STEM Teachers Could Get Up To $20K In College Loan Aid

Senate passes legislation to give STEM educators a hand with paying off existing student loans or help funding advanced degrees.

State lawmakers want to provide a new incentive for New Jersey’s public-school STEM teachers by offering to help them pay off college loans.

Under legislation that cleared the full Senate on Sept. 12, teachers of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) who are working in public schools in New Jersey could get up to $20,000 in college-loan assistance in return for teaching in the classroom for at least four years.

The state funding could be used to either pay off existing student loans or as tuition reimbursements to help fund advanced degrees, according to the legislation, which passed the Senate by a 31-0 margin. The legislation’s advancement comes while Gov. Phil Murphy and lawmakers have been emphasizing STEM education as part of a broader effort to improve the state economy by promoting innovation and the growth of new tech companies. Bill sponsors also maintain the student-loan assistance measure should help attract or retain teachers with STEM backgrounds in New Jersey who could likely make more money in the private sector.

“In order for us to continue to grow our labor force, we have to start right in our classrooms, by engaging students and nurturing their interest in these subjects,” said Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

“To accomplish this, we must encourage more recent graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math to pursue careers in education,” said Ruiz (D-Essex).

A state of innovation

Murphy, a Democrat who took office last year, has frequently highlighted the need to restore New Jersey’s standing as one of the nation’s top locations for innovation, and he has previously backed legislation that established student-loan reimbursements for college graduates pursuing a STEM career in New Jersey. He has also backed state funding for paid interns in the STEM field to ensure students who can’t afford to take on unpaid internships still have access to those opportunities.

The proposed loan-assistance for STEM teachers with at least four years of experience at a public school in New Jersey would give them an opportunity to receive up to $20,000 in loan redemptions for their existing college debt. They could also receive up to $20,000 in loan reimbursements for graduate and doctorate courses in the STEM field. The legislation doesn’t specify whether teachers can enroll in both programs.

The bill also calls for the state Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA) to administer the programs, and for the agency to work with the state Department of Education to adopt all rules and regulations for both the loan redemption and reimbursement provisions.

A fiscal note prepared by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services (OLS) for the bill did not include an estimated cost, citing “a lack of information on the number of teachers eligible to participate in the program and the total loan balances that would be eligible for redemption.”

The measure would require HESAA to submit an annual report to the governor and the Legislature detailing the total number of teachers participating in the program, as well as its impact on attracting STEM teachers. The report would also have to track the number of teachers who withdrew from the program before meeting all requirements.

College-loan debt has become a major concern for state lawmakers in recent years, as studies have shown more than 1 million New Jerseyans have outstanding student debt worth an estimated $43 billion. The average resident with student loans owes roughly $40,000, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Student Borrower Protection Center.

The New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants has also been sounding alarms after a recent member survey found student-loan debt was forcing a majority of its members’ clients to put off things like buying a new home or saving for retirement.

State Sen. Paul Sarlo, an engineer who serves on the Budget and Appropriations Committee, said the gap between what those with STEM backgrounds can earn in the private sector compared to what they can make as an educator in New Jersey is “far wider than any other subject.”

Incentives to stay out of the private sector

“This bill will create greater financial incentive to teach, rather than take a private-sector job and, in turn, ensures that we have a robust pool of STEM teachers,” said Sarlo (D-Bergen). But it’s unclear right now how much the proposed loan-assistance programs would cost the state. The legislation — which has yet to be approved by the Assembly — does not call for a separate appropriation to fund the program.

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