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Analysis Finds Costly Consequences for Many TEACH Grant Recipients

Federal TEACH grants subsidizing teacher preparation are actually burdening a fair number of recipients—with nearly 40 percent of the grants converting into unsubsidized loans, according to an analysis published Jan. 13.

The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education is an unusual, hybrid grant-loan program (critics call it a "groan") that help subsidize recipients' teacher preparation. If those candidates don't meet the service commitment, which includes teaching in a low-performing school for four years, they have to pay the amount back, with interest. 

The nonprofit think tank Third Way used an open-records request to get the TEACH grant data from the U.S. Department of Education. Based on its data, it says that since 2008, in the six years of the TEACH grant, 37.5 percent or about 36,000 of the 95,000 grants have been converted into loans.

What's more, the group says that the grants aren't going to candidates in programs identified as being the best by U.S. News and World Report. In 2013-14, highly ranked programs at Michigan State had just 80 candidates receiving TEACH grants; those at Teachers College, Columbia University, Stanford University, and Vanderbilt University had far fewer. Meanwhile, the for-profit Grand Canyon University gave out 1,900 TEACH grants and the largely online National University gave out 1,500. Neither of those institutions is on the list of top-ranked programs.

And 22 of the 38 education colleges identified as poor performing under federal rules have offered the grants at one point or another. (Close readers of this blog will know that this is one of the reasons why the Obama administration has proposed regulations restricting the TEACH grants to high-performing programs.)

The Third Way analysts see all of this as a big problem, going so far as to call the program a failure. "The high conversion rate could be due to teachers feeling woefully underprepared to take on the challenges of teaching in high needs schools," they write. "It is time for the federal government to reassess the program's structure in order to better serve its goals." At a minimum, they argue, the feds could build more flexibility into the program by, for instance, exempting recipients who are laid off for budgetary reasons from the commitment.

As always with the very complex landscape of teacher preparation, however, I can think of a few caveats to these findings.

As I've written several times in recent weeks, there just isn't agreement about what constitutes good practice in teacher preparation or how to measure it. Third Way uses U.S. News' graduate education ratings, which are based on GRE scores, peer assessments, and research expenditures, among other things. The suitability of those for judging top programs can (and has been) debated. Also, not all TEACH grants are awarded to candidates in graduate-level certification programs.

Similarly, Grand Canyon University and National University are among the largest preparers of teachers in the country, so it stands to reason that they would therefore offer more grants than comparatively smaller programs. (It certainly does raise eyebrows, though, that for-profit colleges, which have been criticized for generally poor graduation rates, are apparently encouraging candidates to seek these somewhat risky grants.)

In the past, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education has expressed frustration about the lack of data released by the feds on this grant program. I'll update this item if the group has a comment on the findings today.

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