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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Regional teachers’ college loans add up

About a third of college graduates in Washington and Idaho are too indebted to afford working as a teacher or social worker, according to a new report that argues student loan debt is exacting a growing cost in public service.

Meanwhile, “Over the next decade, America will need to recruit 2 million new teachers to fill our nation’s classrooms,” according to the report, titled “Paying Back, Not Giving Back.”

The report says rising student debt is part of a larger problem of attracting students to crucial but low-paying jobs in public service, and they selected teaching and social work to illustrate that. Some educators say that today’s teachers – facing more debt, more testing and more pressure than in the past – are becoming less likely to encourage students to follow in their footsteps.

“The environment of the classroom has changed enough to where some teachers are telling their college students, ‘I don’t know if you want to do this,’ ” said Randall Michaelis, chairman of the Department of Teacher Education at Whitworth College.

According to the report, by the nonprofit watchdog organization Washington Public Interest Research Group, 33.2 percent of Washington graduates of public four-year schools in 2003-04 could not manage their student loan debt while meeting their other needs on a typical beginning teacher’s salary. For graduates of private colleges, it was 50.6 percent.

In Idaho, 34.5 percent of public college grads had too much debt to manage as teachers, and the figure for private school grads was 52.3 percent.

Both are well over the national average of 23 percent for public college graduates and 38.1 percent for private schools.

The report was based on an analysis by two economists that estimates “burdensome” debt, and it drew the line at $18,370 in student loan debt for a teacher making the U.S. starting average of $31,704 for nine months’ pay. Any more than that and the repayments cut into other needs, the report said.

The report calls for increases in state grants to students, as well as affordable repayment schedules and loan rates.

Student loans are among the cornerstones of financing a modern college education, as tuition has risen and state support declined as a proportion of university budgets. Two-thirds of all graduates have some debt, the Washington Public Interest Research Group says, compared with a third in 1993. The average is more than $17,000.

Alan Coelho, interim dean of Eastern Washington University’s College of Education and Human Development, said faculty members and students he has talked to say they haven’t seen the loan issue deterring students from studying education.

In fact, Coelho said, he thinks some students may not consider their debt levels carefully enough while they’re in school, sometimes taking on more than they strictly need.

“Most of the people we’re graduating are going to be making in the mid-20s to mid-30s (in annual salaries),” he said. “The good news is that they’re the kind of people who want to provide that service.”

Michaelis agreed that he hasn’t heard that debt is diverting students from the path of becoming teachers. But he said he has heard from new teachers who give it up after a few years. He said business recently overtook elementary education as Whitworth’s most popular major, though there are a variety of reasons for that.

“I’m not sure your typical student going into education, in spite of what they’ve been told, understands what that debt load is going to look like,” he said.

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