NORMAN, Oklahoma - How do we get young Oklahomans to become teachers and then stay in an Oklahoma classroom?

In a state that ranks at the national bottom for teacher pay, student investment and education outcomes, that's a tough sell.

But what if you could become a teacher with little or no college debt? That's the University of Oklahoma's new idea to help make this state 'So Much More.'

Who knows where passions are birthed or when a life’s direction is set?

“I feel like I've always had kind of that teaching gene. I want to teach someone how to do something,” said Lauren Wasson of Tulsa.

Erin Vaughan of Catoosa said, “I used to set up a classroom in my living room and my parents were awesome about it.”

For these two OU education majors, the calling they’re following leads to a classroom.

Vaughan said, “It's always been a kind of underlying passion that I've had.”

Wasson described teaching as, “Nerve-wracking. Overwhelming. Fun.”

As seniors in the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education at the University of Oklahoma, student teaching this past spring has them excited beyond belief that their dreams of becoming teachers are about to come true.

And how is that happy milestone being noted by family, friends and colleagues?

“You hear, ‘you’re not gonna make any money,’ you hear ‘don't do it, state testing's awful. You're gonna have to deal with all the bad things that come along with that,’” Wasson said. “Don't get into it right now, find something else, there's plenty of other things you can do.”

“’What's your major?’ ‘My major's Special Education.’ ‘Oh,’” Vaughan said.

Imagine starting a career so vital to this state's future under such a dark cloud of doubt.

“Definitely, the first few times you hear that it just kind of, you're like, ‘don't tell me that. I've invested all this money, and all this time and this effort into something and you're telling me it's a wrong decision,’” said Wasson.

That's what it means to be a public school teacher in Oklahoma these days - at the bottom of the national barrel in teacher pay, student investment and education outcomes.

“If we’re gonna strengthen the state of Oklahoma, the best way to do it is through great school systems,” said Dean Gregg Garn.

So, in a state that stands 48th in teacher pay, Garn's idea is to give OU's top new teacher's a fighting chance at the dawn of their careers, when their college loans average about $20,000.

“This was sort of the idea of stickiness, if you will. How can we get 'em to stick in the state, put down roots and have a professional career here, impacting in a positive way the kids in the state,” he said.

OU President David Boren said, “The first year you teach in Oklahoma, we will pay off, we'll erase, one-fourth of your debt. The next year, half of your debt will have been erased. By the fourth year, all of your debt will be erased; you’ll be a debt-free teacher.”

That’s $5,000 of debt forgiveness a year - up to $20,000 in total - for making a four-year commitment to staying in Oklahoma and teaching special education, one of the STEM subjects - science, math, engineering - a foreign language or early childhood education.

All disciplines the state’s superintendents tell Garn they have a tough time filling.

“We get lots of great students into the University of Oklahoma, and I think this is an important tool to get some of the best students that come into the university, into the College of Education,” Garn said.

Being seniors, Wasson and Vaughan could only take advantage of one year of the new program, but that's still a big help; and they sure do envy the freshmen.

“To be able to take care of all of those loans for the incoming freshmen, I mean, that is going to make a huge difference,” Wasson said.

Garn said, “Again, you're never going to drive the newest car or have the largest home, but you can have a great life. And you're not gonna have to worry about the debt of the investment of higher education following you.”

And the hope at OU is that will lead young teachers to fill classrooms in Oklahoma. And rather than worrying about their loan, they can focus on their love.

“So, hopefully, my passion will just be like the other teachers I'm graduating with that I see that fire in their eyes to teach kids,” said Vaughan.

OU's paying for this program with donations. They want to raise $10 million and, right now, they've got almost $7 million.

They'd like to do the same for the School of Social Work.

You can learn more about the Debt-Free Teachers Program here.