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Some teachers trapped by debt get Education Department help

The idea of the TEACH Grant program was simple: Teachers got a grant to pay for college or graduate school, and in exchange they agreed to teach for four years where they're needed. But an investigation by NPR found that inflexible rules were turning free grants into costly loans. William Brangham speaks with NPR's Cory Turner about a federal fix for program recipients.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Across the country, teachers have been protesting for better working conditions and better pay.

    Teaching still ranks among the lowest paid professions in America. Back in 2007, the Department of Education launched a program to help offset the cost of college or graduate school for teachers.

    But, as William Brangham reports, the program instead turned into an economic trap.

    It's part of our weekly education series, Making the Grade.

  • William Brangham:

    The program is called the TEACH Grant program. And the idea was simple. Teachers get a grant to pay for college or graduate school, and, in exchange, they agree to teach for four years in places where they're needed.

    But according to an investigation by National Public Radio earlier this year, some inflexible rules turned those free grants into very costly loans. Thousands of teachers suddenly found themselves facing potentially ruinous debt.

    One of the NPR reporters on that series, Cory Turner, joins me now with an update to their reporting.

    Cory, thank you so much for being here.

    Before we get to the update, explain a little bit more. What was the idea behind the TEACH Grant program?

  • Cory Turner:


    I mean, when Congress passed and created this program, the intentions were good. The point was to try to get more young talented teachers into schools that need the most, low-income schools.

    And so what the program did was to offer federal grants to aspiring teachers to help pay for college or a master's degree. And, in return, these teachers promised to do a couple of things: to teach a high-needs subject like math or science in a school that serves lots of low-income families, and they'd have to do it for four years.

    The trick is, there was one requirement that has really caused a lot of the trouble, and that was that teachers also had to prove they were doing this every year by submitting paperwork.

  • William Brangham:

    And, roughly, how big were these grants?

  • Cory Turner:

    So, we're talking about generally, for a year, roughly $4,000. We talked to a lot of teachers. Some got $1,000 or $2,000. We talked to several teachers who got $4,000. So we're talking $16,000.

    But once they're converted then from grants to loans, interest is added on. So, oftentimes, teachers would find themselves suddenly — instead of grants, they would be in debt to the Education Department $20,000.

  • William Brangham:

    So, you featured one teacher in Tennessee, Kaitlyn McCollum, who had this, where she took out these grants that then, unbeknownst to her, converted into loans.

    Tell us about her. And tell us what happened with her.

  • Cory Turner:


    So, Kaitlyn lives in Columbia, Tennessee, and she had a problem that thousands of teachers had, which is, as I said, with this paperwork, it had to be sent in on time. Often it was due, though, in the middle of summer, when principals who have to sign it are away on vacation.

    The paperwork was really fairly complicated. We even found an internal memo from the Ed Department where they called it complicated and confusing. Sometimes, reminders to fill it out were sent to the wrong address.

    So, Kaitlyn, when she did the paperwork, she faxed it from her school with her principal. The loan servicing company said they never got it. She mailed it in, but the mailed-in copy arrived several days late. She appealed. She even got her principal to write her a letter saying, we faxed this paperwork in on time.

    But these rules are really inflexible. They always have been. This program has been in place for a decade. And so her appeal was denied, and suddenly she found herself indebted more than $20,000. And she's been in forbearance, because she and her husband who are — you know, they're rule followers.

    He used to be a teacher, too. They're doing their best. They just couldn't afford to pay this back. So they went into forbearance. We said in our story, they even sold their house, because they did the math and they couldn't afford it. They downsized, even though they have a 19-month-old, because they wanted to be able to pay this back.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's listen to a little bit of how she described the feeling of this debt.

  • Kaitlyn McCollum:

    And then it all just hit me like a ton of bricks, like, oh, my God, I owe all of that money. And it's like a knee-buckling moment of panic all over again.

  • William Brangham:

    Your reporting showed that this was — really opened the floodgates of teachers all over the country complaining about this happening to them.

    And the Department of Ed promised that they were going to fix it. What did they do?

  • Cory Turner:

    Yes, so the Department of Ed has offered a number of different fixes here.

    For teachers like Kaitlyn, again, she had to serve four years. They all do. She made it three years filing her paperwork. She got converted in her last year.

    Teachers like Kaitlyn, as long as they can prove retroactively that they met the teaching requirements of the program, regardless of what happened with the paperwork, they will be made whole.

    If they paid interest, the Ed Department assures us the interest will also be refunded. We should also say teachers who can maybe only prove retroactively one, two, or three years of service, as long as there is still time for them, they can get back on track and potentially be made whole as well.

    So, a couple of days ago, as we learned this news, my reporting partner, Chris Arnold, and I, we actually called Kaitlyn McCollum up because we wanted to share the news. She was the first teacher we called.

  • Kaitlyn McCollum:

    Sorry. I'm…


  • Kaitlyn McCollum:

    Oh, goodness, that is such good news. That's such good news.

    We get to go back to living life like we did prior. Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    That really is a wonderful, wonderful outcome to all of your good, hard journalism.

    For teachers who are curious how they might proceed, where do they go? What do they do?

  • Cory Turner:

    First, they need to be patient. The Education Department is still ironing out the details of this fix. They have assured us they will post them on their Web site by January — by the end of January.

    I think the best thing to do would be to go to our Web site NPR.org/TeachGRANT. In our latest story, we actually have a link to the Ed Department page where they're going to post all of this information.

    We also encourage teachers, if you want to go through this reconsideration process, share your story with us. There is a link in our story for you to do that as well. We'd love to hear from you and to follow you as you go through this process.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Cory Turner of National Public Radio, thank you so much.

  • Cory Turner:

    Thank you.

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