For years, thousands of teachers have been stunned to find out that their federal grant money for teaching in high-needs areas had been turned into student loans that they had to pay back, often due to a paperwork error or a missed deadline.
Now, the U.S. Department of Education is making changes to its Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education, or TEACH, grant program to reduce the chances that a teacher’s grant will be converted into a direct unsubsidized loan. A government report found that more than 60 percent of teachers who received a TEACH grant prior to July 2014 were forced to repay the money as a loan, even though many had completed the program’s teaching requirements.
The Education Department has been forgiving thousands of teachers’ debt since the start of 2019, after a government study and reporting from NPR exposed the high grant-to-loan conversion rate. The department now says all teachers whose TEACH grants have been converted to loans can ask for the decision to be reconsidered.
The TEACH grant program was authorized by Congress in 2007 to attract more teachers into short-staffed fields. More than 200,000 college and graduate students have received TEACH grants over the years, with nearly 27,000 receiving an award during the 2019-20 school year.
College students can get an annual grant of up to $4,000 if they commit to teach in a high-needs field and in a high-poverty school for at least four years within the eight years after they graduate. The Education Department is now expanding the definition of high-needs fields to go beyond subject areas—like special education or science—and include grade levels and geographic areas, like rural schools, that are also experiencing teacher shortages.
Previously, teachers would have to submit documentation certifying that they had begun teaching or intended to begin teaching within 120 days of graduating from college. They also had to submit a form at the end of every school year, certifying that they had completed a year of teaching. If they missed any of those deadlines by even a day, or made a small mistake on the paperwork, their grants would be turned into loans, with interest.
Now, teachers no longer have to certify their intent to teach after graduation. If they don’t submit paperwork after each school year, their grants won’t be automatically converted into loans. Teachers will now only have to pay back their grants if they run out of time to complete the required four years of service within the eight-year deadline, or if they decide they don’t want to teach at all.
“Respecting and honoring teachers who serve students with the greatest needs also requires that we ensure these educators receive the support to which they are entitled from this important federal program without having to jump through unnecessary hoops,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in a statement.
President Joe Biden’s $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, which must be approved by Congress and faces strong political headwinds, would also increase the TEACH grant amount to $8,000 per year for college juniors, seniors, and graduate students. (Freshmen and sophomores would still get a $4,000 grant.) The plan also would expand eligibility to aspiring early-childhood educators who commit to working in programs that disproportionately serve students from low-income families, and it would remove the program’s grade point average requirement of 3.25.
The Education Department said those proposed changes would likely double the number of grant recipients, so that in 2022, nearly 40,000 people would commit to teaching in a high-needs school for four years.
Department aims to cut the red tape
Teachers have long said the process to prove they’re meeting the program’s requirements was confusing and riddled with red tape. Teachers told NPR in 2018 that FedLoan, the loan-servicing company that manages the grants, didn’t keep track of recipients’ up-to-date contact information—sometimes emailing important documents to university-affiliated email addresses, which are often closed after graduation—and discouraged teachers from appealing a loan conversion when they made a mistake. Many teachers ended up owing thousands more than the grants were worth as FedLoan tacked on interest.
The Education Department said it will require recipients of the TEACH grant to go through counseling to understand the requirements and their responsibilities. FedLoan will also start sending detailed annual notifications to recipients with deadline and documentation reminders, accrued interest estimates, and explanations about the process.
The department will also expand the reasons why a grant recipient’s four-year obligation can be suspended. For example, if a teacher joins the military or is married to someone in the military, they can pause the clock for a certain period of time.
Since February 2019, when the department first began allowing TEACH grant recipients to request forgiveness of a loan conversion, about 10,000 teachers applied for reconsideration. The department approved more than 7,000 of those requests.