Education Optimists

by Harry on April 23, 2008

Welcome to Education Optimists, a new blog written by my colleague Sara Goldrick-Rab, and her husband Liam Goldrick. Sara is in the EPS department at Madison, and Liam is Policy Director at the New Teacher Center. My prediction is that you can expect smart, well-informed, and heterodox commentary there. To start you off, here is Sara’s warning about the new TEACH grant program, which offers a $4000 per year grant to students willing to commit to getting an education degree and then spend 4 years teaching in high poverty schools in a particular subject area:

Beware: If a student does not fulfill the terms of the grant it is automatically converted into an unsubsidized loan, with interest accruing starting when the loan began.

One can easily imagine many ways a student could fail to fulfill the terms of the grant.
Here are but a few examples:

1. The 18 year old student might change her mind about becoming a teacher (all you have to do to be eligible is to “plan on completing coursework necessary to begin a career in teaching”)

2. She might not be admitted to a school of education. This is easy to imagine at a school like UW-Madison, where our admissions occur only after a student begins college and are quite competitive.

3. She might not succeed in the program (you have to maintain a 3.25 GPA each semester)

4. She might not find an appropriate teaching job in her local area and thus be forced to move away from home, or even out-of-state. (There is a clause for this: “There are, however, graduate degree alternatives for teachers or retirees with experience in a teacher shortage area” but the options aren’t spelled out)

5. Once she’s teaching, she could be laid off (new teachers are especially vulnerable to this).

6. The school at which she’s teaching might change in composition, such that it is no longer considered “high-poverty.” (It seems the criteria will be based on % free lunch)

For these reasons and many more, the student’s “grant” of up to $16K might suddenly become an unsubsidized loan amounting to far more with interest included (something along the lines of $40K over a 10 year period).



Picador 04.23.08 at 1:59 pm

Many law schools offer a similar “deal” to students interested in public interest work. Of course, the numbers are about an order of magnitude higher.

At Columbia, here’s how the program works: you sign up shortly after graduation, at which point Columbia commits to paying off your loans over a ten-year period (recently shortened to seven, in a much-publicized gesture of magnanimity from the Dean). Good deal, huh?

But the requirements are similarly slippery. To stay qualified, you and your spouse need to make less than $50,000 or so, and you need to stay working as a lawyer in public interest or government. That means they kick you out of the program if you get married to someone with a middle-class job ($50k in NYC is pretty modest), if you lose your job, if you get pregnant and take a year off, if you find public intrest work doing something other than law, or if you fail to secure a public interest or government job (which are notoriously competitive).

The consequences of getting kicked out of the program are severe. Your loans snap back at you, plus interest, plus an additional punitive charge of about 10%. My loans were about $175k; that’s typical for someone who didn’t have parents paying their way through law school. If you’ve been in the program for more than five years or so, it’s not as bad, because the debt load that gets pushed back at you gets reduced 20% a year after the third or fourth year of the program, which means that after five or six years of work you might be able to break even (i.e., leave the program with the full debt load you would have had at graduation).

Not surprisingly, almost nobody takes them up on this offer. The students who go into public interest work are almost without exception kids who had wealthy benefactors while in school. Everyone else ends up doing corporate law, because they’re the only people who hire law school grads and pay them enough to meet their monthly loan payments.

Granted, it’s not a federal program like the TEACH grants. But it is one of those facts about legal education that helps explain why so many smart, hard-working, idealistic law students devoted to doing work in the public interest instead end up miserable, cynical alcoholics working at corporate firms.


Bill Kirsch 04.23.08 at 3:46 pm

My wife took a similar offer from the state of Florida. They paid for her degree in Education with the provision that she work as a teacher in Florida for a certain time. When she graduated she canvassed the state looking for work. She was even willing to work in inner-city Miami. No one would hire her, and she got no help from the state. After a few years the state demanded she repay them in full with interest.


salient downs 04.24.08 at 1:14 am

For these reasons and many more, the student’s “grant” of up to $16K might suddenly become an unsubsidized loan amounting to far more with interest included (something along the lines of $40K over a 10 year period).

This happened to me (Kentucky’s “Best In Class” program is quite similar to what you describe). The loan’s for $42,000, for two years for graduate work. It won’t be grant-converted by Best In Class over the years because I will not continue to meet all requirements of the program (a combination of reasons #4 and #5 above).

Including just those loans and the interest/penalties they’ve already accumulated, and taking out taxes, I’ve made $2,800 total for teaching for two years, or $1,400 per year. It’s a rather strong disincentive.


magistra 04.24.08 at 12:08 pm

If you’re going to have more posts like that, maybe you ought to change the title of the blog.

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