nation’s top ten states for students leaving college with loan debt. In 2018, graduates with loans owed an average of $32,000, beyond the national average of $31,000. During the first quarter of 2019, the national student loan debt rose to $1.49 trillion. (To put that in perspective, it’s more than all auto loan debt and credit card debt in the United States.

    This debt is particularly burdensome for teachers and other public-service employees, says Analiese Eicher executive director of One Wisconsin Now, pointing to research that shows half of teacher have considered leaving the profession.

    “Good, educated, well-trained teachers are what make our schools go,” states Eicher. “We can’t let teachers be driven out of a job they love or discouraged from pursuing a career in education because of fears of student loan debt.” Unfortunately, Eicher warns, “that’s exactly what is happening.”

    Analiese Eicher

    Diana Hess, dean of UW-Madison’s School of Education also pointed out, “if you’re coming into a low-paid field, the impact of student loan debt is much more pronounced.”

    “Student debt is honestly crippling,” says 23-year-old Deja Mitchell, who studies at UW-Whitewater. “I am $31,000 in debt and I am torn between the idea of moving out, getting a car because mine is on its last leg, and paying back my debt. I already am thinking about how little teachers make and I’m terrified to live on my own and make payments not only to normal living expenses but also my student debt.” Only partly joking, Mitchell says she’d “honestly cut off a toe to pay for my debt.”

    Mitchell says despite her graduation coming up in January, she hasn’t been able to secure a job. “Just no time, no money and I feel like, no help,” she explains. Her family is pressed for money and is unable to help, and in many ways the walls feel like they’re closing in. “I’m not resentful,” she told Wisconsin Examiner, “I’m just so stressed about what my next income will be post-graduation.”

    Still, the optimistic young teacher declares, “that’s the life of a teacher.”

    Wisconsin is quickly becoming an outlier when it comes to adequately paying teachers. The state ranks 33rd nationally for teacher pay, with new teachers starting out at $38,181 while more experienced teachers earn around $51,469. Compared to the national average of $59,539 to $60,477, Wisconsin’s wages for teachers leave much to be desired. Minnesota, for example, has an average starting salary of $58,666 for public-school teachers.

    “The more college debt that students incur, the Learning Policy Institute found, “the less likely they are to choose to work in a lower-wage profession such as teaching. One study of students at a highly selective undergraduate institution found that incurring debt increases the odds that students chose ‘substantially higher-salary jobs’ and ‘reduce[d] the probability that students [chose] low-paid ‘public interest jobs.’”

    Dean of Edgewood College’s School of Education Tim Slekar expressed his concerns for the future of teaching in recent article in The Capital Times. “I’ve sat here and done it more than once where an interested student and their parents come in, and the parents say, ‘yeah, she wants to be a teacher but we told her we’re not supportive of that decision.’” The dean wonders, “How is it that parents are telling their kids that we don’t want them to be teachers?”

    Isiah Holmes
    Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, and other outlets.

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