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More Than 6,500 Teachers Have Had Unfair Student Debts Erased

Kaitlyn McCollum, pictured here in 2018, was teaching high school in Tennessee when her federal TEACH Grants were turned into more than $20,000 in loans.
Stacy Kranitz for NPR
Kaitlyn McCollum, pictured here in 2018, was teaching high school in Tennessee when her federal TEACH Grants were turned into more than $20,000 in loans.

More than 6,500 current and former teachers have gotten a second chance to shed millions of dollars in unfair student debts, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Education.

The educators had enrolled in the department's troubled TEACH Grant program, which provides grants to help aspiring teachers pay for college. In exchange, they agreed to teach a high-need subject for four years in a school that serves low-income families.

But a 2018 investigation by NPR revealed that strict paperwork rules and poor program management led to thousands of qualified teachers having their grants converted to loans that they had to pay back, with interest. In response, the department began a top-to-bottom review of the program and ultimately created a "reconsideration process" for any teacher who had met — or could still meet — the teaching requirements, but nevertheless had grants turned to loans.

According to the department, since that reconsideration process began, more than 6,500 educators have successfully petitioned to have nearly $44 million in loans turned back into TEACH Grants. For teachers who could prove they had already completed their required service, their debts were simply discharged. For teachers still serving, the conversion means they can resume the deal they made with the department and work to keep their grant money.

Kaitlyn McCollum is one of those educators who successfully had her loans turned back into grants. For two years, these unfair debts haunted her and her young family. She was teaching high school in Tennessee when her federal TEACH Grants were turned into more than $20,000 in loans. The reason: McCollum had narrowly missed a paperwork deadline. She and her family eventually moved to a smaller, less expensive house to prepare for what then seemed inevitable: Repayment of a debt she and her husband had never planned for.

But, as NPR reported in the spring of 2019, McCollum's debts were erased as part of the department's overhaul.

"We won," she told NPR. "We raised our voices and they finally heard us. Disbelief followed by a relief like I have not felt before."

According to the latest Education Department data, as of July 6, approximately two-thirds of TEACH Grant recipients who successfully had their loans turned back to grants had already or have since satisfied the program's teaching requirement.

While the program's flaws date back to its beginning, in 2008, it was the Trump administration that agreed to a remedy and apologized to teachers like McCollum.

"We've put teachers who didn't deserve this stress, this pressure, this financial burden in a position that is frightening and confusing," the Education Department's then-acting undersecretary and acting assistant secretary, Diane Auer Jones, told NPR in 2019. "I can't give them back those years, and I can't take away the gray hairs and I can't take away the stress. It seems like a small thing to do to say, 'I'm sorry,' but I'm very sorry. And we want to work to fix it and correct it."

Since the TEACH Grant program began, roughly 32,000 educators have successfully completed the program, receiving approximately $200 million in grants to pay for their degrees, according to the department.

The department posted its new, final regulations for TEACH to the Federal Register on Aug. 14. Those regulations will go into effect July 1, 2021.

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Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.