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Four Things to Know About TEACH Grant Debt Forgiveness

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The U.S. Department of Education announced this week plans to throw a lifesaver to recipients of teacher education grants that had been converted to loans and left many saddled with unexpected debt—and interest. But the process of forgiving debt associated with TEACH grants is far from complete, and it may be out-of-reach to some teachers who've been frustrated by the program's flaws. 

Here's a cheat sheet.

What are TEACH grants? 

TEACH Grants—short for Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education grants— were created in 2007 to provide incentives for would-be teachers to complete their education and take hard-to-staff positions in schools that teach large numbers of low-income students. Recipients get up to $4,000 annually to pay for college or graduate school if they meet certain requirements. The aim? To address what teaching staff wonks call a sorting problem—persistent shortages of teachers in some fields, and schools that don't draw enough willing candidates.

About 58 percent of TEACH Grant recipients said the program "was somewhat or very influential in their decisions to pursue teaching in a high-need field at a high-need school," a March report by the U.S. Department of Educaiton found.

Why are TEACH Grant recipients in debt?

Thousands of TEACH grant recipients have seen those grants converted to loans. Though most recipients said they intended to meet the program's requirements, the Education Department study found that 63 percent of people who'd started their expected period of teaching in high-need areas prior to 2014 had had their grants converted to debt by 2016 for failing to meet those requirements.

Specifically, recipients have to complete annual forms to prove that they teach in qualifying subject areas and schools for at least four years within the eight years after they graduate. 

But, for many of them, the failure to complete the recertification process was due to confusing documents, never receiving paperwork, or processing failures—it was not because they left their teaching positions. 

The Education Department's survey of recipients found 19 percent didn't know they had to recertify annually, and 13 percent failed to recertify because of problems with the process. And some may not have realized their grants had been converted to loans. Thirty-two percent of respondents "in loan status" said they "had already completed the [service] requirements or were likely to do so," a sign that they were either confused by the question, confused by how the program works, or confused about where they stood financially, the report said.

And administration of the program is also to blame. A 2015 report by the Government Accountability Office found that, as of 2014, more than 2,200 grants were erroneously converted to loans, a problem that was compounded by a confusing and unclear process for disputing the status of a grant.

So how will the debt forgiveness work?

TEACH grant recipients who met the service requirements within an eight-year period will be able to request "reconsideration of their conversions," the Education Department says on the program's website. Those who qualify for reconsideration will have their loans converted back to grants so they can complete the program's requirements if they haven't already done so.

How will that work? That's unclear. The agency plans to update the webpage by Jan. 31 with details about how to complete the process. 

Some TEACH recipients won't see relief

Some TEACH recipients who are carrying debt because of processing errors aren't likely to see relief.

Chiefly, some recipients who were frustrated by a flawed recertification and dispute process gave up before the end of the eight-year window, taking positions that didn't qualify for the program or leaving teaching all together, they told NPR. For recipients near the end of their window, it may be too late to put in the necessary years of qualifying employment.

And watchdog groups that have criticized TEACH are concerned that a program known for complicated and confusing paperwork from the outset might not have the clearest process for recertification, which could frustrate some recipients who seek it.

"The department's announcement today that it will change paperwork requirements and reconsider some previous conversions does not go nearly far enough to fix the program's woes," said a statement from Julie Murray, an attorney for the Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group. 

"Changes are necessary notwithstanding the Department's ... announcement of program modifications," Public Citizen said in a report this week about TEACH grants. "That announcement, for example, would not provide any added flexibility to the eight-year certification period for individuals harmed by previous conversions and now under tight time constraints to complete their service. And the Department has not stepped back from the draconian sanction of conversion for a single missed deadline, an outcome that instead flows from the Department's regulations."

To protect grant recipients going forward, the group recommends changes to TEACH grants, including:

  • Ending the rule that grants are converted to loans upon a single missed recertification deadline;
  • Allowing deadline extensions for extenuating circumstances;
  • Formalizing a grant-to-loan appeal process and requiring a response from the Education Department within 30 days;
  • Ensuring that recipients with erroneus grant conversions can correct their credit histories; and
  • "Permitting individuals whose loans are reconverted to obtain retroactive suspension of the eight-year time limit for performing qualified service during those periods in which the grants were loans."

Image: Getty

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