Dean’s List: Duke students could lose federal loans under proposed Pell grant expansion

The U.S. House of Representatives is back from its holiday break this week, which could bring an opportunity for committee-approved bills to be heard on the floor.

One of those bills, the Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act, could end some students’ ability to take out federal student loans — including at Duke University.

The timing of when the bill will make it to the House floor — and whether it has enough support to pass — is unclear, Inside Higher Ed has reported. But Duke leaders have raised concerns over the measure in recent weeks, with one calling it “draconian” and two deans calling it “counterproductive and short-sighted.”

How would the bill impact Duke students, and how many would be affected?

Welcome to Dean’s List, a weekly roundup of higher education news in the Triangle and across North Carolina from The News & Observer and myself, Korie Dean. We plan to publish this roundup in an email newsletter format very soon, but we wanted to first give you a taste, on our website, of the insights on higher education trends and research you can expect each week.

This week’s edition includes more information on how Duke could be affected by the Pell Grant expansion, the company UNC-Chapel Hill selected to conduct a review of the university’s response to last semester’s fatal campus shooting, and more.

Let’s jump in.

Duke students could lose federal loans under Pell Grant expansion

The Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act would expand access to federal Pell grants — a type of student financial aid that is awarded only to undergraduate students with “exceptional financial need” and does not have to be repaid — to students pursuing short-term workforce training programs that last only several weeks.

Expanding Pell grant access is a goal Duke leaders support, Vice President for Government Relations Chris Simmons told The N&O on Monday. But the university takes issue with how the bill proposes paying for the expansion — estimated to cost roughly $160 million over five years, Inside Higher Ed reported — which would exclude students at several private universities, including Duke, from receiving federal student loans.

The universities where federal student loan access would be cut off are those subject to a federal endowment tax, which applies to private universities that enroll at least 500 students, 50% of which are in the U.S., and have endowment assets of at least $500,000 per student.

Like Duke, Davidson College, near Charlotte, is subject to the endowment tax. But Davidson generally does not offer student loans, instead covering students’ financial need with grants and student employment, making Duke the only university in North Carolina potentially impacted by the proposed change, Simmons said.

Simmons estimates that close to 3,500 Duke students would lose access to their federal loans under the proposed legislation, close to 1,400 of which are studying health-related subjects, such as nursing. The legislation would not remove access to Pell grants for qualifying students at Duke or any of the impacted schools.

Students walk to first day of classes (FDOC) on Duke’s west campus to kick off the Fall 2021 semester.
Students walk to first day of classes (FDOC) on Duke’s west campus to kick off the Fall 2021 semester.

Without access to federal student loans, students would likely have to take out private loans, which generally do not offer many of the benefits of federal loans, such as fixed-interest rates and loan forgiveness.

“Frankly, students that borrow — no matter what program they’re in at Duke — are students that need those additional resources and are from very diverse socioeconomic backgrounds,” Simmons said. “And many of these students will not go into careers that will allow them to pay off more expensive loans, or [they don’t] come from backgrounds where they can get away without any loans.”

Students might then feel more limited in the universities they are able to attend, Simmons said.

“This really hurts students,” Simmons said. “We will continue to have students enrolled in these programs. But they will be financed in a different way, and it will limit the choices that students can make on where they attend school.”

Simmons said he and others at Duke are trying to make clear to lawmakers the impact that the proposed legislation would have, not just locally at Duke and in North Carolina, but in all states.

“Every member of Congress, whether or not they have an institution impacted by this, they will have constituents that will be impacted, because they have constituents attending one of these schools,” Simmons said. “So, we want to make sure that members of Congress understand the huge implications this will have for individuals, and how individuals choose ... where they go to school, and how it’s financed.”

The proposed bill passed the House Education and the Workforce Committee — chaired by North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx — in mid-December, though its timing to be heard on the House floor is unclear. Key lawmakers have indicated they are open to reconsidering the provision to end federal loan access at the affected universities, Inside Higher Ed reported.

UNC names contractor for shooting review

A post-incident review of last August’s fatal on-campus shooting is underway at UNC-Chapel Hill.

According to an update posted to the university’s campus safety website, the review officially began on Dec. 15, with the CNA Corporation leading the process. CNA is “an independent, nonprofit research and analysis organization dedicated to the safety and security of the nation,” according to the organization’s website.

The review will be conducted in four phases and is expected to be completed by the end of the spring semester in May, concluding with a final report that will be presented to campus leaders.

The university previously released a summary of responses to a survey in which members of the campus community were able to provide feedback on the university’s response to the August incident, which left a professor dead. Respondents generally said they would like to see improvements made to the Alert Carolina emergency notification system, emergency training and safety infrastructure, such as ensuring windows and doors can be secured.

Further updates about the university’s review of the Aug. 28 incident will be available at

North Carolina ALE Agents exit the Caudill Laboratories building near the Bell Tower on the University of North Carolina campus after a report of an armed and dangerous person on Monday, August 28. 2023 in Chapel Hill, N.C. Tailei Qi, 34, a graduate student was arrested in the shooting at UNC-Chapel Hill on Monday that left a member of the faculty dead and put the entire campus on lockdown for more than three hours.

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That’s all for this week’s roundup of North Carolina higher education news. I hope you’ll stay tuned for more.

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