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Tennessee teacher forced to repay thousands in free grant money

Posted at 11:15 PM, May 22, 2018

For one Tennessee Spanish teacher, what began as free money for qualified students on the path to a career in education has turned into a two-year nightmare.

“It has been wearing on me emotionally and mentally,” Kaitlyn McCollum said. 

In 2009, as a senior in high school, McCollum applied for and received the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant Program, also known as the TEACH grant. It paid for her undergraduate college.

In exchange, McCollum agreed to teach a high-need subject for four years at a low income school, which she's been doing since graduating from Middle Tennessee State University in 2013. 

“The very basis of the TEACH grant is to promote teachers joining the field,” McCollum said. 

However, in 2016 that free money disappeared.

“It was a huge slap in the face, huge slap in the face,” she said.  

McCollum sent paperwork to Fedloan, the company that oversees the grant, on July 29, 2016. The deadline was July 31. She admits the paperwork might've gotten there a day or two late, but the next letter she received in August wasn't what she expected.

“In a one line, very cold sentence, says ‘your grants have now been converted to loans, period,’” McCollum said. 

She now owes the $16,000 she was given in grant money plus the accrued interest. “It was this instant overnight debt of $22,000,” she said. 

McCollum immediately appealed, but was denied. She's contacted state leaders in Tennessee and spent the last two years going back and forth with Fedloan about the paperwork issue. She said they're missing the bigger picture.

“If I’m saddled with $22,000 plus accruing more interest, am I going to stay in education? Maybe not,” McCollum said. 

McCollum has learned since 2016 that thousands of teachers across the country are in the same boat. While the Attorney General's Office in Massachusetts has opened a case, she hopes her story will be seen and heard by the right people here in Tennessee.