Exclusive: Ed Department Says It Will Erase Teachers' Unfair Debts In Response To NPR Reporting After a year-long NPR investigation into the Department of Education's TEACH Grant program — that revealed thousands of teachers had grants unfairly taken away and converted into loans — the Department has announced a plan to help teachers get their grants back.
NPR logo Exclusive: Ed Department Says It Will Erase Teachers' Unfair Debts In Response To NPR Reporting

Exclusive: Ed Department Says It Will Erase Teachers' Unfair Debts In Response To NPR Reporting

McCollum teaches at Columbia Central High School in Tennessee. After she was told her TEACH Grant paperwork was late, her grants were converted to loans. Stacy Kranitz for NPR hide caption

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Stacy Kranitz for NPR

McCollum teaches at Columbia Central High School in Tennessee. After she was told her TEACH Grant paperwork was late, her grants were converted to loans.

Stacy Kranitz for NPR

December 10, 2018; Washington, D.C. – After a year-long NPR investigation into the Department of Education's TEACH Grant program — that revealed thousands of teachers had grants unfairly taken away and converted into loans — the Department has announced a plan to help teachers get their grants back. Teacher Kaitlyn McCollum, of Columbia, Tenn. looks forward to this new, official reconsideration process and says she is going into the holidays with a $24,000 weight off her shoulders. "I feel very much freed," she says. "I am ecstatic."

This newest report, from NPR's Cory Turner and Chris Arnold, will air on the Up First podcast, Morning Edition, and All Things Considered on Monday.

Stations and broadcast times are available at NPR.org/stations.

NPR first reported in March that an estimated 12,000 teachers, or more, appear to have been saddled with unfair debts — sometimes $10,000 or $20,000 — because of minor paperwork problems. The program's paperwork is notoriously confusing. Reminders to fill it out were often sent to the wrong address, and for many teachers, the annual form needed to be completed over the summer when their principals, who have to sign it, are away on vacation. Most importantly: If teachers submitted this paperwork even one day late, or missing a signature or a date, the consequences were catastrophic. Their grants would be converted to loans.

"On the phone, honestly, I cried at one point. I was like, 'This isn't right. It's not fair,'" Victoria Libsack told NPR. Libsack had her grants involuntarily converted to loans after her first year of teaching in a low-income, South Phoenix, Ariz., school.

According to new records obtained by NPR, more than 4,000 disputes have been filed by teachers who lost their grants solely because of late paperwork — likely a gross understatement of the problem. Many teachers have told NPR that call center representatives advised them, in the case of a missed deadline, it was useless to bother disputing the loss of their grants.

Read more from the year-long investigation

In 2015, an internal review of the TEACH Grant program also found that more than 10,000 teachers may have had their grants converted to loans purely by mistake. But, in July, NPR revealed that FedLoan, the program's loan servicing company, only fixed 15% of those cases. As part of the Department's newly revealed fix, it will also revisit these conversions. In June, 19 U.S. senators signed a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, citing NPR's reporting and saying "it is urgent that these mistakes are fixed."

Highlights from Chris Arnold and Cory Turner's latest report:

  • In a tacit acknowledgement that overly-strict paperwork rules were hurting teachers, the Education Department now says recipients who can prove they've met or are meeting their 4-year teaching requirements will have their loan balances erased and be refunded whatever they have paid into the system.
  • The department is also making changes to protect future teachers. It is extending deadlines and redesigning the certification process to make it much less likely that teachers run into paperwork problems in the first place.
  • "We get focused on, you know, budgets and legislative requirements and things like this, and frankly, I think sometimes we forget who we ultimately work for," says Chris Greene, the chief customer experience officer for the Education Department's Federal Student Aid office. "We know these folks made career-defining decisions to do very noble work. We are absolutely supportive of it. We know we can do better, and that's what we're trying to do today."
  • The Education Department says it will also review the cases of more than 10,000 teachers whose grants were mistakenly converted to loans.

Contact

Allyssa Pollard, mediarelations@npr.org