Last December, we wrote about three ways the U.S. Department of Education could and should be supporting colleges –low-borrowing colleges in particular – in offering federal loans. A recent letter from the Department addresses one of these requests head-on, and was particularly timely because it was sent just after colleges received their draft cohort default rates for borrowers entering repayment in 2011. The letter emphasizes the importance of student access to federal loans, and the participation rate index appeal for low-borrowing colleges:

Access to federal student financial aid, including low-cost Federal student loans, increases the likelihood that students will have the financial resources to successfully complete the postsecondary education needed to build a better future for themselves, their families, and their communities.

We encourage institutions to provide access to the full range of student financial aid options available that enable millions of students to enroll and succeed in college….

We believe that the availability of the Participation Rate Index Challenge and Participation Rate Index Appeal could mitigate some institutions’ consideration of withdrawing from the Direct Loan Program due to sanctions triggered by high cohort default rates.

This letter will help keep colleges in the federal loan program, but more is needed.  The Department should still publish borrowing rates alongside default rates and allow low-borrowing colleges to appeal their rates in any year, as we previously recommended.  And now that they have published this letter, they should promote it at conferences and meetings with colleges. Nonetheless, the Department’s recent action to help colleges understand the importance of federal loans and available appeals is an important step in the right direction.  As G.I. Joe famously says, “Knowing is half the battle,” and now colleges will be more likely to know.