Largely lost in the debate about last year's budget reconciliation legislation that increased the maximum Pell Grant and financed that and other new spending by slashing federal payments to student loan providers was a new program that seeks to encourage students to enter the teaching profession.
The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant Program (TEACH) provides up to $4,000 a year in grant aid to college students who plan to become teachers, as well as current teachers who pursue graduate degrees. Grant recipients agree to serve as a full-time teacher in a "high need" school and teach a "high need" subject for at least four academic years within eight years of finishing the program for which the person received the aid.
Legislators have long searched for ways to increase the number of qualified teachers and prolong their stay in the profession, and the TEACH program, set to be funded at $325 million over five years starting this summer, is a move in that direction.
But as a federal committee began negotiations over rules to carry out the TEACH program on Tuesday, some higher education lobbyists said they were concerned that the program could do a disservice to many students.
If recipients can't or decide not to finish their academic programs or fail to follow through on their four-year teaching obligation, the grants are treated as unsubsidized direct loans to be repaid with interest. Students can begin accepting the grants as early as their freshman year of college, meaning that their loans could accumulate over several years. (Undergraduates, graduate students, and students enrolled in post-baccalaureate teacher credential programs are among those eligible for the program.)
As Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education and a member of the federal panel, explained during the opening minutes of the negotiated rule making session: "It's not really a grant. It's not really a loan. We're calling it a groan."
And it's a groan that has merit requirements. Undergraduates need a 3.25 grade point average to qualify; if the student is a freshman, the cumulative high school record counts. Applicants with upper-tier test scores can also be considered. The GPA requirements don't apply to all applicants -- current teachers working toward a graduate degree whose expertise is in a field where there is a shortage of teachers are exempt, for instance. Graduate school applicants must also be pursuing high-need subjects such as math, science and special education.
Undergraduate and post-baccalaureate students' overall rewards can't exceed $16,000. For graduate students, that number is $8,000. Some are concerned that the recipients might total thousands in debt.
Anne T. Hickey, associate director of government relations with ACE, said that since the Department of Education and rule making negotiators are going into uncharted territory with the federal grant/loan program, she has plenty of concerns about how the program will run.
"The intentions are easy to support, but the concern is whether we are inadvertently putting students in a worse situation," she said. "Do we know with confidence what percentage of them will end up with the loans?"
Among other issues Hickey cited are whether the loans would count toward students' aggregate unsubsidized loan limit and whether it's wise to attach so great a financial stake to a decision a 19-year-old is making about his or her career -- a concern that several other higher ed officials echoed. College leaders also generally dislike the fact that lawmakers have set up the TEACH Grants to embrace the trend -- similar to the Academic Competitiveness and SMART Grant Programs that also leaves them cold -- of injecting merit-based components to federal student aid programs.
A California program that targeted students who were nearing college graduation or had already graduated could serve as instructional. The Governor's Teaching Fellowship Program provided grant assistance for students who were seniors in college or older to complete a fifth required year in the state to become a teacher. Like the TEACH program, California's version required that students teach for a minimum of four years over a period of time after graduation or pay back the money in loans.
Among this group of students, roughly 40 percent have been repaying loans, according to the University of California System, which has tracked students who took part in the program. Most students hadn't changed their minds about the teaching profession. They often taught briefly and were unable to find work in a school that met the high-need requirement, or they took a leave that got them off schedule.
A North Carolina program that provides a maximum $6,500-per-year scholarship (that also can turn into a loan) to high school seniors who, upon graduation, teach for four years reports that 83 percent of teaching fellow graduates were employed the year after their four-year service payback. What's less clear is how many students didn't make it to graduation and are paying back their loans.
Some say they would like to see the TEACH program scratched. Lauren Asher, associate director of the Project on Student Debt, said that while the program is "well-intentioned," "if the goal is to reduce the debt load of students who want to become teachers, other types of more straightforward forgiveness programs would be more effective." Asher added that TEACH is misleading in calling itself a grant program rather than a loan program.
"People need to understand that they may be taking on a higher debt load, and they need to get counseling about their odds of completing the criteria," she said, adding that, in her estimate, the vast majority of recipients would be unlikely to meet it.
Aides to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said the idea behind the program is to attract people to teaching who intend to stay, not to put up roadblocks for students and include punitive provisions.
The service requirement was included so that the program would carry a measure of accountability, they said. It's their hope that negotiators can find a way to address the issue of students who can't finish the four years because of reasons outside of their control.
And if students don't know about their career plans, they don't have to take the scholarship until later in college, they added.
Sandra Robinson, dean of the College of Education at the University of Central Florida, called the concept of the TEACH Grants "outstanding," but said she'd still like to know what will happen if, say, a student graduates with the intention of teaching a subject and a state later deems it to be not a "high need" area.
Jane E. West, vice president of government relations with the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education, called the program "a landmark effort to address a critical shortage of teachers," and said she's confident students would be able to find the right counseling about their financial choices.
The negotiating panel continues its meetings this week and throughout the next two months. Its charge is to make recommendations to the Education Department on how to implement the program.
Among the panel's first actions Tuesday, it added to its rolls an official nominated by the National Education Association who had been turned away from the committee. The union argued that her denial meant that no teachers were represented on the negotiating panel.