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Public Comments of the National Association of Social Workers to the Department of Education

November 9, 2006

My name is Dina Zarrella. I am a social worker at the National Association of Social Workers, and I serve as the Senior Field Organizer in our Government Relations and Political Action Department. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is pleased to submit comments to the Department of Education (DOE) regarding the Public Hearings for Negotiated Rulemaking. Founded in 1955, NASW seeks to enhance the well-being of individuals, families and communities through its work and advocacy.  NASW has long advocated for the client’s rights, self-determination and client-centered care.

NASW urges you to address the issue of fair student loan repayment. Reducing debt burden is both an area where you have authority to regulate, and it is an issue that your Commission on the Future of Higher Education identified as a priority.

As the world’s largest association of professional social workers with 150,000 members, NASW has members across the United States who struggle to maintain their social work careers while repaying burdensome loan debt. Social workers enter the profession to make a difference in their community, but too many of them have to move away from the career in order to pay for their schooling.

Social workers experience loan debt in a way many other advanced degree professionals do not.

  • Bachelor’s level social workers have an average loan debt of $18,609.
  • Master’s level social workers have an average loan debt of $26,777.
  • Doctoral level social workers have an average loan debt of $32,841.
  • In 2001 the median salary of social workers with 2-4 years experience was $35,600.
  • Over 20% of social workers make less than $30,000 per year.

As you can see, comfortably repaying loans well over $18,000 is quite difficult for new and experienced social workers who may make less money than most equally educated professionals in more lucrative careers. Social workers provide services to people of all income ranges and in all communities across the country. If we want to maintain a high level of training for these crucial professionals, we need to find ways to remove the barrier of burdensome loan debt so that they can serve their client base.

Unfortunately, the tools that are supposed to assist borrowers with payments on federal loans are inadequate, confusing and inconsistent, too often providing the wrong incentives.  Without improved protections for borrowers, the nation may see an increase in defaults and bankruptcies rather than an increase in more productive graduates who can contribute fully to society. 

After 4 years of undergraduate studies and 2 years of graduate studies, I entered the social work workforce with over $40,000 in loans and a starting salary of $22,000. With interest over 10 years I would pay double that amount back. I lived in Philadelphia at the time. My monthly $600 loan payments ate up half of my take home salary. It was difficult to find adequate housing and to cover my basic needs on the remaining $600 per month. Within 6 months I moved back to Chicago to live with my parents and restart the job search process. My first job in Chicago paid slightly more at $25,000. I lived at home for several months before I was able to afford a studio apartment. I am one of the fortunate ones because my parents were able to help support me during my early career, but for too many social workers this is not possible.

Here are a few examples of the issues social workers face, in their own words.

  • The $700 a month that my wife and I pay to the government for our student loans, and will pay over the next 30 years, is money that inhibits us from living better lives for us and our own children.  This is true, even as we help many others to live better lives.  My wife and I both have master’s degrees and we both rehabilitate people with a degree of measurable success (I have done and published the outcomes online to show it) and we still, for example, live in a mobile home with our three children.  We didn’t get the degrees in order to get a better financial life; we got the degrees in our fields of expertise in order to help make the world a better place.
  • I am a child welfare social worker at a child and family services agency. I received my MSW (master’s degree in social work) in 1997 from Howard University. My student loan debt is now up to $70,000+. I am struggling to repay my student loan.
  • I am a licensed social worker in the state of WV. I have worked in the field for 13 years, and am now completing my MSW (master’s degree in social work). Social workers work in many fields, in many different positions, and I don’t know any social worker, be it a children’s worker or geriatric worker, hospital social worker, etc., who makes enough money to easily pay back the loans they’ve incurred to further their education. … I know that I am going to have a loan balance of $20,000 to $30,000 to pay off when I graduate next May from my program. I will not make enough money to adequately address my bills, but I still plan on working in the field of social work.
  • I strongly believe that the children and families I work with in the foster care system need and deserve qualified professionals that are trained in social work. Everyday I see the negative effects that worker turnover and unqualified workers have on children and their families. The children, especially “system children,” know when a worker doesn’t care and they believe that they don’t matter when they have had 5 plus workers on their case.
  • I firmly believe that appropriate compensation and loan repayment/forgiveness would help qualified, caring social workers stay in child welfare and continue to make a difference in children’s lives.
  • I am an LCSW (licensed clinical social worker) with a master’s degree who earned a 3.8 GPA (grade point average), but was forced to rack up $40,000 in student loans to finance my undergrad and MSW (master’s degree in social work) education. For the first three years of my employment, my take home pay was $1400 monthly, and $600 of that went to student loans! I am now only paying 1/3 of take home pay to student loans, but this is ghastly for a single person with my earnings. I live in a terrible neighborhood because I can not afford to live anywhere else. I love my career and am honored to be a social worker, but have not found any repayment options for Stafford loan borrowers. 
  • I am a graduate of Temple University. I completed the social work program in 2002 and earned a BSW (bachelor’s degree in social work). I have worked in the child welfare system for four years. I am currently seeking assistance with loan forgiveness programs as I am struggling to pay my student loans. I have been accepted into a master’s program to obtain my MSW (master’s degree in social work), but am putting that off due to my current loans.
  • … I hear a lot of upcoming social workers stating that they do not want to continue in the program due to the high expenses of college and the low pay that is offered in this profession.  

As you can hear from these individual stories, these are the types of people we want and need to be serving our children, our parents, and our communities. They will better be able to do so if provided reasonable loan repayment options.

NASW concurs with the five point plan presented to the Department of Education in May by an alliance of student groups, the loan industry, and colleges. The five-point plan would:

  1. Limit student loan payments to a reasonable percentage of income (less than 10 percent for most borrowers, and never more than 15 percent).
  2. Recognize that borrowers with children have less income available for student loan payments. 
  3. Prevent added interest from making the problem even worse when borrowers face hardship situations.
  4. Cancel remaining debts when borrowers have made income-based payments for 20 years.
  5. Simplify the process of applying for hardship deferrals.

NASW urges you to include these proposals in the upcoming rulemaking.   Our nation’s economic future depends on the education of our citizenry, and student loans have become an embedded part of the financing system for training beyond high school.  Given the important role of loans in making it possible to attend and complete college, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that loan repayments are not unfairly excessive. 

If NASW may be of additional assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me at 202-336-8218.

Thank you for examining this critical issue.

Submitted by Dina L. Zarrella, MSS, MLSP, NASW Senior Field Organizer

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