Feds to reconsider TEACH grant 'bait-and-switch' issue for educators
Meghan Akins hopes the New Year will bring a significant reduction in her student loan debt.
Like millions of Americans, the Derry Area High School graduate and third-generation teacher juggles student debt. Almost a quarter of payments she makes from her paycheck teaching math at Manassas Park High School in Virginia goes toward a so-called TEACH grant debt. The federal government promised would-be teachers TEACH grants would be a gift, provided recipients taught a high-need subject in a low-income school for four years in the first eight following graduation.
The government would reclassify them as loans if recipients failed to hold up their part of the bargain.
The deal sounded good.
But recent studies revealed that Akins and thousands of other teachers saw their grants become debt, even though they were meeting their teaching obligations. Problems were so pronounced that some declared the TEACH program amounted to little more than a bait-and-switch scheme.
Last week, following thousands of complaints, a slew of lawsuits, two government studies and an onslaught of news stories including a yearlong investigation by NPR , the Department of Education said it will permit teachers to apply to have their TEACH grant debts erased.
”This would be life-changing for so many struggling teachers across the nation,” Akins said. “I am definitely still skeptical, but I can promise you I will be checking back each day to see what I have to do.
“I have been at Manassas Park since I started —and plan on staying at least the next two years. I am superhopeful that the reconsideration process applies to me. I don’t see why it would not.”
The young teacher, who shared her story with the Tribune-Review in May, said she has held up her part of the deal. About half of the students at Manassas Park come from low-income families. The school is certified among those that are TEACH eligible, and Akins believes she followed the complicated paperwork requirements to certify her status.
Nonetheless, her $6,828 TEACH grant suddenly was reclassified as a loan last spring, with $8,000 in principle and interests due. Her monthly payments grew from $215 to $283.
The TEACH program, launched in 2008, provided college students studying to become teachers in high-need subjects such as math, special education, science and English as a second language, grants of up to $4,000 a year.
The program came under fire even before it got off the ground. Critics said complex criteria including requiring grant recipients to recertify their eligibility during a narrow time period every year, set the stage for failure.
The epidemic of conversions and appeals even prompted the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, which administers the program, to petition the U.S. Department of Education for relief.
“PHEAA is required to administer the program according to federal program rules, however, we have been asking the department to simplify the certification process to ensure that well-meaning teachers were not being unfairly penalized,” PHEAA spokesman Keith New said.
PHEAA will begin accepting applications for reconsideration of grant conversions in February once the Department of Education outlines the process, he said.
Experts who follow student loan issues said continuing publicity about problems with TEACH grants and studies that identified them likely pushed the Department of Education to take action, even as it grappled with the much larger issue of growing student debt exceeding $1.5 trillion nationally.
“Our organization and others in Washington, D.C., have been working behind the scenes and flagging (TEACH grants) for a couple of years, but I do think the national stories made the Department (of Education) see this was an easy move to make and build some good will with teachers,” said Tamara Hiler, deputy director of education for Third Way, an organization that monitors such issues.
But Hiler and others cautioned it is a Band-Aid on a wound that won’t heal without structural changes.
“There are aspects (the Department of Education) can make easier through rule making. They can ease some of the paperwork and spell out some things,” said Clare McCann, a policy analyst with the New America Foundation. “But I think the TEACH grant program more broadly has a lot of problems that cannot be solved through rule making. Congress is going to need to step in and change this program if they really make it function.”
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 412-320-7996, email@example.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.