LEARNING vs. EARNING - New grads face debt, salary conflict

A report slated to be released Wednesday by the Students for Maine Public Interest Research Group (a group with no Web site!) is expected to show that student debt is a barrier to new college graduates who would otherwise become teachers or social workers - or employees of the Public Interest Research Group.

"The prospect of burdensome debt likely deters skilled and dedicated college graduates from taking or staying in these important jobs," according to the media advisory announcing the press conference releasing the report, slated for Wednesday at the Woodbury Campus Center on USM's Portland campus.

According to a related report issued by the national Public Interest Research Group, 39 percent of Maine's public university graduates will face "unmanageable debt," or an amount of debt that will require graduates to pay more than 20 percent of their income on student loan payments.

The premise of the report, limited to those two professions, ignores the fact that since the late 1970s, most incoming college freshmen have sought employment for financial gain, rather than a sense of fulfillment or meaning in their work. And it also points directly at two competing causes of the problem, which is hardly limited to teachers and social workers. What about police officers, firefighters, municipal clerical staff, even journalists, all of whom perform vital services in a democracy but get paid less than their social contribution might indicate? And then there are the PIRGs themselves, which criticize this practice, but pay less themselves than many agencies they are upset with.

The PIRGs, however, say that the real problem is student debt, not low pay, and have launched a national campaign to return federal spending to tuition subsidies. The feds, for their part, have launched a "listening tour" to find out what's wrong with their policies, but it's so miniscule in its reach that they may never find out.

But when we tell young people that we value teachers at about $27,000 and we value chemical engineers at about $54,000, we're telling every prospective teacher that their value is half that of a chemical engineer. Is that the message we want to send? And what message are the PIRGs sending, when their own Web site indicates that new hires are paid $23,750 in their first year?

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