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Up Close and Personal

Shackled to Debt

For NEA Student Chair Chelsey Jo Herrig, student loans are personal.

By Mary Ellen Flannery


Chelsey Jo Herrig holds the distinction of being chair of the National Education Association’s (NEA) Student Program, but when she graduated in May 2014, from Southwestern Minnesota State University, she owed about $33,000 in student loans. In that way, Herrig is like many U.S. graduates.

Seven out of 10 college seniors who graduated in 2013 have student debt—and the average amount is just under $30,000, according to the Project on Student Debt. At these levels, student debt isn’t just a burden—it’s a barrier to higher education, especially for poor Americans.

For Herrig, who recently earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, it’s obvious that student debt is scaring away too many of tomorrow’s teachers who could be doing dynamic things in the classroom.

But when faced with staggering loans, “A lot of students never enter the [teaching] profession because they know they’ll never make a lot of money and they look at their debt and think, ‘I can’t do that!’” Herrig said. And others, “Enter the profession, but leave after a few years because they’re thinking, ‘I love this, but with my debt I can’t afford to do it anymore!’”

Either way, Herrig says, something must be done about student debt. Through NEA’s “Degrees Not Debt” campaign, she is joining thousands of NEA Student Program members who are calling on Congress to pass Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) student debt bill, which would allow student borrowers to refinance their student loans at lower interest rates—in exactly the same way that homeowners can refinance their mortgages.

Surviving the Cost of College

For Herrig, not borrowing to pay for college was not an option. She grew up in a single-parent household in a small town in southwestern Minnesota. Her mom worked two jobs—as a bookkeeper and as a waitress—and they sometimes struggled to pay the bills. On her 14th birthday, Herrig’s gift to herself “was a job.”

As a student carrying a full class load, Herrig routinely worked 20 to 30 hours a week at a string of part-time jobs—from serving at the Subway sandwich counter to announcing sports news and weather on a local radio station. Herrig’s earnings paid for everything that her loans, scholarships and Pell Grants didn’t cover—mostly food, books and classroom supplies. Herrig was frugal but she was also like many NEA members, and didn’t hesitate to put her own money toward creating unforgettable learning experiences for the children in her student-taught classes.

“I always said, ‘I’m going to college and I don’t care what it takes!’” Herrig says now. Seeing her mom’s struggle with two low-paying jobs helped Herrig understand the value of a college degree.

Today, Herrig works to ensure future educators graduate with the preparation they need to successfully enter the profession, and make sure they are aware of debt-relief resources like income-based repayment and public service loan forgiveness programs.

“The consequences of too-little information are too high for them — and also for the nation,” says Herrig whose first student loan payment came due last December.

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