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Teachers stung by grant program may get reprieve

December 19, 2018

In 2016, she was one of thousands of teachers nationwide to have grants she received while attending college unknowingly converted to loans, through a program run by the United States Education Department. After a yearlong investigation by reporters at NPR, the Education Department announced last week it would be opening an appeals process for teachers like Justice, many of whom were saddled with the unexpected debt because of small clerical errors, like missing signatures on paperwork.

“I was, honestly, in tears when I read about (the chance for an appeal). I’m talking thousands and thousands of dollars - this changes my life, my family’s life,” Justice said. “I just thought, ‘Finally.’ There have been so many people just like me. We spoke out for what was being wrongly done to us, and people finally listened and were able to help us.”

Since the 2016-17 school year, nearly 650 college students in West Virginia received TEACH grants. The program is administered by the Education Department, but is managed by FedLoan, a private student loan company. Those who take advantage of the TEACH grant are awarded up to $4,000 annually if they commit to working in high-need fields in low-income areas for four years after graduation.

Since 2010, all 55 counties in West Virginia have been considered low-income areas with a high need for qualified teachers, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education. In addition to this, nearly all subjects - from elementary education to specialized fields, like counseling and adult education - are in high demand.

Anyone teaching the listed subjects in the state would qualify for the grant. Failure to meet the requirements of the TEACH grant, however, means any money received through the program would be immediately converted to loans, with interest.

Justice, a 2014 graduate of Marshall University, didn’t expect the obligations of the grant to be a problem - a West Virginia native herself, her plan was always to stay and teach in the Mountain State.

After graduation she started teaching elementary school in Kenova, a position she’s held for the past four years.

When she was alerted by FedLoan in 2016 that the $15,000 in grants she received during grad school were being converted to loans because she missed a notification in a “paperless inbox” on FedLoan’s website - something she said she wasn’t aware even existed - she was in shock.

“It was just a time in my life that I thought it was unbelievable, that I was done so wrong,” Justice said. “I kept up my end of the bargain. I just didn’t turn a paper in on time.”

She remembers spending a lot of time crying. The stress of the debt would hit her at odd times, and eventually, she accepted the circumstances and told her family it was just something she was going to deal with, but she never wanted to speak of it again.

When Justice initially reached out to FedLoan to clarify the situation, she said a representative at the company told her she could attempt to file an appeal to get her loans converted back to grants, but it was probably useless - no one else had ever been granted one.

Today, Justice is cautiously optimistic about the opportunity to appeal. Per a message on the Department of Education’s website, an application will be available by Jan. 31 for Justice and teachers in similar situations to apply for the appeals process.

“I’m anxious to see how it goes,” Justice said. “When I heard about the developments, I was so relieved for myself and my family. The other part of me, though, was still kind of leery about it - I want to get the application done, and I won’t feel completely at ease until I see something in writing.”

Justice heard about the TEACH grant program from classmates at Marshall. In May - when she was in the midst of the battle with FedLoan trying to correct the situation - she was wary of recommending the program to other students pursuing careers in education. Some of that wariness still exists today.

“I know not everyone had to deal with what I dealt with - am dealing with - but I don’t wish that burden on anyone,” Justice said. “If they’re correcting what they messed up with us, I hope there’s an effort to make sure people in the future don’t have to suffer, either.”

For Justice, one of the most difficult parts to deal with was a sense of shame and embarrassment. She said she felt like the entire ordeal - doubling the amount of debt to her name - was entirely her fault, and no one she tried to explain the circumstances to would listen.

Today, she feels vindicated.

“That was like a burden I had been putting on myself, and, ultimately, on my husband. It was debt we never should have had - I had a lot of guilt for that,” Justice said. “It’s a huge weight off my shoulders - I wasn’t wrong. I have nothing to feel guilty about. This was something wrong that was done to me. I’m letting go of all that guilt and embarrassment, and I just really have high hopes that I get to say goodbye to this debt.”

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