Legislative Update

Social Work Reinvestment Victory: Congress Passes the Higher Education Reauthorization and Opportunity Act!

On July 31, Congress passed the Higher Education Reauthorization and Opportunity Act, (HEA) which will significantly expand student aid for thousands of students pursuing higher education. The vote on the five-year reauthorization was overwhelmingly bipartisan, 380 to 49 in the House and 83 to 8 in the Senate. The President signed H. R. 4137 it into law on August 14, which includes loan forgiveness for social workers, mental health professionals, and school counselors, among other professions. In addition, it increases the maximum Pell Grant amounts from $4,800 to $6,000 in 2009 and up to $8,000 in 2014. Further, it requires the Education Department to publish data about college costs; requires universities with the highest tuition increases to submit reports to the agency explaining them, requires universities to publish textbooks costs in online catalogues so that students know the true cost of a course; and simplifies the onerous financial aid forms by cutting an eight page form with 108 questions to a two page form with 44 questions.

With respect to the loan forgiveness provisions, the law encourages students to enter public service jobs by authorizing up to $10,000 in loan forgiveness for child welfare workers, public defenders, prosecutors, firefighters, military service members, first responders, law enforcement officers, educators (including those who focus on early childhood), nurses, and others serving the public interest. Eligible borrowers must be employed full time in an area of national need and not in default on the loan for which they seek forgiveness. Child welfare workers who have a degree in social work or a related field with a focus on serving children and families and who are employed full time in public or private child welfare services are eligible as well as mental health professionals with a Master’s degree in social work, psychology, or psychiatry, who service children, adolescents, or veterans.  For each year of full time employment in an area of national need that a borrower completes on or after the law is enacted, $2,000 of the student loan obligation will be forgiven for up to five years. Therefore, the maximum a borrower could receive is $10,000. The loan forgiveness provisions will be effective on or after the date of HEA’s enactment and will be available on a first come, first served basis and subject to appropriations. To find out if you qualify for the loan forgiveness provisions, go to http://www.federalstudentaid.ed.gov/ or call 1-800-433-3243. You will need to have federal student loans as private loans are not eligible for loan forgiveness. The Secretary of Education will have to work out many of the implementation details such as the definition of “national need” and whether  or not previous years work will count toward the loan forgiveness.

NASW has been working to secure student loan forgiveness legislation for social workers for many years. Last year, we were able to secure loan forgiveness for social workers in the College Cost Reduction Act  of 2007 http://www.socialworkers.org/advocacy/updates/2007/092107.asp, an important victory for our Social Work Reinvestment Initiative.

H.R. 4137 provides for a few new initiatives, one of which is the establishment of a program to award grants to Hispanic Serving Institutions that provide graduate students with fellowships, scholarships and academic support and faculty exchanges. The Patsy Mink Fellowship Program has been created to encourage minorities and women in graduate school programs to pursue academic areas in which they are underrepresented.

Beyond loan forgiveness and the aforementioned new programs, the new law also impacts the social justice community with a provision requiring the Department of Education to collect college campus hate crime categories identical to the categories that have been collected by the F.B.I. since 1991.  NASW believes that this essential component would give students and parents a comprehensive picture concerning campus safety in addition to redressing substantial gaps in the hate crimes data promulgated by the Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE) within the Department of Education.  Every year, numerous students are the victims of bias-induced slurs, vandalism, threats, and physical assaults on college campuses.  In 1998, to increase awareness of hate violence on college campuses, Congress enacted an amendment to HEA requiring all colleges and universities to collect and report hate crime statistics to the OPE. 

Colleges must document only those crimes involving bodily injury when the victim was targeted because of his or her race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or disability.  Unfortunately, the Department of Education’s present hate crime statistics reflect abysmal underreporting and do not corroborate with hate crime information collected by the F.B.I. under the original statute.  The delineation had been the definition of a hate crime as well as the omitted crime categories contained within the Department of Education’s data collection protocols.  To this end, NASW and other national organizations are profoundly committed to a revision in the Department of Education’s hate crime categories ensuring that they would parallel those collected by the Department of Justice.  The aforementioned provision alleviates any discrepancies between the F.B.I. definition of a hate crime and the HEA definition and, moreover, includes omitted crime categories to the Department of Education’s hate crime data collection mandate.  The Association contends that this vital provision will further provide foundation for the total enactment of hate crimes legislation.

Loan forgiveness, new scholarship programs, and enhanced hate crime data collection procedures are some of the key issues included in the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEA) for social workers and students. We will keep you apprised of any implementation or regulatory changes as a result of this legislation.

Nancy McFall Jean, MSW, NASW Lobbyist

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