More than 60 percent of teachers who received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education prior to July 2014 were forced to repay the money as an unsubsidized loan, a government report says—even though many of those teachers were still meeting the program’s teaching requirements.
The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education, or TEACH grant, was created in 2007. Teacher-candidates who plan to teach in a high-needs field—such as math, science, or as a reading specialist—in a high-needs school for at least four years are eligible for the up-to-$4,000 grant. If they receive the grant and don’t end up teaching in the required fields for four years, the TEACH grant converts into an unsubsidized loan.
Grant recipients must also annually certify that they are continuing to meet this requirement. If they don’t, the grant becomes a loan.
The government report, first obtained by NPR, found that 19 percent of recipients whose grant had converted into a loan didn’t know about the annual certification process, and 13 percent weren’t able to certify because they encountered challenges in the process.
Fifteen percent of recipients whose grants had converted into loans said they were very likely or likely to fulfill the program’s teaching requirements—and 17 percent said they already had met the requirements. (The report notes that this finding should be interpreted with caution, as it’s possible that respondents didn’t understand the survey question or their grant status.)
Based on the representative survey, that’s likely upwards of 12,000 teachers who are teaching in high-needs fields and schools who still have to repay their grants, according to NPR.
The report looked at 500 recipients who had received the grant and were no longer at a teacher-preparation institution, as of July 1, 2014. The sample was evenly split between recipients in loan status and recipients in grant status.
Grant-to-loan conversion rates were higher among men, students with other federal loans, and Pell Grant recipients.
NPR reports that part of this problem stems from the fact that the Education Department has been “running a trillion-dollar bank on the side” due to a rise in students taking out loans or receiving grants from the government. To help with this process, the department has hired loan servicing companies. But NPR spoke to an expert who said those companies are only paid a dollar or two a month per borrower, so they have little incentive to work with teachers who have problems with their paperwork or don’t know about the requirements to renew annually.
In a statement provided to NPR, the Education Department called the GAO study results concerning.
“The study points to additional changes the Department can make that may benefit program participants, and we are committed to reviewing them,” the department said. Officials also added: “Once grant recipients start their service obligation period, the department sends them multiple communications reminding them of the requirement to annually certify.”
This is not a new problem: A 2015 GAO study found that a third of TEACH grants were converted into loans. About 2,250 grants were erroneously converted to loans, that report found. Critics have long said that the grant requires a huge amount of paperwork, and many teachers find it to be confusing.
“This is something to help teachers and instead they’re just kind of targeting them,” Maggie Webb, an 8th grade math teacher in Massachusetts, told NPR. Her grant converted into a loan without her knowledge—and interest had accrued on it. “It just made me angry because I was working in a low-income school and I still am. And I don’t know why I’m being punished for that.”
Webb is one of the teachers who have signed onto a lawsuit against the Education Department.
Past Coverage on TEACH grants:
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.