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.

On Monday afternoon, the US House of Representatives passed a one-year extension of the Perkins Loan program. A bipartisan group of representatives sent a letter to Senate leaders, urging them to pass a companion bill before Wednesday's deadline, but many say their efforts will likely be in vain.

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 In a statement, Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander said the $1 billion program is "outdated and unnecessary."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 Marty Meehan, a former congressman, 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," Meehan says, 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."

In a statement, US 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 on Wednesday.

This story was produced by On Campus, a public radio reporting initiative focused on higher education produced in Boston at WGBH.

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