For decades, the Perkins Loan program has helped poor students pay for college. But without Congressional action, the country’s oldest federal student loan program could end this week, affecting thousands of low-income students.

Republican leaders in Washington say extending the Perkins Loan program is too costly and doesn’t benefit students. In a statement, Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander said the $1 billion program is “outdated and unnecessary.”

University of Massachusetts President and former Democratic congressman Marty Meehan strongly disagrees. At UMass, more than 2,800 in-state students received nearly $6 million from the federal program last year.

“This is a program that people in Massachusetts rely on,” says Meehan, adding the low-interest loans are critical to students who can’t cover the costs.

“I don’t see how at the end of the day the federal government can walk away from their responsibility to making sure we have accessible, world-class education available to everyone,” Meehan said.

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the Perkins Loans program is “an important campus-based financing tool to help lower and middle income students cover any remaining need after other aid has been applied.”

Nationwide, about four percent of full-time college students receive Perkins loans. Duncan challenged Congress to redesign the program and make it “larger, better targeted and more effective at helping students and families attend schools that offer a quality and affordable education.”

If Congress doesn’t act, the program will expire at the end of the fiscal year on Wednesday.

[Cross-posted at On Campus: The WGBH News Higher Education Blog]

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Kirk Carapezza is the lead reporter for On Campus. Kirk has reported for Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wis., and Vermont Public Radio in Montpelier, Vt. He's been a writer and producer at WBUR in Boston; a teacher and coach at Nativity Preparatory School in New Bedford, Mass.; a Fenway Park tour guide; and a tourist abroad.

Kirk received his B.A. from the College of the Holy Cross and earned his M.S. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. When he's not reporting or editing stories on campus, you can find him posting K's on the Wall at Fenway.