When Congress amended the Higher Education Act in 1998, it goofed. It was a technical mistake, really. But it put hundreds of Americans studying veterinary medicine around the world in financial crisis.
That is, until recently, when lawmakers passed a corrective measure that made desperately needed student loans available again. And two veterinary students who are self-described political novices are largely to thank for it.
It started in 1998 when the Senate and House of Representatives passed a series of amendments to the Higher Education Act, the law that establishes criteria for domestic and foreign colleges to be eligible for Federal Student Aid programs. Americans studying at qualified colleges can apply for the Stafford Loan program to offset the costs of their education.
Some 150,000 Americans enrolled in foreign colleges receive more than $250 million in loans made possible by the Higher Education Act.
One of the amendments was intended to apply to foreign, for-profit medical and veterinary colleges. But what it did in actuality was disqualify foreign veterinary colleges—and only foreign veterinary colleges—with no clinical training programs in the United States from being eligible to receive federal aid.
The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C., lobbied Congress to correct the legislative gaffe. Nevada senator and veterinarian John Ensign agreed and proposed the amendment during the 107th Congress.
Although the Senate passed the bill, the congressional calendar ended before the House acted.
When the law became effective July 1, 2000, more than 200 Americans studying in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand saw their financial aid disappear. (Veterinary students at Ross University at St. Kitts in the Caribbean still qualified, since they complete the clinical training portion of their education in the United States.)
When the 108th Congress convened in 2003, Sen. Ensign, with fellow veterinarian and senator, Wayne Allard, as a co-sponsor, reintroduced the amendment in May as S. 570. The bill was referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, where it stalled and looked as though it might linger indefinitely.
The AAVMC encouraged committee chairman, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, to vote S. 570 out of committee for consideration by the Senate, but to no avail. Along with asking the New Hampshire VMA to write Gregg a letter, the AAVMC invited Patti Mussells to Washington this summer to meet with Gregg.
Mussells had just completed her first year at the University of Prince Edward Island Atlantic Veterinary School in Canada. Not only could Mussells personalize the financial plight she and the 20 other Americans in her class faced, but Mussells is also a resident of Hinsdale, N.H., hence a constituent of the senator.
Despite conventional wisdom that only money talks in Washington, a politician will take note when a person who could influence their reelection bid drops by.
Mussells enrolled at Prince Edward to pursue an education in large animal and wildlife medicine. By then, she wasn't eligible for Stafford loans and had to take out personal loans to cover her tuition.
Unlike Stafford loans, with their low, fixed-interest rate and deferred payment plan, students who take out personal loans must immediately start repaying the loan at a higher rate.
Mussells recounted how several students who, because their current study abroad no longer qualified them for federal aid, had to start repaying Stafford loans from earlier undergraduate or postgraduate programs.
"You end up in a downward economic spiral," Mussells explained.
When AAVMC Executive Director Lawrence Heider invited Mussells to fly to the nation's capital to request that Sen. Gregg move S. 570 along, the extent of her political activism was visiting her uncle in Washington, D.C.
Mussells met with the senator's senior adviser in July and explained the importance of S. 570 to her and her fellow American expatriates studying in Canada. Some students' debt load had gotten so bad that they were considering dropping out, she said.
The meeting went well and the adviser promised to urge the committee to pass the bill by unanimous consent. It shouldn't be a problem, he explained, since the Senate had passed the amendment the year before.
About two weeks later, late in the afternoon of July 16, the Senate passed S. 570 by unanimous consent.
Mussells sheepishly confesses she feels she played a part in the bill's success. "Because I'm not a very politically inclined person," she said, "I find it hard to believe that I would be able to have an effect on such a large matter."
From the Senate, the bill was referred to a subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The AAVMC had been working with committee chairperson, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, who was said to be convinced of the legislation's importance and agreed to expedite the bill.
But Congress recessed for the summer, once again leaving S. 570 in legislative limbo. In September, word came that the bill might be delayed in subcommittee pending further actions on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
Instead of being discouraged, the AAVMC resorted again to the strategy that had worked so well in the Senate: constituent pressure.
Beverly Breeden of Celina, Ohio, was looking forward to her second year at the Royal College of Veterinary Medicine in London. After graduation, she plans on working at a small animal, possibly mixed, practice.
Like Mussells, Breeden had to take out private loans to pay her tuition. Fortunately for Breeden, she was able to defer payment on her undergraduate loans. But many Americans in her class weren't so lucky.
Tuition costs at the Royal College, Breeden said, are comparable with those at an out-of-state veterinary college in the United States. Regardless of where she studies, it would be impossible were it not for financial aid.
Breeden and her mother, having learned of S. 570 and how it would make her eligible for federal aid, had been writing Boehner, who represents their district in Congress. The AAVMC invited Breeden to come to Washington to explain to the congressman how the current law jeopardized her veterinary education, as well as that of other Americans studying veterinary medicine abroad.
Breeden met Boehner in mid-September. Although the congressman didn't make any promises, he did sound supportive. "We weren't sure if it was just a show, like 'I'll totally support you,' but then do something else," she recalled.
But soon after the meeting, S. 570 was placed before the entire House for a vote. When Boehner rose to speak in favor of the bill on Sept. 30, he mentioned Breeden by name.
"The effects of this problem are being felt by several of my constituents, one specifically being Ms. Beverly Breeden, a resident of Celina, Ohio, and a veterinary student at the Royal Veterinary College in London," Boehner said. "She is extremely concerned that she may not be able to complete her studies should this legislation not pass.
"She has worked hard, and I want to ensure that she is able to return to school in October and finish her studies. So I urge my colleagues to vote 'yes' today on S. 570 and allow students to complete their education and training without unintended interruptions."
The House passed S. 570 that day. It became law 10 days later, allowing foreign veterinary schools to again apply for Federal Student Aid programs, making American students eligible for federal assistance.
Nearly a month later, Breeden still laughs when asked about her name being mentioned on the floor of the House of Representatives.
"It was pretty gratifying," she admits, sounding embarrassed. "I didn't know how much difference I was going to make, but apparently, it was pretty helpful."
Mussells and Breeden say Americans at their colleges are relieved about Congress' action and are looking forward to getting on with their education, without the constant worry about repaying their debt.
Dr. Andrew Maccabe, AAVMC director of programs and services, led the charge to get S. 570 passed. But he credits the students with the success. "Their participation was absolutely essential," he said.
It's easy to become cynical about the political process when the only message in the news is about how money influences politics, Dr. Maccabe explained. But in this case, two students made a difference.
"Participation in the legislative process matters," he said. "The everyday message we're bombarded with is individuals cannot make a difference if they don't have millions of dollars to donate. Here's a perfect example of how an individual with no moneyed interests at all can move the process along."
The experience has made Mussells feel that she can have an effect by writing letters or visiting representatives. "I see a lot of people in my class who don't even know that I went, and they're so happy to get their loans back," she said. "I feel good about that because I had something to do with that."
As for Breeden, she has a newfound faith in the system: "It's nice to know that politics works."