LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Students at a college serving Kentucky’s eastern coalfields will have continued access to federal student aid under a waiver announced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The waiver approved by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will allow Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College to continue participating in federal student loan programs, McConnell announced Tuesday.

The multi-campus school had been at risk of losing access to federal aid for students because of high default rates among former students unable to pay off their education loans.

A cutoff of federal aid would have been a devastating blow to a school seen as a key contributor to efforts to diversify the region’s economy amid a struggling coal sector.

“The college works side by side with us as we work to reinvent ourselves and retrain our people after the downturn in the coal industry,” Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley said.

The waiver stems from a provision giving federal education officials the flexibility to account for the region’s economic hardships when calculating a school’s loan default rate and determining its eligibility to participate in federal student aid programs, McConnell’s office said.

McConnell tucked the provision into a government funding bill earlier this year.

The Kentucky Republican said he was informed of the waiver Tuesday by federal education officials. He thanked DeVos for using the provision to approve the waiver for his home-state school, calling it “great news” for the college’s students.

“Located in the heart of coal country, SKCTC provides an opportunity to students in eastern Kentucky who may have no other access to higher education,” McConnell said in a release.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, the region’s congressman, said students have faced “unmatched financial hardships” tied to the reeling coal industry that has shed thousands of jobs.

“The best way to help our students move forward is not to eliminate their access to loans, but to ensure they can continue to get the financial support they need to further their education for a better future and a sustainable career,” the Republican congressman said.

In some recent years, more than 30 percent of former Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College students who borrowed money have defaulted.

Federal rules specify that colleges risk losing access to federal loans and grants when their student-loan default rates reach 30 percent or higher in three consecutive years.

The region’s political and education leaders on Tuesday praised McConnell’s efforts resulting in the waiver.

“Thanks to his tenacity in drafting and securing support for this legislation, SKCTC will continue to provide much needed education and job training to build better citizens, a better workforce, a better economy,” said the school’s president, Vic Adams.

The college has campuses in Cumberland, Harlan, Middlesboro, Pineville and Whitesburg.