Student Loan by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0

Imagine being excited to go into the profession of education knowing that you will have a direct impact on the future leaders of this world.

Now imagine starting your career with $75,000 in student loan debt (a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees), and $135,000 more for school/district administrator credentials. My degrees are from state universities and private Jesuit universities and I earned my doctorate from Southern Connecticut State University.

That’s my story! Well, it’s my student loan profile and it has impacted my life drastically! My monthly payments were equal to my mortgage payments, always higher than my car note and many times I had to make a decision to pay for childcare or my monthly student loan payment.

I started my career as a school counselor and now I am a district administrator for an urban school district here in Connecticut. But I am also the founder of Higher Heights, a statewide nonprofit college access organization that promotes post-secondary success for underrepresented students through equity and access. While I am promoting equity and access for my students, I am also carrying over $200,000 in student loan debt. I always wanted to go to college, and I knew that making certain sacrifices would pay off in the end. I never, ever expected the sacrifice to be this great.

In 2015, Connecticut passed the nation’s first Student Loan Borrowers’ Bill of Rights. That bill created the Student Loan Ombudsman role. The position has never been funded, and it’s never been staffed. I wonder if I would have the same amount of student loan debt or same type of debt if there was a student loan ombudsman to help me?

Student Loan Ombudsmen throughout the nation are providing essential services to borrowers. In the District of Columbia the student loan ombudsman helps borrowers: Know Your Loan; Know Your rights; Know Your Options. They conduct training and webinars and support borrowers in enrolling in cancellation programs like Public Service Loan Forgiveness and the Fresh Start Program.

The ombudsman can assist students and their families in three key ways:

  1. Helping families and prospective students identify alternate sources of funding and minimize student loan debt.
  2. Showing college graduates how to understand loan repayment options and identify and qualify for debt relief programs.
  3. Assisting in the regulation of student loan servicers and the resolution of complaints from borrowers.

Should such a noble dream come at such a hefty price? When I ask my white colleagues if they have similar loan debt the answer is unanimously, No! We know Black women carry the highest student debt burden in the country .

How can I remain true to my personal and professional goals and also continue to inspire and empower the next generation of young people? This problem not only resonates with me, but with over thousands of Black and Latino educators. The National Center for Education Statistics has deemed student loan debt an often-overlooked barrier to diversifying the U.S. teaching workforce (2019).

To become a teacher means investing years and money into your education – but never being financially compensated for that investment. This “pay penalty” combined with student debt burdens reduces the chance Black and Latino students will choose to be educators.

Imagine Connecticut’s Student Loan Ombudsman working with every school district in Connecticut and all teacher preparation programs to prepare, support and protect student loan borrowers at every step of their education journey. Imagine if the Connecticut legislature follows through on their promise from 2015 to hire a student loan ombudsman! It’s time.

Chaka Felder-McEntire, EdD., of New Haven is a member of Student Loan Fund and founder of Higher Heights YEP.