Ever since you started school, you’ve admired your teachers and thought that you might like to become one. You like the thought of hanging out with kids all day, helping them develop the skills and knowledge they need. But you also know that teachers are chronically underpaid, and you don’t want to take out big student loans to get a degree when it might be challenging to pay them back.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Education introduced the TEACH program to help address future teachers’ financial concerns while also steering them into high-needs schools. TEACH stands for “Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant,” which is a little convoluted as a program name, but works great as an acronym!

What Is a TEACH Grant, and Who Is It For?

TEACH grant recipients receive up to $4,000 a year (maximum of $16,000 for undergraduates and $8,000 for graduate students) in exchange for teaching four years in high-needs situations.

But the devil’s in the details. A lot of TEACH recipients from earlier years had their grants converted into loans because they didn’t meet all of the program’s requirements.

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Think of it this way: You’re Cinderella, looking for a way to pay for college. The Fairy Department of Education is there to help. But if you don’t meet the terms and conditions, your shiny TEACH grant will turn into a sad pumpkin (a loan) at midnight — or, actually, eight years after you graduate from your program.

Prospective TEACH recipients, like all those who hope to get benefits from the Department of Education, have to complete an online entrance-counseling program. It takes about 30 minutes. To avoid the problems that so many TEACH grant recipients have had, it’s especially important that you not only participate in the program, but also pay attention to what it says.

How Does the TEACH Grant Work? Watch Out for Requirements! Want to go into teaching, but worried you won't be able to make ends meet? You may qualify for the TEACH grant. Just make sure to meet all the requirements. #educationThe TEACH Grant Has a Lot of Requirements

This grant sounds terrific — $16,000 for an undergraduate who intends to teach anyway is a lot of money. However, it helps only certain kinds of teachers in certain kinds of schools. On the first page of TEACH Entrance Counseling, you learn that in order to keep the grant:

  • You must be a “highly qualified” teacher during your four years of service. While there’s some flexibility on this for certain kinds of teachers — rural teachers and science teachers, for example — to meet this requirement most teachers must have a bachelor’s degree, be certified or licensed by their state, and be able to demonstrate competency in the subject they teach.

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  • You have to teach at a school or agency that serves low-income students. You can change schools, but if you do, each school has to serve low-income students. One exception? If you stay at a school that loses this designation while you’re there, your service still counts.
  • You have to teach more than 50 percent of your classes each year in a high-need field. These fields include math, science, foreign languages, bilingual education, English language acquisition, and special education. Sometimes the federal government identifies other high-need fields, but you need to check those on a year-by-year basis.

If you don’t meet these requirements for all four years, your grants will be converted into unsubsidized loans. As such, you need to pay close attention.

TEACH Grant Entrance Counseling Is Critical

Because so many people who received these grants in the past didn’t understand or meet the requirements, the TEACH Entrance Counseling program is especially rigorous. You have to read about all the requirements and answer questions. That said, you’re also given a lot of real-world examples about various ways to meet your obligations.

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For instance, many students earn both an undergraduate and a graduate degree. From completing entrance counseling I learned that even if I teach in the time between the two degrees, I will still need to teach for four years after the second degree is completed.

There’s a Ton of Paperwork

Entrance counseling teaches you how to certify that you’re completing all the requirements to receive all the benefits of the TEACH grant. That means not just an initial and final certification, but also annual documentation for each of the four years you’ll teach. After you finish your program, you have eight years to complete the requirements.

So if you take a year off in the middle, you’ll still have to complete a form to show that you’re planning to finish your obligation.

Switch schools partway through one of your four years? You can get credit, but all of your schools have to sign off — more forms!

What if you have a baby or are called up for military service partway through one of your teaching years? You can still get credit for the year, but there are yet more forms.

What If You Don’t Fulfill Your Obligations?

The TEACH grant is automatically converted into an unsubsidized direct loan if you don’t keep up to date on all your paperwork, or if you don’t complete all four years of service within an eight-year period after earning your degree.

This is especially bad because it means that you will be on the hook for interest dating back to when the grant was disbursed up to 12 years earlier.

As usual, there are a few exceptions. TEACH Entrance Counseling will clue you into them. You can get an extension if you’re taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, if you’re back in school, or if you’ve been called up for military service.

And your grant can be “discharged” — that is, not converted into a loan — if you are called up for military service for a long period of time, become permanently disabled, or die.

You Really Don’t Want a TEACH Grant to Convert Into a Loan

No federal education entrance counseling would be complete without a scary calculator widget. This time it’s located on the last page. You can enter the amount of your expected TEACH grant and learn how much interest would be applied if the grant gets converted to a loan eight years after your graduation.

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At the maximum undergraduate amount of $16,000, I learned that $11,550 of interest would capitalize, nearly doubling the original size. Then you’d have to pay $338 a month for 10 years on the standard repayment plan.

If you’re not absolutely sure you’ll fulfill the requirements, then TEACH grant entrance counseling should make you think twice — or maybe even three times — about finding other ways to fund your education, such as personal loans.

Final Thoughts

A TEACH grant can be a good deal for students who are certain that they’ll meet the requirements. But it’s really important to be smart and careful. My advice? Take the money but think of it as a loan you’ll have to repay.

Then if you leave teaching for another field, you’re prepared, while if you do meet the program’s requirements, you’ll get a big financial win.