09/29/2015 01:10 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2016

Why Renewing Perkins Matters

There is a student debt crisis, we hear repeatedly, along with considerable concern about that crisis amongst politicians and would-be politicians. Student debt has exploded - too much for too little, many claim. Whether that's right or wrong, loans are so deeply entrenched in the higher education landscape most believe they are unlikely to go away soon. They may be revised, they should be simplified, they could be more subject to regulatory oversight. But they won't fade away - or will they?

On October 1, 2015, at least one low-interest loan program is at risk of disappearing. The Federal Perkins Loan is a need-based, low-interest student loan offered by the U.S. Department of Education to undergraduate and graduate students with "exceptional financial need" and provided in addition to other kinds of loans for which such individuals (and many others) are eligible.

Critics say it makes little sense for Congress to extend the program, citing its cost to taxpayers, claiming an abuse of the case for "exceptional financial need," or asserting that the government's "patchwork" of separate loan programs is so confusing that it discourages people their pursuit of higher education.

Supporters point out that cost estimates of the program are misleading, as it's funded in large measure by the payments that come in from prior recipients. They point out the loans are a small proportion of federal loan monies -- last year, Perkins loans totaled $1.2 billion, a fraction of the roughly $150 billion in student loans and grants awarded by the federal government each year. Such loans, supporters say, have a potentially disproportionate impact in the lives of the exceptionally needy.

Clarifying a dizzingly complex loan situation is a must. Ensuring the funds go to those who truly are needy is crucial. But eliminating successful student loan programs like Perkins will harm individuals in ways we cannot even imagine.

I know that because I'm one of the students it helped.

Decades ago I received what was then called the National Defense Student Loan and is now called Perkins loans. I remember sitting alongside my father, signing the forms and worrying about their long-term impact (which, at that time, might have required service in Vietnam). Today, I can say that the long-term impact of that signature was an exceedingly positive one. Without them, I would not have attended Duke University and then the University of Chicago, nor later been in the position to lead Shimer College. Those dollars, offered at low interest, helped me change my life and the lives of others around me. I paid the loans off in graduate school. Their impact, though, lingers.

Coming generations deserve what I had: low- interest loans for those with exceptional financial need. They deserve what we say is crucial to the "American Dream": opportunity.

Without Congressional action, the expiration for one of our country's oldest and furthest-reaching student loan program is only days away. Some of the over 1500 participating institutions and 500,000 students will be hurt more than others. The rich will be hurt less than the poor, not surprisingly. But people will be hurt: people with exceptional financial need who might, one day, be presidents of colleges, heads of social justice movements, CEOs, or serve the public good directly as congressional representatives.