“TEACH” Learns a Thing or Two: A Troubled Financial Aid Program Gets a Much-Needed Makeover

The life of a teacher can be riddled with many challenges. Facing difficult students, difficult parents or an unsympathetic school board can really suck the fun out of preparing future generations for the adult world. Alongside essentially serving as tutors to a couple dozen children every day (daunting just to see it written out), teachers have historically found it hard to make ends meet on a standard teaching salary. In recent years educators have begun to speak out on this issue louder than ever before with strikes and protests sweeping Michigan and turning their attention toward the Capitol.  

With the issue of livable wages rightfully taking center stage, it is easy to forget that teachers themselves were once students. As such, many aspiring teachers are faced with hefty loans through college and a potentially unsustainable salary at the end of it all. Enter Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grants (TEACH grants, for short), a student aid program devised by the U.S. Department of Education in 2008 catered toward future educators. Each TEACH grant provides financial aid toward a teacher’s education under the stipulation that the recipient of the grant teaches for four years in low-income areas of the United States. Other stipulations include teaching high-demand subjects such as science or math and completing the required four years of low-income teaching within an eight-year time frame. If any of the aforementioned criteria are not met, the grants are either taken away or converted into loans. This is all well and good, as long as the system works as promised. Unfortunately, it hasn’t. 

As with many federal systems, TEACH grants turned heel on their intended purpose of alleviating the stress of American educators, leading to paperwork-tinged nightmares for thousands of its recipients. In late March 2018, National Public Radio caught wind of rampant problems with TEACH grants and turned to two of the people it directly affected as a case study to highlight the issue. One TEACH recipient, a Massachusetts math teacher, was hit with a $5,000 loan after the paperwork for her $4,000 TEACH grant was seemingly lost by FedLoan, the company brought in to manage the TEACH program. A similar story came from a South Carolina high school teacher who made the minor mistake of failing to sign one of his TEACH forms. In both cases the former grant recipients had attempted to resubmit their “botched” forms only to be met with a harsh submission deadline that converted their grants to loans without a second thought. 

Soon after the initial report, it was found that thousands of teachers across the country were experiencing the same unfair paperwork hits at the hands of FedLoan. In response to public outcry, the federal Education Department began a comprehensive review of its TEACH program in May 2018. During the investigation the department found all the hallmarks of a bureaucratic failure: important documents sent to outdated addresses, forms deemed “too complicated and confusing,” etc. By the end of the year the department announced that a fix was on its way. Teachers were now allowed to prove that they were meeting grant requirements, and their loans would turn back into grants, ending their nightmare as suddenly as it started. 

Since the TEACH reevaluation opened up in January, over a third of the 6,000 applicants have been approved for loan reversals. Additionally, more changes are on the horizon with the Education Department vowing to expand the TEACH fix to reach more recipients and unknot the complicated processes that the program has followed to date.  All this amounts to a step in the right direction in the fight to make educators heard.    

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