Recognize the Solution at Hand

This post was originally published on the Learning First Alliance’s Public School Insights blog.

Last month, President Barack Obama visited colleges in New York and Pennsylvania to discuss a plan to make higher education more affordable and accessible to all Americans. Soaring costs threaten accessibility; lack of accessibility threatens the economic growth of the country. Therefore, attention to this matter is absolutely required.

Throughout the country, an increasing number of students must rely on loans to pay for postsecondary schooling and are burdened with debt after graduation. According to the College Board (2012), among students earning bachelor’s degrees in 2010-11 from either public or private nonprofit, 4-year colleges, 60% of students took out student loans and graduated with an average debt of $25,300. This educational debt is especially taxing for graduates who choose to enter lower paying public service careers, such as the teaching profession.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2012), as of 2009, more than 47% of graduates with a bachelor’s degree in education will accumulate an average of $21,400 in student debt. In fields such as education, where salaries are notoriously low, mitigating debt through grant programs is essential to recruiting and retaining the most talented men and women in the field.

Since 2008, a little-known grant program has made college accessible and affordable for talented students interested in teaching. The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) grant program, authorized in the College Cost Reduction and Access Actis designed to recruit and train highly qualified teachers into hard-to-staff fields and schools that serve low-income students. TEACH grants provide funding to academically talented postsecondary students who are completing or intend to complete necessary course work to begin a career in teaching, and who agree to complete a 4-year teaching service obligation. Grants of up to $16,000 can be awarded to eligible undergraduates—$4,000 per year in TEACH grant funds—and up to $8,000 for graduate students.

TEACH grants provide access to higher education and a career pathway into the field of education. Through the grant program, many low-income and first-generation students are able to attend college and reduce their student loan debt in exchange for working in high-need schools upon graduation.

Carine Feyten, dean of the School of Education, Health, and Society at Miami University, Ohio, believes that TEACH grants have made a difference in the lives of her students. "Our students have the second-lowest average income of Miami’s divisions [colleges] yet our students also have the second-lowest average debt at graduation ($28,655)," Feyten said. "Without the TEACH grant program, we would see higher levels of student debt, which would be a disincentive to pursuing a teaching degree for many individuals."

The TEACH grant program benefits both the students who receive them and the schools in which they serve as teachers. TEACH grant recipients’ 4-year service commitment is aimed at reducing teacher turnover in hard-to-staff schools and teacher shortages in high-need fields. Furthermore, in addressing the gross inequity in the distribution of high-quality teachers, institutions administering TEACH grants are developing an educator workforce that is highly-effective and effectively deployed to assist low-performing schools that serve large numbers of poor and minority students.

As of February 2012, more than 2,300 TEACH grant recipients had entered their service obligation. Among those are 592 recipients teaching in math, 261 recipients teaching in science, 849 recipients teaching in special education, 254 recipients teaching in bilingual education or English language acquisition, 146 recipients teaching in reading, and 56 recipients teaching foreign languages—all in schools that receive Title I ESEA funds. In 2012-13, 785 institutions participated in the TEACH grant program and dispersed $94,150,755 to 31,813 recipients. Recently, the Mississippi state legislature approved the Teacher Education Scholars Program, a new initiative modeled after the TEACH grants and other similar state programs that encourages high-achieving high school graduates to pursue a career in teaching.

University of Northern Iowa

At the national level, the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) is currently the leading public university in administering the TEACH grant in dollars and ranks number two in the number of students awarded the grant. Since the inception of the federal program, UNI has awarded 1,089 TEACH grants to its students totaling more than $8.1 million. During the 2013 fiscal year, 621 students were recipients of the grant program, totaling $2.2 million.

A TEACH grant recipient from UNI stated, "Receiving this grant has been a tremendous help throughout my undergraduate program as well as the graduate program that I am currently enrolled in. I have been able to focus on my program and career goals while at UNI, feeling confident about my career in education rather than concerned with paying back the hefty loans that normally go along with a college education. Because of the TEACH grant I decided I could go back to UNI to receive my master’s degree in early childhood special education. I look forward to finishing my degree and applying everything I’ve learned to an early childhood classroom somewhere in Northeast Iowa."

Ohio University

As of 2011, Ohio University had distributed more than $2.7 million to over 900 undergraduate and graduate students. This year alone, 324 students received TEACH grants. In a 2012 follow-up survey of TEACH grant graduates, 90% of respondents stated that the federal grants were helpful in supporting their pursuit of a degree, and 30% said that if not for TEACH monies, they could not have afforded to attend Ohio University.

"Our enthusiastic participation in the TEACH grant program is no coincidence," remarked Dean Renée A. Middleton of Ohio University’s Patton College of Education. "We are situated in a high-need area of Appalachia. TEACH grant preservice teachers spend their college years steeped in the culture of service and social responsibility encouraged by this program."

Assistant Dean Maureen Coon of Ohio University added, "For many of the Patton College’s TEACH recipients, the funds represent so much more than a needed assistance with collegiate costs. They represent a bond with Appalachia and to people in need."

The evidence is conclusive. TEACH grants are working to (a) channel talent to high-need schools and (b) keep college affordable. Perhaps we need more of this, not less. So why would President Barack Obama propose to eliminate it?

Sharon Robinson

President and CEO, AACTE