Instituting a New Program, While Holding Their Noses

College financial aid administrators prepare to help students understand a complicated new federal grant for teachers in training, of which many were critical.
July 1, 2008

College financial aid officers still have many of the same concerns about a new federal grant program for teachers in training than they did when Congress introduced it last year. The unavoidable fact that it transforms into a loan if its recipients do not follow its explicit requirements deeply troubles many. Still, with the program's July 1 launch date upon them, most college administrators are focusing their efforts on finding ways to make the grants work best for them and their students.

The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant Program will provide up to $4,000 annually in aid to undergraduate and graduate students who plan to become teachers and maintain the program’s grade point average requirement. Total grant funding cannot exceed $16,000 for undergraduate students and $8,000 for graduate students. Participants, however, must sign a contract to teach a “high need” subject in a “high need” school for at least four years within eight of the completion of their education program. Math and science, among other subjects, meet this need, according to the federal government. Still, states can recognize additional subjects to meet the demands of their area. Virginia, for example, includes the entirety of elementary education on its list of “high need” subjects.

The program, however, does have a major catch that worries many financial aid officers. In the event that a student does not or cannot complete the studies for which they received the grant or their four-year service requirement, all money acquired from a TEACH Grant converts into an unsubsidized Stafford Loan that must be repaid to the Department of Education.

The recipient will also be charged interest from the initial date of his or her grant. In what some find a less than heartening number, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that 80 percent of TEACH Grants will revert to unsubsidized loans. Though some states have implemented similar grant programs that become loans if participating students do not meet certain requirements, this is a relatively new mechanism in federal financial aid.

“There are parts of the legislation that are new and hard for people to figure out,” said Jane E. West, vice president of government relations for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, who served as a negotiator for the federal rule-making committee charged with recommending regulations to carry out the new program. “There’ll be some kinks along the way, no question about it.”

Among the suggested changes to the program made during negotiations that were not implemented include a formal appellate process that would have allowed students the opportunity to petition grant-requirement conflicts to the Department of Education, according to Cyndy Littlefield, director of federal relations for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. As it stands, there are only a few extenuating circumstances in which a student can request a suspension of the eight-year period in which he or she must complete the program’s service obligation.

“A general sense, as we were going through negotiations, was that this [program] was a bad idea in general,” Littlefield said. “You have a lot of financial aid officers who are very cautious for their students. Still, after complaining following the original set-up, some said it would be silly for [them] not to participate.”

To help students clarify any confusion they may have about TEACH Grants and avoid some of the pitfalls associated with them, the program has a number of counseling requirements. Institutions offering the grant must provide detailed advice before, during and after their association with each recipient.

Among other services, the institution must help students identify whether their field is considered “high need” and how to locate low-income schools where they can fulfill their service obligation. Stressed in the counseling requirements, institutions must also put an emphasis on the financial consequences of not completing the program properly. The Education Department estimates that the paperwork burden associated with this counseling requirement alone will increase for institutions by 50,828 hours. This does not include the additional estimated hours associated with other official paperwork related to the program.

“The last thing we want to do is have our students accrue more debt,” Littlefield said, further emphasizing the importance of counseling to the program’s success. “The problem is these financial aid offices are just overwhelmed with work. Finding time to do this counseling is a burden.”

Besides that of counseling, the program has few absolute requirements of participating institutions, placing the onus on them to account for and address any issues their students may have with it before they potentially bear loan debt. In an effort to ensure that their students fully understand the nature of the grant and its contractual obligations, some colleges are imposing additional requirements on their students as a safety net.

At Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Va., students must be admitted into its teacher education program before they will be eligible to apply for a TEACH Grant, according to Dean William H. Graves of the university’s Darden College or Education, who was also a negotiator on the grant’s rule-making committee. This, Graves said, allows students to have the possibility of classroom experience before deciding whether they want to participate in program.

Additionally, as part of its end counseling, Darden will help place its teachers in qualifying “high need” schools, of which there are a number in the Tidewater region of Virginia. Though Graves said the program is a “wonderful opportunity” for his students, he said it is probably best fit for graduate students who are typically more confident of their career plans.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education is offering its member institutions suggestions for how they might best implement the TEACH Grant Program. Dean Sandra L. Robinson, of the University of Central Florida’s College of Education, helped put together a list of actions colleges and universities can take between now and the beginning of the new academic year to ready themselves for the program.

In addition to scheduling TEACH Grant information sessions with both students and parents, she recommends a number of internal measures to ensure cooperation between financial aid departments and education programs. For example, she suggests developing an infrastructure to monitor students’ GPAs and academic progress to ensure they meet the grant’s individual requirements.

As Robinson was a negotiator on the TEACH Grant’s rule-making committee, she admits that Central Florida has a head start on other institutions. It even has the interest to show for it. The university is teaming up with a number of local public school districts with designated “high need” schools to offer their teachers master’s degrees from its College of Education. Most of these teachers will qualify for a TEACH Grant, and it will help pay for their postgraduate degree.

In light of Florida’s recent budget cuts, Robinson said, this program provides an excellent opportunity for schools districts that otherwise may not be able to afford sending their teachers back for more education. At an interest meeting with Polk County, Fla., teachers two weeks ago, 89 of 140 instructors present signed up for the master’s program with the assistance of the TEACH Grant.

Institutions without post-baccalaureate education programs, including community colleges, may also offer TEACH Grants. To qualify, they must have agreements in place with other institutions that do have education programs to provide a possible path for their students to advance.

As this allows for distance between potential applicants and education programs, some worry this adds another layer of complexity to the grant program. Littlefield said she has talked to administrators at some institutions without education programs that are too uncomfortable to offer this to their students. Other institutions, however, are taking a chance on the opportunity.

Loyola University New Orleans will soon work with local institutions to offer TEACH Grants to its students, despite that fact that it does not have a department or school of education. Potential lines of admittance to local colleges and universities with teacher education programs have to be open for students to receive this grant at Loyola, but students do not have to attend those specific area schools, according to Cathy Simoneaux, director of the university’s office of scholarships and financial aid.

Other colleges and universities in the area with education programs with whom Loyola could theoretically partner include Tulane University, Our Lady of Holy Cross College, and the University of New Orleans. Simoneaux said that some institutions without education programs that wish to enter an agreement, like Loyola, are confused as to what their obligations are to institutions with education programs with which they partner. The agreements, she said, are unlike previous existing agreements many universities have with community college programs. Though this agreement may present some confusion, Simoneaux said the university wants to offer access to this program for its students.

Given the broad access to the TEACH Grant Program and in an effort to further protect the colleges and universities she advises, Littlefield suggests they make the grant’s application process as transparent as possible. Unlike the Pell Grant Program, Littlefield stresses that this grant program is not for the general masses. She adds that, considering the concerns some have expressed about the program, it may take a while for it to take root and be used effectively at many campuses.


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