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Don’t cut the Perkins Loan Program.

Every year around Tax Day, while settling up my account with Uncle Sam, I think about what it is that my tax dollars help to support. Some things I strongly agree with, some not so much. As President of Union Theological Seminary, I’m especially appreciative of the critical role our federal government plays in securing the future of American higher education.

In particular, the Perkins Loan Program has allowed hundreds of students at Union to earn a graduate degree—an opportunity that without this program, they simply would not have had.

{mosads}Which is why I am so befuddled and angry that Congress is threatening to eliminate this critical program. Without it, students at more than 1,700 schools will lose their chance to earn an education.

Far more than simply opening up new worlds of exploration for individual students, our nation’s world-leading graduate institutions ensure the vibrancy and productivity of our future workforce. Maintaining this advantage is critical for securing our place in an ever-more competitive global economy.

Too often, the conversation about the affordability of higher education starts and ends around the debilitating effects of student debt. While I agree that we must chart a path forward that frees students from bearing the weight of crushing debt, we must also realize that our student loan programs allow people of all backgrounds the opportunity to pursue higher education and the economic mobility that comes with it.

The Perkins Loan Program fills an important niche, covering the funding gap for borrowers who can’t get other types of loans. Overwhelmingly, it is the most marginalized students who most depend on these loans—LGBT students, people of color, women, and those with family obligations, chronic health issues, or structural impediments to gainful employment.

Liberation theologians have taught us that we can best measure the health of a whole society by looking at the health of the most marginalized. As the president of an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse institution, I know how crucial it is that the Perkins Loan Program is extended.

Simply put, the death of this program will mean the death of so many people’s dreams to receive a quality education. Without this program, graduate students will only be able to receive federal loans to cover their tuition, blocking them from receiving the assistance they need for living expenses. From an institutional perspective, the end of the Perkins loan program would disproportionately affect seminaries like ours that don’t have access to huge scholarship funds.

I refuse to put out a sign on Union’s doors that says, “Students without perfect credit need not apply.” Now more than ever, our country needs leaders who are formed and educated at the small, creative, and progressive institutions like Union.

Without Perkins loans, the most marginalized people will no longer be able to learn about race and philosophy from great theologians and mobilize their communities around issues of racial justice.

We will have fewer students in the pulpit and on the streets, declaring that Black Lives Matter.

We will have fewer people marching and organizing for action on climate change.

We will have fewer thought leaders, scholars, and activists we need to face the challenges of our future.

The good news is that we can easily continue to provide all students a quality graduate education. The policy solution to this problem is not complicated. It’s not partisan. And even this Congress should be able to do it. Don’t cut the Perkins Loan Program.

Jones is president of the Union Theological Seminary and president-elect of the American Academy of Religion.


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