Student Debt Means Many New Graduates Can't Afford to be Teachers or Social Workers

Student Debt Means Many New Graduates Can't Afford to be Teachers or Social Workers

More than 23 percent of all four-year public and 38 percent of private college graduates have too much debt to manage as a starting teacher according to a new report released by State Public Interest Research Groups' Higher Education Project.

The report, Paying Back, Not Giving Back: Student Debt's Negative Impact on Public Service Career Opportunities, identifies the percentage of college graduates who will face unmanageable student loan payments if they become a teacher or social worker.

“Public servants like teachers and social workers are vital to the success of our communities,” said Luke Swarthout, Higher Education Associate with the State PIRGs.  “Unfortunately, high student loan debt can prevent new graduates from entering or staying in these critical, yet low-paying careers.”

The State PIRGs compared the student debt of recent college graduates with starting salaries to determine the percentages of new graduates who could not afford to become teachers and social workers. ‘Unmanageable debt' was calculated using an economic formula developed by two respected higher education economists. The formula approximates the salary-to-debt thresholds below which individuals cannot repay their loans without significant economic hardship.

The State PIRGs found that:

  • Nationally, 23 percent of public college and 38 percent of private college graduates would have unmanageable debt as starting teachers.           
  • Nationally, 37 percent of public and 55 percent of private college graduates would have unmanageable debt as starting social workers.

Pushing more of the cost of college onto the backs of new graduates threatens to undermine efforts to attract talented young people into important public service careers.  “Over the next decade the United States must recruit two million new teachers to fill our classrooms, explained Gabriella Gomez of the American Federation of Teachers.  “We will have a harder time accomplishing that critical goal if we keep saddling our undergraduates with more and more debt.”

"I would like to go into social work or another community oriented occupation, but I will be hard pressed to do so until I pay off my student loans," said John Jevitts, Undergraduate Student Government Member at the University of Connecticut.  "College should provide new opportunities for student like myself, whether those opportunities are intellectual, economic or career-related.  Student loan debt blocks many students from fully realizing the promise of a college education."

The report comes on the heels of the largest cut to student aid programs in history.  In February, Congress passed a $12 billion cut to the student aid programs.  Paying Back, Not Giving Back calls for increased commitment to need-based grant aid, more fair and manageable repayment options and increased commitment to higher education at the state level.  Some members of Congress are already fighting to decrease the burden of loan debt and see today's release as further evidence to increase student aid.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts said, “The report released today by the State PIRGs should sound an alarm for policymakers at all levels that we must do more to support college graduates who are committed to serving the public good.   The report rightly highlights the increasing cost of college and the urgent need for the Federal government to provide more aid for students interested in entering fields critical to the well-being of our society. I will continue working with my colleagues in Congress to do more for all needy students, and especially those who are committed to serving our society as teachers, social workers, and others dedicated to working in the public sector.”

Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, who has worked to increase the maximum Pell Grant award added, “This new report underscores the pressing need for the federal government to encourage and assist all Americans, especially low-income individuals, to participate in higher education.  The Pell grant program has proven invaluable in making a college education a reality for many young people who otherwise would not be able to afford it, and the amount of Pell grant funding a student receives can often be a determining factor in their decision about whether or not they will attend college. In a time of rising tuition costs and student debt burdens, we must increase funding for this essential program or lose promising young students who will not be able to afford higher education.”

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, visit the Project on Student Debt Web site or visit the The Project on Student Debt on