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Kindergarteners practice hip-hop dance

Kindergarteners practice hip-hop dance in the classroom of loan recipient Robbie Torney, '09, MA '10. PHOTO: Courtesy of Robbie Torne

Easing Loan Burdens for New Teachers

According to The New York Times, the average starting salary for a schoolteacher is $39,000; the average ending salary—after 25 years in the profession—is $67,000. These are bleak figures, particularly if one's teacher education costs as much as $65,000, mostly in loans.

Judy Avery and her granddaughterIn 2006, at the start of The Stanford Challenge, Judy Avery, '59, set out to address that reality with a gift of $10 million to the Stanford University School of Education (SUSE). With matching funds, a $20 million loan forgiveness program was launched to significantly reduce debt for graduate students in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP).

Five years later, 360 students have received support from the Dorothy Durfee Avery Loan Forgiveness Program, named in honor of Judy Avery's mother. Graduates who teach for two years in qualified K–12 schools repay only half their tuition. If they teach for four years, they repay nothing.

"This has increased our ability to attract the best and brightest and increased the diversity of our graduates, many of whom would not be able to attend Stanford without such support," says education professor Rachel Lotan.

Students say the program significantly influenced their decision to pursue a master's degree through STEP.

"Loan forgiveness has had a huge impact on my life and career," says Robbie Torney, '09, MA '10, a kindergarten teacher at the Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, Calif. "A big component of STEP is giving young students access to quality education regardless of ethnicity, income, and geography, and I might not have been able to teach where I am without loan forgiveness lessening the burden of my debt."

Loan recipient Robbie Torney

STEP encourages all of its students to consider teaching in underserved communities, where salaries are frequently the lowest. Loan relief makes that prospect much easier. Because research has shown that those who teach for three years or more are likely to stay in the field, the loan forgiveness program, which motivates graduates to teach a full four years, helps produce teachers who are in it for the long haul.

Of the 48 teachers initially funded by the Avery program in 2007, nearly half of their loans have been completely forgiven. Others are working in that direction, continuing to teach or taking deferments for maternity leave, travel, and at least one Fulbright Scholarship. Only two teachers have definitively withdrawn and repaid their loans in full.

"The crushing debt burden most students face when they graduate was something that concerned me deeply, particularly because my family has a long-standing involvement in public education," says Avery, chair of the BayTree Fund in San Francisco. Her grandfather, grandmother, aunt, uncle, and mother all taught school. "The U.S. educational system is under such stress that more gifts like this are definitely needed to support good programs like STEP, and make it possible for the best and most motivated students to make education their career."

SUSE Associate Dean Eamonn Callan adds that the gift has raised the profile of the School of Education considerably. "It lends dignity and honor to a profession that's marginalized in our culture," he says.