— Lyn Stoesen, News Staff
On July 31, Congress passed the Higher Education Reauthorization and Opportunity Act (HEA), which includes loan forgiveness for social workers and other mental health professionals, increases maximum Pell Grant funding, and enhances campus hate crime data collection, among other provisions. President George W. Bush signed the bill into law on Aug. 14.
"This is a victory for social workers," said NASW Senior Government Relations Associate Nancy McFall Jean, who has lobbied on this issue. "NASW has worked for many years on loan forgiveness legislation and other initiatives which help students working toward social work degrees."
"Loan forgiveness is among the goals of NASW's Social Work Reinvestment Initiative," McFall Jean explained. "Too often, students are reluctant to pursue social work degrees for financial reasons and recent graduates are saddled with overwhelming student debt. By strengthening financial resources for social work education, we can help strengthen our workforce and provide much-needed services in many communities."
The five-year reauthorization act, H.R. 4137, passed overwhelmingly, with a vote of 380 to 49 in the House and 83 to 8 in the Senate.
Among the provisions in the law are up to $10,000 in loan forgiveness for child welfare workers, public defenders, firefighters, nurses, and others serving the public interest.
Child welfare workers with a degree in social work or a related filed with a focus on serving children and families, and who are employed full time in public or private child welfare services, are eligible for the program. Mental health professionals with master's degrees in social work, psychology, or psychiatry who service children, adolescents or veterans are also eligible.
For each year of full-time employment in an area of national need that a borrower completes, $2,000 of federal student loan obligation will be forgiven, for up to five years. The provisions are available on a first-come first-served basis and will be subject to appropriations. The Secretary of Education will determine implementation details, including the definition of "national need."
The law also increases the maximum Pell Grant amounts from $4,800 to $6,000 in 2009 and up to $8,000 in 2014. Pell Grants are federal grants provided on a need-based system to low-income undergraduate and some graduate students to promote access to postsecondary education.
In addition, the law includes a provision requiring the Department of Education to collect college campus hate crime data in categories that are identical to FBI-defined categories. The FBI has been collecting hate crimes data since 1991. Colleges and universities have been required to collect and report hate crime statistics to the Department of Education's Office of Postsecondary Education since 1998.
"This change in reporting will improve the collection of hate crime data on campuses," McFall Jean said. "Colleges have only documented crimes involving bodily injury when the victim was targeted because of his or her race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or disability."
The FBI categories include slurs, vandalism, threats, and physical assaults. "The Department of Education's present hate crime statistics reflect abysmal underreporting," McFall Jean said. "NASW remains committed to ensuring that campus hate crime reporting parallels those collected by the Department of Justice."
Other provisions in the act are requirements that the Department of Education publish data about college costs; that universities with the highest tuition increases submit reports to the Department of Education to explain them; and that universities publish textbook costs in online catalogs to reflect the true cost of courses. It also simplifies and shortens financial aid forms.
Additionally, H.R. 4137 establishes a program to award grants to Hispanic Serving Institutions that provide graduate students with fellowships, scholarships, and academic support and faculty exchanges, and establishes the Patsy Mink Fellowship Program to encourage minorities and women to pursue graduate degrees in areas in which they are underrepresented.
Eligibility. Many social workers will want to find out if they qualify for loan forgiveness through the new law, according to McFall Jean.
"This law is a positive development, but social workers need to keep in mind that it is very new and procedures for determining eligibility are still being developed," McFall Jean said.
"NASW is not in a position to make eligibility determinations for individual social workers," she noted. "We will continue to provide members with information about the program as systems and procedures are developed and of course we will work to advance our legislative agenda."
McFall Jean recommended that social workers interested in the program contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center at (800) 433-3243 or through the Website, Federal Student Aid.
McFall Jean also suggested that social workers should have their Social Security numbers and loan information, such as lender names and the date of loan initiation, available when calling the Center.
She also urged social workers to keep in mind that Congress must approve funding for the loan forgiveness program. "Political intelligence suggests that this could be a tough budget season, so be patient," she said. "It might take a while before this program is fully funded and operational."