New TEACH Grants May Come at a Price For Many Recipients

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 15, 2008 7 min read
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This fall, hundreds of eager teachers-to-be will undergo their training with the backing of federal dollars from a new scholarship program.

A decade from now, that money will be a boon to some of those teachers, who will have subsidized up to $24,000 worth of coursework. But it will be burden to others, who will have to repay their entire subsidy—with interest.

Such are the promises and pitfalls of the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education, or TEACH, grants, which the Department of Education is rolling out this fall.

The program gives scholarships of up to $4,000 annually to teacher candidates who agree to fulfill a four-year teaching obligation in a low-income school and in a federal- or state-designated high-need content area, including mathematics, science, foreign language, or special education.

Those who do not fulfill these obligations within eight years of completing their training will have their scholarships converted to unsubsidized federal direct loans.

The hybrid funding mechanism—the first so structured for teacher education—is raising debate in the higher education world about its potential efficacy in attracting teachers to high-need K-12 schools and subjects.

Proponents argue that the TEACH grants will draw better-qualified teacher candidates into the profession, while critics say the federal scholarships are poorly designed to aid teachers.

“Honestly, we are lucky to get two years out of these bright, young, fresh, energetic, young people,” argued Nancy Coolidge, a coordinator of student financial aid in the central office of the University of California system, located in Oakland. “Four years is a tough hustle, and for a 19-year-old to commit to that, very hard.”

Created as a mandatory spending program within the 2007 College Cost Reduction and Access Act, a budget-balancing measure, the TEACH grants are effectively an entitlement program not subject to congressional appropriators’ whims: Any qualified student may participate.

Under some estimates, the program will cost the federal government as much as $325 million over the next five years.

A Psychological Appeal

On some level, the program’s appeal is psychological, in that the subsidies are foremost grants. By contrast, loan-forgiveness programs for prospective teachers typically make them sign promissory notes up front. Such programs cancel increments of a loan only after each year of teaching a recipient completes.

“It’s one thing to have somebody pay your tuition; it’s another to say, ‘Well, maybe in five years, I won’t have to pay back some of this loan,’” said Jane West, the vice president of government relations for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, which lobbied in favor of the program. “I think to some extent [the TEACH grants], at least initially, target a different audience [from loan-forgiveness programs].”

Ms. West also noted that the TEACH grants are not needs-based and set a higher academic bar for applicants than many loan-forgiveness programs.

Aid for Aspiring Teachers

Federal TEACH grants, each worth as much as $4,000 a year, go to teacher-candidates for up to four undergraduate years and two postbaccalaureate years.

University Participation

• Universities that agree to participate must enroll students in programs that prepare them to teach as highly qualified teachers, as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act, in “high need” fields designated by states or the federal government. High-need fields include: English language acquisition, foreign language, mathematics, reading specialist, science and special education.

• University preparation programs must provide at least 10 weeks of preservice clinical training.

• Universities provide initial counseling to recipients about their service agreements, counseling for each subsequent TEACH grant disbursement, and exit counseling when recipients have completed their training.

Student Participation

• The grants are not need-based, but students must fill out the federal financial-aid application to participate.

• Students must hold at least a 3.25 grade point average or score above the 75th percentile on any section from an undergraduate, graduate, or postgraduate admissions test.

• Students must complete service agreements on the U.S. Department of Education’s Web site each year they participate. As part of those agreements, they commit to serving as highly qualified teachers for at least four full academic years in shortage subject areas at low-income schools, within eight years of completing their training.

• If a student fails to meet the terms of the service agreement, his or her TEACH grant is converted to a federal direct unsubsidized loan.

Source: Education Week

“I think there’s wisdom in that,” she continued. “And the problem of getting teachers into [low-income] schools is so huge, why not go at this several different ways?”

With the potential for the so-called grants to convert to loans, the Education Department, universities, and other stakeholders negotiated federal regulations for the program, adopted in June, that added a number of counseling requirements for teacher candidates.

