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Expanding Access to Higher Education


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Expanding Access to Higher Education

Expanding access to college and promoting life-long learning are goals that everyone in Congress can embrace. As a result, lawmakers are always looking for sensible ways to make college more affordable.

That is why it is surprising that Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is considering a number of measures that will result in major budget cuts to one of the nation's most successful college financing programs, the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP). These cuts would result in denying education resources to those who need help the most.

The proposal advanced by Sen. Kennedy and others would move more students into a government-run program known as Direct Lending. Created in 1993, this program provides loans directly to students from the federal government through borrowing from the U.S. Treasury. Although this program was intended to save money for both students and taxpayers, it has not accomplished the objectives its supporters intended.

As a result, more than 600 post-secondary institutions that originally chose Direct Lending have left the program in favor of the superior services provided by FFELP. In fact, 90 percent of Pennsylvania's colleges and universities have voted with their feet and have chosen FFELP over Direct Lending. This decision by Pennsylvania colleges and universities has ensured students and parents have access to lower cost loans and multiple options among service providers.

I am unconvinced that the U.S. Department of Education's Direct Lending program is adequately qualified to help students maximize their chance to attend college. Of Pennsylvania's vast network of colleges and universities, 88 percent participate in the private sector-administered FFELP. Competing FFELP lenders afford students the opportunity to choose the loan that best suits their needs, which can result in cost-savings upwards of $2,000. Additionally, FFELP lenders provide individualized counseling and financial planning assistance to students that Direct Lending simply cannot afford to provide.

One of the more alarming consequences of forcing more colleges into the Direct Lending program is its impact on historically black colleges and universities, such as Pennsylvania's own Lincoln University. FFELP offers important benefits to minority families in particular. Over the last few years, many of these colleges have exited the Direct Lending program after giving it a try. These important institutions have found that FFELP does a better job of meeting their students' needs. By expanding Direct Lending at the expense of FFELP programs, minority students would have fewer quality choices available to them.

Direct Lending and FFELP have competed side-by-side for more than a decade. With so many institutions moving toward FFELP during that time we must acknowledge that moving toward a one-size-fits-all Direct Lending approach does not meet the needs of today's diverse student population.

As a former teacher, I am in support of making college more affordable and accessible for everyone. However, this issue is much more complex than shaving a few points off the student loan interest rate. And it's too important to return to the ineffective scheme of big government that has been tried but has failed students and colleges. We cannot afford to reverse the education gains we've made over the years in Pennsylvania and across the nation.

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