Debt may deter graduates from public service

Many college students graduate with too much debt to pursue low-income public service careers such as teaching or social work, according to a report released by two higher education advocacy groups Wednesday.

Of students who graduate from public four-year institutions nationwide, 23 percent would not be able to afford to work as a teacher and still be able to pay for basic living costs like rent and food because of their debt payments, according to the 16-page report, released by the Oregon Student Association and the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG). Also, 37 percent would not be able to manage their debt as starting social workers.

Graduates of private four-year colleges face even larger debt burdens, meaning 38 percent would face unmanageable debt as teachers and 55 percent would have serious difficulty repaying their loans as social workers.

Both OSA and OSPIRG tout the findings of the report as another example of the ills of the increasing cost of higher education in the United States, which causes students to take on an increasingly large debt burden in order to afford college.

Not being able to afford to pay off student loans may discourage students from pursuing public service careers, the groups said.

“Public servants like teachers and social workers are vital to the success of our communities,” said PSU student and OSPIRG Board Chair Amy Connolly in a press release on the report. “Unfortunately, high student loan debt can prevent many students from embarking on these critical yet lower-paying careers.”

Because a disproportionate number of minority students graduate with an unmanageable amount of debt, fewer minority graduates may enter careers such as teaching or social work, said Melissa Unger, executive director for the Oregon Student Association. At the same time, students in K-12 education are becoming increasingly ethnically diverse, which means a disparity could form between the ethnic diversity of students and their teachers.

While 39 percent of students overall graduate with unmanageable debt, 55 percent of African American students and 58 percent of Latino students graduate with debt that is not manageable to repay, according to the State PIRG’s Higher Education Project.

“At the same time that we are having increasing diversity among students in K-12 education, the last thing we want is to have a decreasing number among teachers, which is a serious possibility,” Unger said.

Oregon ranks significantly better than the national average, with about 16 percent of graduates facing debt loads that would be unmanageable as a starting teacher. But Oregon’s lower numbers are mostly due to Oregon’s higher than average salaries for teachers. Teachers in Oregon are paid a starting salary of about $33,000 per year. Oregon is ranked 14th in the nation for starting teacher pay.

“While some of the numbers for Oregon seem low, it doesn’t mean that students aren’t graduating with the same amount of debt,” Unger said. “Starting teacher salaries are higher in Oregon, but the report still doesn’t cover the entire picture because it doesn’t talk about a lot of professions.”

To define at what point debt becomes “unmanageable”, the report’s authors, used a new method, which assumes that graduates could not afford to spend more than 20 percent of their discretionary income on debt repayments. “Discretionary” income was defined as money earned above half of the U.S. median income, or $18,771.50, adjusted to reflect the cost of living and average wages for each state.

While the report focused on potential teachers and social workers, OSA representatives said that it highlights the much larger problem of college becoming increasingly difficult to afford for low and middle-income students.

Over the past 10 years, tuition has increased steadily, while grant based aid has steadily declined, causing students, particularly lower and middle-income students to take out more loans in order to afford college. In 1999-2000, the average student loan debt for a full-time student at a four-year institution was $16,928, up from $9,188 in 1992-1993, according to the report.

“The report is a quantifying of a partial piece of a larger issue about state and federal investment in post-secondary education,” said Erin Devaney, PSU student body president and OSA board chair. “We’ve had a continuing trend of disinvestment in higher education. If that continues, the student debt problem is just going to continue to increase.”

The two advocacy groups say that the solution is to provide more need-based grant aid, while continuing to keep tuition low, and ensure that loan repayment policies set debt payments at rates that graduates can realistically afford.

“We need to increase grant aid, because additional grants increase the likely of a low-income student going to college and help minimize student loans. We also need to stop the increases in tuition so that the loan rate doesn’t continue to rise.”