The Higher Education Act was originally passed by Congress in 1965 to increase financial resources provided to colleges and universities by the federal government. The law requires that the act be reauthorized every five years to change and add to the existing policies to keep up with evolving educational systems. With 2008's reauthorization due to expire at the end of this year, the act is currently being reviewed by the Senate Education Committee for a five year renewal.
At Duke, both students and administrators have seen the law manifest in the form of increased financial aid. Sue Wasiolek, assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students, emphasized the historical effectiveness of the law at allowing students to attend universities, especially ones similar to Duke.
"It has accomplished a great deal and it has certainly improved the opportunities for students," Wasiolek said.
She also noted ways in which the law can be strengthened to increase accessibility and affordability. Pell grants, a provision of the 1965 law, should be at least preserved in their current state, if not expanded upon. In 2011, the “year-round” Pell grant was eliminated, removing funding for students’ programs during the summer. Wasiolek hopes that the current reauthorization process will see the return of the year-round grant.
“For students who study during the summer and do special opportunities, funding has not necessarily been available to them,” she said.
Additionally, she cited the Federal Perkins Loan Program as a “tremendous asset.” The program provides low-interest loans to students in need of funding for postsecondary education. President Barack Obama proposed earlier this year to expand the program from $1 billion to $8.5 billion, to be distributed according to a funding formula.
Another beneficial provision of the law is Title VI, said Christopher Simmons, assistant vice president for federal relations. Title VI provides funding and guidelines for linguistics and foreign studies.
"We have a number of centers at Duke that study and contribute to those areas," he said.
The reauthorization comes at a time when student loans have become harder to bear due to rising interest rates. Wasiolek also spoke about the changing landscape of student loan interest rates since she came to Duke 40 years ago, a subject that the Higher Education Act also addresses.
“One of the things that was so comforting 40 years ago, significantly and generally speaking, was adequate loan money,” she said. “It was always at a very low interest rate. There was a comfort one felt in borrowing money because of the interest rates.”
Now, she said, there is a higher fear of carrying a large debt made worse by the heightened interest rates, discouraging people from borrowing money and pursuing higher education.
Simmons pointed to a decreasing number of federal subsidies, particularly for graduate students, over the past three years.
Wasiolek said that rising interest rates can be primarily attributed to members of Congress using student loan rates as a political asset when negotiating.
“Many of them are justified as having a practical basis, but I think it’s more of a political foundation than anything else,” she said.
Simmons echoed this sentiment, explicitly stating that the interest rates on student loans have increased because of politics. Loan interest rates, he said, are at the mercy of Congress’s decision-making.
“Congress can set that rate for student loans at 1 percent or 10 perecent but they have to do what they think is financially feasible for the government,” he said. “They have the complete power.”
The Senate Education subcommittee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions has been holding hearings starting this past September on the reauthorization, addressing “a host of higher education topics,” most recently including representatives from the American Council on Education, the State University of New York at Albany and the State Higher Educaiton Officers Association, according to transcripts of the hearings.
The reauthorization process will likely take multiple years, Simmons said, despite the fact that it expires at the end of the year. Historically, the law’s reauthorizing has occurred over the course of multiple years.
“It’s not going to happen anytime soon,” he said.