Pocan Op-Ed: The House Did the Right Thing, But Will the Senate?
By Rep. Mark Pocan
With higher education costs skyrocketing, Congress should be making it easier not harder to ensure students have access to an affordable college education. Yet, Senate Republicans, led by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), have twice blocked the renewal of the longest standing federal financial aid program -- the Perkins Loan.
The Perkins Loan program fosters access to higher education for low-income students by providing low interest loans to students in need. Since its inception in 1958, over $28 billion dollars in loans have been made to students through almost 26 million financial aid awards. Perkins Loans borrowers are predominantly lower income and are often the first in their family to attend college. Nearly one quarter of all Perkins recipients are from families who earn less than $30,000.
One of the main reasons the Perkins Loan program has been such a success is that colleges and universities can tailor the program to best-fit borrowers' and institutions' needs. Perkins is a risk-sharing program with colleges contributing one-third of their students' awards. When students repay their loans, the money goes into a revolving fund that colleges then use to create new loans.
Besides making higher education accessible for low-income students, this program serves as an incentive for people who wish to go into public service by offering targeted loan cancellations for specific progression in areas of national need including teaching, nursing and law enforcement.
In 2013-2014, close to 500,000 students across the country were awarded Perkins Loans. The University of Wisconsin System awarded 15,829 loans to students amounting in more than $28 million dollars and impacting nearly 1 in 11 UW students during the 2013-14 school year.
Earlier this year, I introduced a bipartisan resolution with Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN) along with 56 cosponsors to show strong support for the Perkins Loan program. My colleague Rep. Mike Bishop (R-MI) and I also introduced the Higher Education Extension Act of 2015 (H.R. 3594), which reauthorized the program for an additional year. While the bill passed in the House, unfortunately, the Senate blocked passage of the bill and the program expired on September 30th.
If the Perkins Loan program is so successful and has bipartisan support in the House, why then are Senate Republicans balking at renewing this vital program?
Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who is leading the opposition, has noted that he would like to reform the federal student loan process entirely. And he's right -- Congress is long overdue for a conversation about the Higher Education Act. But reality awaits us. The Perkins Loan expired at the end of September leaving students and families wondering how they will continue to afford college. Many of these students went to college knowing the federal government was prepared to make an investment in their education and their future. What message does it send if we withdraw this much needed funding to students as they are just starting their college career? I'm so grateful that the federal student loans were there for me as I sought out my education and want to make sure these funds are available for current and future students.
While Congress is toiling over possible reforms, students are left in the cold. By denying access to these low-interest loans, students and families are left with very few options to cover college expenses.
So what can the Senate do right now to tackle affordability? Pass the Higher Education Extension immediately. If the House of Representatives, a body not usually known for its bipartisan cooperation, can come together to reauthorize this program, there is no excuse for the Senate to let it lapse any longer. Congress needs to be taking robust action to make college more affordable and it should start by renewing the Perkins Loan program.