UNI’s Stewardship of TEACH Grant Helps Address Critical Teacher Shortages in Iowa

By Mark A. Nook, President, University of Northern Iowa

A 2016 Learning Policy Institute Research Brief reported the current state of teacher shortages across the United States. The Institute reported that 62% of Arizona school districts had unfilled teaching positions three months into the 2013–14 school year. From 2012 to 2015, the number of emergency and temporary teaching permits issued to help fill California teaching vacancies tripled. In Iowa, colleges and universities are now producing 16 percent fewer qualified educators — teachers, administrators, and counselors — than just five years prior.

Meanwhile, a 2016 Education Commission of the States (ECS) report illustrated that, although the percent of schools with at least one opening has declined significantly — from 83% of all schools in ’99-’00 to 15% in ’11-’12 — the teacher shortage problem is most pronounced in certain subject areas and school settings. ECS found that teacher shortages tend to be limited to math, science, and special education. In addition, shortages are more commonly observed among low-income, high-minority, urban, and rural schools. Oftentimes, ECS noted, lower salaries and larger classes influence teachers’ decisions to seek and retain teaching positions in these areas.

The federal TEACH Grant program was designed to help address teacher shortages in targeted areas by providing up to $4,000 in grant funds to future educators enrolled in a qualifying teacher preparation program in exchange for four years of teaching in a high-need subject area in a low-income school. The recipient must complete the four years of service within an eight year period. If a student does not fulfill their service requirement, the grant is converted to an unsubsidized loan with interest accrued from the original date of disbursement, and there is no pro-ration granted for recipients who complete less than four years of service.

Criticism of the program continues to build, most recently with the House’s comprehensive reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, also known as PROSPER, which would eliminate the TEACH Grant as part of a broader federal aid program consolidation effort. Critics express concern that some colleges and universities inadequately advise TEACH Grant recipients about their service requirements, leaving them in the dark about the type of schools and subject areas required to assure the service obligation is met and conversion of the grant funds to an interest-bearing loan is prevented. Others believe that TEACH Grant recipients too often fail to fulfill their service obligations once in the job market, undercutting the intended impact of the program at addressing teacher shortages in high need schools.

As the eighth largest TEACH Grant participating institution in the United States, the University of Northern Iowa is showing how effective stewardship of the program can produce major results in meeting critical subject area needs in high-need schools. As shown in Figure 1 below, more than 685 UNI TEACH Grant recipients serve in rural and urban settings across Iowa. With nationally recognized teacher preparation programs, UNI prepares TEACH Grant participants to be effective educators to diverse learners of all ages across math, science, and other high need subject areas. Without a suitable and cost effective alternative, eliminating the TEACH Grant would remove a proven incentive for placing highly qualified teachers in high need schools, often in exchange for low pay.

Figure 1. Distribution of UNI TEACH Grant Recipient Alumni across Iowa (2018)

TEACH Grants have helped UNI meet critical teacher needs across Iowa while making effective use of program funds. Nationally, the TEACH Grant bears a 63 percent conversion rate to an interest-bearing loan. To achieve a more positive outcome for our students, UNI offers comprehensive TEACH Grant outreach and advising programs that have resulted in a conversion rate that is 23.8 percent, nearly 40 percentage points below the national average.

The steps we’ve taken to reduce the conversion rate demonstrate that, with modest investments of personnel time and resources, the program can continue to deliver on its merits and help to address critical teacher shortages in the schools that need our help the most. Several guiding strategies of UNI’s TEACH Grant outreach and advising program help students avoid conversion and succeed in serving high need schools after they graduate:

· Classroom Outreach Elevates Interest across Campus. Educator preparation at UNI is not confined to a single program or college; rather, every college and nearly all programs at UNI have a hand in preparing future teachers at the university. In partnership with faculty, the UNI Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships conducts outreach to classes with students who are learning to teach in high-need fields. The Office provides an overview of the TEACH Grant and builds awareness of this option to help cover college costs.

· TEACH Grant counseling provides in-depth overview of program eligibility and requirements. Before students are eligible for the disbursement of TEACH Grant funds, they are required to complete a one-hour, in-person TEACH Grant counseling session with a financial aid advisor. The session is comprehensive and provides an overview of the TEACH Grant program’s (1) purpose; (2) eligibility requirements; (3) qualifying schools and subject areas; (4) service obligations and the consequences of conversion of the grant to an unsubsidized loan; (5) appropriate documentation to maintain eligibility; and (6) special conditions for the discharge or temporary suspension of the program requirements. The financial aid advisor offers guidance to students who are considering fields with limited options for serving in a qualifying school, and responds to individual questions to assure we are meeting students where they are at in the discernment process of whether — and where — they may be interested in teaching. Lastly, our advisors require students to schedule a follow-up appointment if they arrive late, and they clearly articulate that students should not participate in the TEACH Grant program unless they are committed to the obligations. These strategies communicate the importance of their service obligations.

· Awareness about Schools, Subject Areas, and Other Important Factors Supports Transparency. We provide the list of eligible schools and subject areas to prospective or current TEACH Grant participants to create a clear understanding of the options available to meet their service obligation upon graduation. Students can also use the list to explore the surrounding communities and get to know their potential new home.

Recent headlines illuminate important challenges with administering the TEACH Grant, and colleges and universities can identify new or adopt existing practices to enhance the impact of the program. But eliminating the program would undercut the progress UNI and many other institutions like us have made to address critical teacher shortages. Let’s carefully and deliberately work together on ways to enhance and improve the administration and delivery of TEACH Grants so the students we prepare for success as educators can continue making a positive difference in the lives of the students, schools, and communities they serve. UNI is poised to work with Congress and our higher education counterparts across the United States to make it happen.