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Monday, July 20, 2015

Severing a Higher Education Lifeline

Ending Perkins loans would block the path to college for hundreds of thousands of students.
Three months ago, I walked across the stage at the University of Mississippi to claim my Bachelor’s diploma. Throwing my cap into the Oxford summer air, I felt a sense of accomplishment, but also a sense of uncertainty.

What’s next for me?

My long-term goal is to help expand access to college for under-represented communities. To realize this dream, I’ll need a graduate degree, following the path of education trailblazers before me. In April, I received acceptance letters from several grad schools. But with little assets to my name, my dreams might be at risk.

Earlier in the year, the federal government announced that it was shutting down its Perkins loan program, which provides low-interest loans to students for college and grad school. Unless Congress takes action, this path to higher education for low-income students like me will hit a dead end as the new school year begins.

Scrapping Perkins loans isn’t just a problem for my generation. It jeopardizes the ability of American workers to compete in the global economy in the 21st century.

The Center for American Progress found that investing in education pushes countries to be more economically competitive than others. To truly have a fair shot today, as President Barack Obama likes to say, obtaining a degree past high school is crucial.

Perkins loans can help students at the bottom of the economic ladder take steps towards breaking the poverty cycle. With a 5 percent fixed interest rate and generous grace period for beginning repayment, Perkins loans are more affordable than most other loan options.

Every year, half a million students rely on this program to help them earn a Bachelor’s degree, attend law school, enter medical school — or go wherever their dreams take them. It’s not morally right or economically smart to reserve certain careers to the wealthiest individuals.

Unfortunately, the demise of Perkins loans isn’t getting the attention it should.

With student debt totaling over $1 trillion, politicians and presidential candidates from both sides of the aisle are claiming that easing the debt burden is a top priority for the 2016 election.

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio even included the issue of student debt in his campaign launch, bringing attention to the “young Americans, unable to start a career, a business or a family, because they owe thousands in student loans.”

But presidential hopefuls are silent on the impending closure of the Perkins loan program.

Lawmakers should stop just talking about the burden of student debt and actually do something about it. Empty words mean empty pockets for students. It’s disappointing to see the likes of Senator Elizabeth Warren, who recently claimed, “Every student needs a debt-free option,” fail to introduce a bill that might save these loans.

I called student debt advocacy groups to find out what they were doing to fight for the renewal of the Perkins program. The short answer? Nothing. They either were unaware of the Perkins shutdown or expressed optimism that Congress will act soon enough.

Unfortunately, hope only goes so far. Hope alone won’t open the door for students to participate in classroom discussion, organize peers around important justice movements, and grow as thought leaders. Hope won’t pay tuition bills.

That’s why we need action.

Guaranteeing a steady supply of low-interest loans and grants alone won’t make higher education more affordable for everyone. Only curbing spiraling tuition tabs can do that. But until an alternative solution emerges, the Perkins loan and other programs like it are crucial lifelines.

For me and so many other American college and grad students, the Perkins program is more than just a line in the government’s budget. It’s a promise of a brighter future.

Generous academic scholarships helped me earn my Bachelor’s degree while I worked 20 hours a week. Without a Perkins loan, I may need to put the next step in my education on hold.

Christine Dickason, an OtherWords intern at the Institute for Policy Studies, is a graduate of the University of Mississippi. Distributed via