Such requirements are even stricter than those for students seeking federal direct loans, and are required at multiple stages before recipients exit their preparation program, noted Gail McLarnon, a program analyst for the Education Department’s office of policy, planning, and innovation.

Representatives from teachers colleges said they supported those features.

“One of the worries is that there will be young people who go into the program and realize partway through that they don’t want to be a teacher,” said Rick Ginsberg, the dean of the school of education at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, which will offer TEACH grants beginning this fall. “We want to be able to make people understand that they are signing up to teach and that there is a financial obligation to changing their mind.”

For the 2008-09 academic year, institutions offering TEACH grants must provide the counseling. Next year, the Education Department will pick up the task by moving much of the counseling online, reducing the burden on colleges and allowing the department to ensure that disclosures are being appropriately made, Ms. McLarnon said.

As of Sept. 9, 435 universities planned to offer the grants sometime in the 2008-09 school year—more than a third of the nation’s 1,200 schools of education.

Many of those universities are now seeking to tailor the program to their candidate pools under the federal rules, which permit colleges with several teacher-preparation routes to select which ones will be eligible to offer the scholarships.

Dennis Pataniczek, the dean of the school of education at Salisbury University, in Salisbury, Md., said his institution will initially restrict TEACH grants to students who enter its Professional Teacher Education Program, which begins in the junior undergraduate year.

That program requires applicants to have taken some education courses that include time spent in K-12 schools so all students will enter the program with some on-the-ground experience.

“Our concern about offering TEACH grants to freshmen is that they don’t have a track record, and they may or may not have had experiences that would help them make a sound decision,” he said.

Ms. McLarnon said other institutions plan to restrict TEACH grants to those teacher candidates who enter a master’s degree-granting teaching program.

Bait and Switch?

The grant-to-loan conversion rates under the program could be significant. The Bush administration, in its 2009 budget request, estimated that as many as 80 percent of TEACH grants would convert to loans, though Democratic aides on the House Education and Labor Committee disputed that figure as too high.

Critics, though, pointed to what they termed the grant program’s “rigid” criteria that could strap unsuspecting recipients.

Frequently, Ms. Coolidge of the University of California system said, school districts’ systems for assigning teachers are centrally planned and must take many factors into account besides a given teacher’s grant responsibilities. TEACH grant recipients working in a district could be reassigned to classroom slots not designated as shortage subjects.

“The needs [of TEACH recipients] are not of paramount interest to the director of personnel in a busy, disadvantaged school district,” Ms. Coolidge said. “They need the people where they need the people.”

Congress stepped in to address some similar concerns in the recently reauthorized Higher Education Act. Now, for instance, students who have begun teaching can complete their obligations in a single high-need field even if a state determines partway through that the teacher’s field is no longer a shortage area.

Congress also gave the Education Department the authority to create categories of “extenuating circumstances” under which a TEACH recipient could be excused from fulfilling part of his or her service obligation.

But one issue will be difficult for officials to fix, said Barmak Nassirian, the associate executive director for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions.

Because TEACH grants do not count toward aggregate federal student-aid lending caps for individuals, students not interested in teaching could apply disingenuously for the grants as a back-door way to borrow extra federal funds, Mr. Nassirian said.

“For an upper-middle-income family, that may be very appealing in lieu of private-label borrowing,’” he said.

The Democratic committee aides said provisions were added to discourage such practices. Interest on converted loans is charged from the date of the TEACH grant disbursal rather than the date of its conversion to a loan, they noted.

Future Uncertain

In the meantime, Ms. Coolidge said she feels the grants are appropriate only for students whose alternatives are loan products that would cost them more in interest than federal direct loans.

“We generally encourage them to explore better options. Lower-cost loans and any type of scholarship would be more desirable than a TEACH grant,” she said.

Ms. West said the program’s success hinges on the counseling and close partnerships between schools of education and the districts ready to receive newly minted teachers.

“Implementation is so critical,” she said.

Ms. McLarnon of the Education Department added, “We’re in as much of a learning position as anybody here. We’re curious and anxious to see how it goes.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2008 edition of Education Week as New TEACH Grants May Come at a Price For Many Recipients


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