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Another Voice: Perkins Loan Program must be extended, again

By Thomas J. Botzman

More than 40 years ago, a young adult with very modest family means began an uncertain journey in higher education. It was fraught with many pitfalls and unknowns because this aspiring collegian was one of 13 children and had to finance his college education on his own through a mixture of loans, grants, scholarships and institutional financial aid awards.

Over his four years in college, this engineering major secured National Direct Student Loans, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Basic Educational Opportunity Grants, Ohio Instructional Grants, institutional grants and more, while also earning extra money in the work-study program on campus.

This lifelong learner later earned his master’s in economics and Ph.D. in business administration and returned to higher education to teach and lead the next generation.

Why am I sharing my story with you today? It is not unique, I agree. Many students in need struggle to finance their college educations to this day, just as I did from 1977-81.

Unlike then, though, financing college degrees for students in good standing is becoming more complicated and ambiguous. Take the federal Perkins Loan Program, for example. Two years ago, the federal government moved to eliminate it even though it supported more than 300,000 low-income students nationally at more than 1,700 institutions. The idea was to streamline financial aid to one grant, one work-study program and one loan per student.

The one-plus-one-plus-one scenario is interesting, but we need to find a practical way to make it work prior to removing the current support structure for our students. With bipartisan support, the Perkins Loan Program was saved in 2015 and students continued to have access to higher education.

Unfortunately, we are back to the same situation. Unless Congress acts by Sept. 30, the extension of the program will end. Its replacement has not yet appeared for public consumption, and as I wrote two years ago, “We have taken a solid program that works for everyone and replaced it with, well, nothing. That’s not solid policy, good government or building a future for all of us.”
Hope remains, however, as a bipartisan group of 77 lawmakers has introduced House Resolution 2482 to once again save the Perkins Loan for students in need.

The Perkins Loan supplements larger federal financial aid programs, such as the Pell Grant. While students do not need to repay Pell Grants, the Perkins program carries a 5 percent fixed interest rate over 10 years.

A simplification of higher education financial aid is indeed a laudable goal. It was a primary effort in the last reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) in 2003. The HEA technically expired in 2013, leading to numerous efforts to construct a new HEA or the next reauthorization.

We should not end successful programs prior to creating a new HEA that can support all students who are capable and ready to work toward a degree or certificate.

Thomas J. Botzman, Ph.D., is president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa.

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