Overhaul makes it easier for aspiring teachers to get grants

The U.S. Education Department on Thursday loosened the rules around a grant program that’s intended to help aspiring teachers pay for college but has actually left thousands stuck with student debt.

The update is part of a federal rules overhaul that was finalized under the Trump administration but is just now taking effect. Unlike other Trump-era rules that the Biden administration is working to reverse, however, this rule was heralded as a victory for the nation’s teachers.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said the changes deliver much-needed improvements to help teachers get grants “without having to jump through unnecessary hoops.” He said the White House now hopes to take it a step further by expanding funding for the program and adopting other policies to address teacher shortages.

The TEACH Grants — short for Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education — were created in 2007 to expand the nation’s teaching force and steer more teachers to schools in low-income areas.

Under the program, students can get up to $4,000 a year if they plan to teach high-demand subjects in schools that serve low-income students. They must teach for at least four years within eight years of graduating. If they fall short of that goal or fail to submit regular paperwork, the grants become federal loans that must be repaid in full and with interest.

Lawmakers in both parties have called for improvements to the program since 2015, when a federal watchdog agency found that thousands of the grants had been converted to loans. As of 2019, almost half of grants awarded through the program had become loans, in many cases only because recipients failed to turn in annual forms proving their teaching status.

Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos moved to ease some of the requirements last year amid a flurry of policy changes. Her updated rule eliminated much of the paperwork that has posed problems for recipients. The rule was scheduled to take effect July 1.

With the new policy in place, students will no longer have to submit a form within 120 days of graduating indicating that they have started teaching at an approved school. And after they start teaching, they will no longer have to submit yearly forms proving their teaching status.

On Thursday, Education Department officials emphasized that the only way a grant can now be turned into a loan is if students requests it or if they run out of time to complete four years of teaching within the eight-year deadline.

An expanded appeals process will also allow students to request reconsideration if their grant is turned into a loan for any reason. And the Education Department will accept a wider range of reasons that would allow students to get credit for a full year of teaching even if they work just part of the year.

President Joe Biden is proposing to expand the program through his $200 billion American Families Plan. His proposal would double the grant size, to $8,000, for college juniors and seniors and all graduate students. It would also eliminate the interest when grants are converted to loans, and it would expand the program to include early childhood teachers.

The White House says the proposal would increase the number of grant recipients by more than 50%, to nearly 40,000 in 2022.