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UW-Madison unveils $18M forgivable loan program for education students

Published: Aug. 18, 2020 at 6:01 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Facing an ongoing exodus of teachers from the field and a declining number of students enrolling in education programs, UW-Madison’s School of Education unveiled a multi-faceted initiative Tuesday that includes an $18 million forgiveable loan program aimed at keeping graduating education students in Wisconsin.

Funded entirely by private donors, the Wisconsin Teacher Pledge is targeted for any education student, whether undergraduate or graduate; it provides additional incentives for students going into high-need subject areas like special education, or high-need geographic areas like rural school districts or inner Milwaukee. Participating students can get up to their in-state tuition covered annually, as well as other fees and testing certification costs, in the form of a loan that’s forgiven if they pledge to teach in Wisconsin for 3-4 years following graduation. Choosing a high-need subject area or high-need geographic area qualifies them for three years, and students with larger financial needs can qualify for additional costs like living expenses to be covered as well.

“There’s no interest accrued while they are a student, and no interest accrued while they are in their teacher requirement portion when they graduate,” explained Kimber Wilkerson, UW-Madison’s Director of Teacher Education.

The program will run for five years with the hopes of funding up to 1,500 students, or 300 annually; the pledged teaching time post-graduation is designed to meet one of the biggest hurdles in the field, where teachers leave after just a year or two.

“We know from past research that if people can stay in the field for more than 3 years, they kind of get over that hump,” Wilkerson explained. “They’re more likely to stay.”

Holly Helton, one of the program’s first students, is a graduate student who’s pledged to teach in the Green Lake School District following her graduation—and plans to stay after her pledged time is over. A mother of a 13-year-old son with Autism, she says she’s passionate about high quality special education students getting the best education they can.

“A lot of times I feel that special education students are not getting the best education that they could possibly get,” she said. “As a parent going through the school system and dealing with special education and some schools having outstanding special education programs--and then some schools that are sorely lacking.”

The program is designed to address a core problem in the education field: teachers frequently leaving the field, and fewer students choosing education degrees to begin with. Since 2000, the number of students graduating in the UW system with degrees in education fields has consistently declined, with about 4,300 degrees conferred in the 2003-2004 year and less than 3,000 in the 2015-2016 school year (a slight uptick in the 2018-2019 year saw just over 3,000 degrees conferred.)

In the Wausau School District, human resources director Tabatha Gundrum said the teacher shortage nationwide is an ongoing hiring issue, where in the past they would have hundreds of applications in a hiring pool and today, they feel lucky to get fifty--a number that decreases far more when hiring for a specialty position.

“The overall lower salaries that we pay for teachers comparatively to other essential services types of workers causes many young adults to choose other career paths,” she noted in an email. “We see far fewer university students going into education careers now then we used to.”

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