Easing the Start-Up Costs of Teaching
No one becomes a teacher to get rich, so the line goes. But for prospective teachers coming from low-income circumstances—often faced with student loan payments, family responsibilities, and mounting start-up costs like licensing exams and moving expenses—choosing to teach can seem financially daunting, if not impossible. With the goal of encouraging a more socioeconomically diverse teaching force, some states and teacher preparation programs, including Teach For America, are trying to ease the burden through incentives like loan forgiveness and covering basic costs to get teachers on their feet.
In 2014, the average college graduate traded her cap and gown for about $28,950 in student loan debt, up 2 percent from 2013, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. For graduates from low-income backgrounds, the debt load is typically even higher. Nearly 90 percent of graduates who received a Pell Grant—federal aid based on financial need—faced student loans averaging more than $31,000 (based on 2012 data, the most recent available).
When Teach For America surveyed college students in 2015 to determine which factors would increase their interest in teaching, a third of those using loans to pay for college ranked “student loan relief programs for teachers” among the top three factors.
As graduates’ debt burdens are on the rise, teacher pay has stagnated over the past 20 years, according to a report released in August by the Economic Policy Institute. In 2015, teachers’ wages were 17 percent lower (11 percent lower when benefits are counted) than those of other college-educated professionals, according to researchers. In 1994, they were only 1.8 percent lower.
Small start-up costs can add up, Quan says. State licensing exams cost about $155 per test, and every Teach For America corps member is required to pass at least two. Last year, the Massachusetts region began covering the cost of first-time testing for all corps members who were Pell Grant recipients.
In Colorado, corps members are reimbursed up to $150 for transportation to the region’s induction weekend. Once the school year starts, corps members are eligible for a no-interest loan to cover the $5,000 cost of licensure coursework at the University of Colorado Denver.
“There’s no way, in my mind, that you can ask someone—particularly with a low-income background, or a first-generation college graduate—to front $5,000,” says Amanda Skrzypchak (N.Y. ’07), who oversees corps members’ transition to the Colorado region.
In addition to regional efforts, Teach For America nationally provides $9 million each year in transitional funds to new corps members in the form of grants and loans. The funds are based on need and regional cost of living. They can provide each eligible corps member up to $7,000 in relief. This year, 2,080 corps members received assistance. The organization depends on alumni who have received loans in the past to repay them to support transitional funds for new teachers.
AmeriCorps benefits also offer significant relief. Corps members can postpone payments on their federal loans, and the government picks up the costs of all interest accrued on qualified students’ loans during their two-year teaching commitment. During those two years, most corps members earn more than $11,000 in AmeriCorps education awards (taxable income) that can be used to pay off loans or to pay for further education, like graduate school.
Broader, more systemic changes are in the works, too. Some states hit hard by teacher shortages, like California, the Carolinas, and Wisconsin, recently joined a growing list of states that offer loan forgiveness programs or financial rewards to teachers who commit to teaching for a certain number of years or working in high-need schools.
At the national level, a bipartisan bill proposed in April would allow teachers to be eligible for two federal loan forgiveness programs simultaneously—Stafford Student Loan Forgiveness and Public Service Loan Forgiveness. (Currently, teachers can’t participate in both at the same time.) The first provides up to $17,500 in debt relief after five years in the classroom, and the latter discharges any remaining debt after 10 years.
But even if new teachers can knock out start-up costs and student loans, there remain battles to be fought for higher teacher pay. Lesley Guggenheim, who heads up recruitment and hiring for TNTP’s Teaching Fellows program, says, “The starting salary, especially when you are graduating college with a significant amount of debt, is just not high enough.”
Even so, she believes that alternative certification programs like TNTP and Teach For America have been more effective at recruiting people facing financial pressures because they allow their teachers to work full-time and earn a salary while they earn certification and graduate degrees. That simple accommodation, Guggenheim says, “has had a tremendous effect on who is thinking about becoming a teacher.”
If you’re thinking about teaching or know someone who is worried about paying off loans or other expenses on a teacher’s salary, the first step is to know your options for relief.
An April summary from NerdWallet describes the three loan programs — Teacher Loan Forgiveness, Public Service Loan Forgiveness, and teacher cancellation for Perkins loans — that can forgive some or all of your federal student loans. It includes tips for maximizing the programs.
The American Federation of Teachers has a database of teacher funding opportunities, including state and municipal loan forgiveness programs.
- If you’re considering applying to teach through Teach For America, ask about needs-based transitional funding for new teachers. Applicants to the corps can apply at the final interview or after they are admitted.
About the Author
Ting Yu (N.Y. ’03) is the founding editor of One Day and a former member of the Teach For America staff. As a corps member, she taught seventh and eighth grade English and social studies in the Bronx.