NORMAN — An innovative program at the University of Oklahoma is fighting to keep the best and brightest new teachers in Oklahoma.
“We lose a lot of people to other states immediately upon graduation,” Education Dean Gregg Garn said.
Graduates from the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education are recruited heavily by surrounding states that offer better pay for beginning teachers, Garn said.
That higher salary is critical if the new teacher is struggling to pay off student loans, OU officials said.
The college’s new Debt Forgiveness Program will help lift that burden from OU’s teaching graduates by paying up to $20,000 of debt.
“It’s a kind of reverse scholarship,” OU President David Boren said. “We found that our average education major will be paid $31,000 a year when they graduate to teach. They will leave with an average debt of at least $21,000. Now how long is it going to take them to pay off those debts?”
Under the program, education graduates who stay in Oklahoma and enter high-need areas like science, mathematics and special education can apply for up to $5,000 of debt forgiveness each year for four years.
These “debt-free teachers” won’t have to use their paycheck to relieve their student loan, so they will be more able to buy a house or get married, Garn said.
“If people will be here for four years, they will start to put down some roots,” he said. “That’s a great thing for Oklahoma.”
Keeping great educators in Oklahoma has been a challenge, said Autumn McMahon, director of development for the College of Education.
“In the span of their lifetime they can expect to make less than any other state except Mississippi,” McMahon said.
The average starting salary for teachers in Texas is $10,000 more, so new teachers there earn nearly as much as a veteran Oklahoma teacher with a doctorate degree and 20 years experience ($45,000), she said.
Some graduates never catch up with their debt and leave the teaching profession for more lucrative fields.
Up to 10 students could be approved for the new Debt Forgiveness Program this year, McMahon said.
“We already have students who qualify,” she said.
OU launched a $10 million fundraising drive for the “reverse scholarships” and has raised about one-third of that amount so far, Boren said.
Donors like the fact their money will be invested in someone who has graduated and is committed to helping Oklahoma schoolchildren in some of the state’s greatest areas of need, Garn said.
“It just resonates with people,” he said.
The idea began when Garn learned a physician friend was leaving Oklahoma to take a job at an out-of-state rural Indian Health Services clinic that offered a debt-forgiveness program.
“It really got me thinking about how we might adapt this to get teachers to stay in Oklahoma,” Garn said.
“We are constantly looking for creative solutions to problems,” he said. “It just makes sense.”