The TEACH Grant Program Is a Mess

The TEACH Grant program is a mess. It was never a great idea to give college kids annual grants of $4,000 a year in the hopes that they’ll become teachers. It was worse that Congress attached a four-year, all-or-nothing commitment to those grants and, if students failed to live up to those promises, to convert those grants into loans.

I admit I’m biased here. I was part of a team calling for an end to TEACH Grants way back in a  2009 paper, and while I was in the Obama Administration I worked on a regulation to at least limit the scope of TEACH Grants to high-quality programs in high-need subject areas. Those efforts ultimately failed. We’re now more than a decade into the program, and it’s hard to call it anything less than a big, giant mess.

The TEACH Grant program offers prospective teachers up to $4,000 a year in exchange for committing to teach for four years in a high-need subject in a low-income school. If recipients fail to fulfill that commitment within eight years of graduation, their entire balance converts to a loan, with interest going back to the time they received the money. In theory, TEACH Grants may have sounded like a good idea, but in practice they have too many logistical snares to work well.

First is their complexity. We do have a problem recruiting teachers to serve in low-income schools, and we do have chronic shortages in high-demand fields. It’s also true that teachers take on higher debt loads than other professionals, especially to acquire Master’s degrees, and there’s evidence to suggest these high debt loads are a barrier to entry particularly for black and Hispanic candidates.

But at the time Congress created the TEACH Grant program in 2007, we already had separate federal teacher loan forgiveness programs for Stafford and Perkins loans, and in the same bill that we got TEACH Grants, they also created Public Service Loan Forgiveness and Income-Based Repayment. Each of these programs have slightly different eligibility rules and service requirements, some of which conflict with each other. TEACH Grants only added to that complexity.

The second problem is related to targeting, and this is the tricky part of loan forgiveness programs generally. How do you induce people to become teachers who otherwise would not? A study on a Florida loan forgiveness program found it did “work” in the sense that it did induce some teachers into the profession, but it was not the most cost-effective way to do that.

In the TEACH Grant context, most of the TEACH Grant recipients are not fulfilling their commitment. It’s hard to argue the program is inducing many people to become teachers, or at least doing that job efficiently.

Third, once you get teachers into the profession, loan forgiveness programs have to follow them over time and make sure anyone who fails to live up to their commitments pays back the money. That’s a logistical nightmare, and, as NPR has reported, thousands of teachers met their commitments but had their grants converted anyway. Those teachers went through years of stress–we’re talking gray hairs and lost teeth–all for processing errors, paperwork mistakes, or deadlines that were sometimes missed by only a couple days. NPR reporters Chris Arnold and Cory Turner deserve a Pulitzer for staying with this story, and their reporting has helped out thousands of TEACH Grant recipients who did not deserve to have their grants converted into loans.

But finally, we have all the people who simply don’t fulfill their TEACH Grant commitments, which is two-thirds of all program participants. According to a follow-up study released last year, 39 percent of participants who had their grants converted to loans were teaching but not in a qualifying position (meaning they weren’t teaching a high-need subject or in a low-income school) and 33 percent were not teaching or never completed their degree or certificate. Separately, another 32 percent said they didn’t understand the terms of the grant and others didn’t follow the necessary steps to prove they were fulfilling the grant’s terms.

That’s why I prefer more direct policies. If you want to boost the supply of new teachers, make it easier to become a teacher, stop requiring them to get useless Master’s degrees, and raise teacher salaries. There’s no paperwork or tracking involved in raising salaries, and it allows teachers to decide how they want to spend their compensation, whether that’s on loan forgiveness or something else.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman