"I thought this just happened to me."
That's the refrain from dozens of teachers who reached out to NPR — via email and social media — in response to our investigative story about serious problems with a federal grant program that, they say, have left them unfairly saddled with thousands of dollars of debts they shouldn't have to pay.
The TEACH grant program offers prospective teachers up to $4,000 a year to help pay for an undergraduate or master's degree; in return, they agree to teach a high-need subject, like math or science, in a lower-income school for four years. The program, which began in 2008, gives teachers eight years to meet the requirement. Each year, they must send in paperwork, proving they're on track. Therein lies the problem.
A government review obtained by NPR shows that thousands of teachers' grants were converted to loans, with interest, because of minor issues with this annual paperwork.
Instead of helping them, many teachers say the program created an enormous financial burden — overnight. Since they could receive up to $4,000 per year for college or graduate school, some teachers tell NPR that after the loan servicer, FedLoan, converted their grants to loans and tacked on interest, they suddenly found themselves with $16,000 or $20,000 of new debt.
According to the government review, 1 in 3 participants whose grants were converted to loans said they were likely or very likely to meet the program's service requirements — or had already met them. Based on a representative survey, the report estimates that's upwards of 12,000 participants.
At the center of the story is FedLoan, the large loan-servicing company that the U.S. Department of Education pays to manage the TEACH grant program. Many teachers complain that FedLoan converted their grants to loans even as they were meeting the program's service requirements — teaching a high-need subject in a low-income school.
Teachers tell NPR that when they called FedLoan to contest these conversions, representatives were often unhelpful and discouraged them from appealing.
"There's absolutely nothing you can do since it has already been converted into a loan." That's what Mikayla Rhone says she was told by a FedLoan representative. Her grants were converted during the summer after her first year teaching.
"At the time I was in shock," says Rhone, who is now in her sixth year teaching math and business in Plattsmouth, Neb. Rhone says FedLoan justified the conversion by telling her she hadn't submitted her annual paperwork — forms she says FedLoan had never sent her.
Many teachers reported feeling unfairly punished for miscommunication and deadlines narrowly missed. For example, some TEACH grant recipients signed up with university-affiliated email addresses, but, upon graduation, those accounts are often closed. And so these new teachers say they missed important emails from FedLoan.
"Before they ever sent me anything in the mail, [my grant] had already been converted," Amanda Benson, a teacher in North Carolina, tells NPR. When she tried to appeal, she says, FedLoan told her she'd failed to keep her contact information up to date. There was nothing she could do, she was told.
Many other recipients say they began teaching and fulfilling their service requirements, including filing those annual forms, but still had their grants converted to loans. Among them: Sarah Gordon Church, a junior high teacher in Peoria Heights, Ill. She tells NPR in an interview:
"I mean, if I am meeting the requirements, and it's not an error in paperwork, how is it that you can take a grant and add that on to the total of my student loans? ... I am meeting the requirements. I am still meeting the requirements!"
The Department of Education declined an interview but, in a statement, advises teachers who feel their grants have been wrongfully converted to reach out and appeal:
"The Department has directed its TEACH Grant servicer to thoroughly examine each disputed conversion to review the facts of the case to ensure that the recipient is being treated fairly and equitably and in a manner that is consistent with the goal of the TEACH Grant Program. Department staff review disputed grant-to-loan conversions in order to validate or overturn the initial determination.
If a TEACH Grant recipient believes his or her grants were improperly converted to loans, the Department encourages the recipient to contact the Department's TEACH Grant servicer. If the participant remains unsatisfied, he or she may contact the Federal Student Aid Ombudsman, a neutral, informal, and confidential resource to help resolve federal student aid disputes."
Church says she did appeal because it wasn't clear why her $4,000 grant had been converted. But, she says, she's still waiting for FedLoan's ruling on her appeal and worries that she's getting "the runaround, basically."
Many teachers tell NPR they too tried to appeal but were rejected. Others chose not to appeal at all because, they say, they were told by a FedLoan representative that it wouldn't make any difference. David West, a high school teacher in Lexington, S.C., says when he called to contest the conversion of his grants, the person on the other end of the phone told him, "You can try to appeal this if you want. But nobody ever wins."
In Massachusetts, Attorney General Maura Healey is suing FedLoan over its handling of the TEACH grant program and the far larger Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. She says the company and the Education Department have shown a "callous disregard" for these teachers.
In the meantime, Church says, she has no choice but to pay back the loan.
"I'm still responsible for the money on the bill, regardless of the right or wrongness of the situation... I don't want to go into default... I don't want to lose my teaching license. If you don't pay your student loans, you can lose your teaching license. I don't want to do that. I worked so hard for that, and I love what I do."
And more teachers continue to reach out to NPR to share their stories.
Michelle Hickey, a science teacher at Bonner Springs High School in Bonner Springs, Kan., emailed to say her $8,000 TEACH grant had become an $11,000 loan:
"Despite the fact that I was compliant with my contract. In my final year of service... I was told that my final papers were received ONE DAY late!! I talked to dozens of managers with FedLoan, and all of them said that even with a post date that met the deadline, they supposedly threw out the envelope, my forms were late and I lost my grant."
"I, too, feel victimized by this system," says Jane Cronin, a retired teacher in Stillwater, Okla. Like Hickey, Cronin says she was told her paperwork had been received one day late.
"Once I found out that I was late by one day... I sent the paperwork via fax, and I had to resend it. They seem to want to trip you up. The bottom line, though, is that I am stuck with a $10,000 loan."
Cronin says FedLoan had tried to remind her to get her forms in on time through a portal on its website — one place she says she wasn't looking.
"You make one little slip up and they pull the rug from under you," says Kate McDonough, a middle-school teacher in Honolulu. She signed up for paperless notifications from FedLoan, but says those e-notices about the program's annual certification requirements landed in her junk mail.
FedLoan declined an interview, but said in a statement that the company "does not agree with the allegations made by the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office" and that it "remains committed to resolving outstanding borrower issues while following the U.S. Department of Education's policies, procedures, and regulations as mandated by the Agency's federal servicing contracts."
For Matthew Shaver, the problem was FedLoan had the wrong mailing address.
Shaver teaches fifth grade in Minneapolis and had $12,000 in grants converted to loans during his second year of teaching. When he called FedLoan to ask why, a representative told him the company had sent the annual certification forms to his parents' house, though his parents say they never received them.
"[FedLoan representatives] weren't compassionate at all about it," Shaver says, telling him his grants had been converted justifiably because he'd missed the deadline to file his annual paperwork.
Shaver resigned himself to paying back the money. "I didn't really feel like I had any other choice," he says. "It was sort of like my word against theirs."
After Shaver tweeted in March about the problems he had with his grant, FedLoan reached out to him.
Shaver says he responded, recounting his experience and providing his contact information. FedLoan has not followed up with him.
Most of the teachers we heard from say they feel there is a fundamental unfairness in the way the program is being run.
If you're late paying your monthly credit card bill, or your mortgage, you might pay a $40 penalty — not $4,000. Certainly not $20,000.
But that's what's happening here.
"Is the purpose of the TEACH grant to encourage people to become educators, or to teach us about contract enforcement?" writes Anthony Sotelo, a fourth-grade teacher in Richmond, Va., who also saw his grants converted.
Like Sotelo, most of the teachers who reached out to NPR applied for a TEACH grant because they believed in the importance of teaching in low-income communities, and the grant helped them do that.
Most are still working in qualifying schools.
Kate McDonough, in Honolulu, says, "I don't want to give up on [the program]. It could be a really good thing and it makes a really big difference."
Dedicated, but frustrated, teachers like McDonough say they want — and need — to see the TEACH grant fixed.