Corinne Lyons, the daughter of a Detroit public school teacher, had no intention of following in her mother’s footsteps. There was nothing appealing about the prospect of a meager paycheck or stretching those dollars to buy shoes and supplies for students the way her mother had.
But once she entered the classroom as a substitute teacher, Lyons, 29, fell in love, much like her mother had so many years before. And like her mother, Lyons spends money out of her $42,000 salary purchasing supplies and clothes for students. Unlike her mother, Lyons has amassed $40,000 in student debt to remain certified and increase her pay.
“It’s not just about the money; it’s about being valued,” said Lyons, an African American language arts teacher in the Detroit public school system. “I’m a social worker, counselor, lawyer and confidant for my students. I play all of those roles … and can’t afford my loan payments.”
Teachers of color like Lyons can play a critical role in the academic success of minority students, but getting them in the door and encouraging them to stay is difficult. Minority teachers, especially black educators, leave the profession at a higher rate than their white peers. Myriad barriers contribute to the trend, including poor professional support and low pay, but the burden of student debt may be compounding those issues.
A report released Tuesday by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, makes a connection between the lack of diversity in the teaching profession and the disparate impact of student debt on black and Latino college graduates. The authors say targeted interventions that increase teacher pay and ease the debt burden could help eliminate at least one barrier to recruiting and retaining teachers of color.
Student debt held by teachers of all races emerged in the 2020 presidential campaign over the weekend as Democratic contender Beto O’Rourke proposed forgiving all education loans held by public school educators.
His plan recognizes that the investment many elementary and secondary educators make in their training does not yield high financial returns. And the researchers say that may prove especially problematic for African Americans and Latinos who have higher student loan debt.
Using data from the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics, the authors analyzed student loan debt and repayment rates of people who trained to become educators or worked in the field.
They found 88 percent of black teachers and 76 percent of Latino teachers used federal student loans to pursue a bachelor’s degree, compared with 73 percent of white teachers. Barely a quarter of white teachers took on federal student debt to complete a master’s degree, compared with 47 percent of black educators and 37 percent of Latino teachers.
Among the top-percentile borrowers, black and Latino teachers took out significantly more in loans on average to finance their education than their white counterparts. And with their debt loads growing during repayment, black students who trained to be teachers may be struggling to repay the debt, according to the study.
The findings mirror broader research on the disparate impact of student debt on black and Latino college students. Studies have revealed racial disparities in student debt driven by wealth inequality and lackluster funding of institutions that enroll the most black and Latino college students. Inequities in the labor market also place black college graduates at a disadvantage in repaying education debt.
The National Center for Education Statistics has tracked similar disparities in pay among teachers. On average, African American teachers earn $2,700 less a year than their white peers. The wage gap is exacerbated by pay inequities at schools in impoverished neighborhoods, where educators earn about $4,000 less than teachers in more affluent neighborhoods. Black teachers disproportionately teach in schools in low-income neighborhoods.
“Even though black and Latinx students tend to have higher debt than their white peers as a whole, the difference for black and Latinx teachers is they are entering a profession that doesn’t provide the same financial security that similarly educated professionals have,” said Bayliss Fiddiman, an author of the study.
The student debt Lyons amassed resulted from pursuing a master’s degree in education at Wayne State University. It’s not that she needed the credential to keep her job, but because of continuing education credits Michigan requires, taking a few more classes to earn a degree made the most sense. And the added credential meant a raise from about $35,000 to $42,100.
Even with the pay increase, Lyons said she can barely afford the $275 a month in loan payments. Living at home reduces expenses, but after factoring in health-care costs and taxes, Lyons said she takes home only $1,000 every two weeks.
Demond Washington, an African American friend of Lyons who teaches high school in a Detroit suburb, is not looking forward to the prospect of adding to the $50,000 he owes in student loans. But the 35-year-old social studies teacher may have little choice as he heads back to school this fall for an advanced degree in education.
Teaching summer school brings in a few extra dollars while his wife is at home with their newborn, but it’s not enough to also pay for school. Being the sole provider for a family of four on a $41,000 salary is stressful, but Washington wants to make it work.
“It’s a juggling act,” Washington said of his desire to teach and need to provide for his family. “There is nothing like watching a child understand something for the first time.”
State and federal grants and loan forgiveness programs exist for teachers, but the complexity of accessing some programs and the uncertainty of debt forgiveness could be a turn off, said Colleen Campbell, another author of the report.
“As states are pushing their teachers to get graduate credentials … they could make college and graduate education more affordable to teachers so they don’t have to take on debt in the first place, rather than saying we’ll provide you with some relief on the back-end,” Campbell said.
One way to reduce training costs would be for states to create or expand alternative certification programs, a common path to teaching for educators of color.
Authors of the study point to the Boston Teacher Residency as a model to replicate. The state program has a goal of ensuring that people of color constitute at least half of each graduating class. Graduates earn a teacher’s license and a master’s degree in education from the University of Massachusetts at Boston in a year. They receive a stipend, health benefits and a free education if they teach in Boston’s public schools for three years.
Beefing up financial support for institutions that train educators of color could also help mitigate the need to borrow. Historically black colleges and universities graduate about 50 percent of the nation’s African American teachers. If states dedicated more grant aid to such schools, student teachers could avoid taking on more debt than they can afford to repay.