- The Washington Times - Monday, July 1, 2013

As student loan interest rates doubled Monday, Republicans and Democrats in Washington criticized each other for failing to come to a last-minute agreement and stave off the increase.

But across the nation, students and many in the education community care very little about whose fault it is and instead blame the federal government as a whole for coming up short on a problem that has been on the horizon for 12 months.

Congress’ inaction means that rates for subsidized Stafford loans — about 25 percent of all student borrowing from the federal government — have jumped from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. The increase was scheduled to happen last summer, but lawmakers adopted a one-year stopgap measure that froze rates until Monday, promising to tackle a long-term fix between then and now.

Instead, partisan gridlock set in, and new student borrowers can expect as much as $2,600 in additional costs over a decade as a result.

“We’re disappointed that lawmakers were unable to find a bipartisan solution that would bring down interest rates for all federal student loan borrowers — despite the fact that the Obama administration and members of Congress have proposed similar solutions that would bring federal student loan interest [rates] down,” said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, which represents more than 18,000 financial aid workers at 3,000 U.S. colleges and universities.

Indeed, the White House has expressed support for a proposal to tie interest rates to financial markets, rather than have the federal government arbitrarily set them. A Republican-led bill to do just that cleared the House earlier this year, but similar proposals have failed to pass in the Senate.

A Democratic bill to extend current, fixed rates for two years also went nowhere.

The finer details and politics of the competing ideas seem to be of secondary interest to current and prospective college students.

Rebecca Ehlers, an Iowa State University senior majoring in math, said she may avoid taking out her usual Stafford loan in light of the rate hike.

“That’s a big jump … I may work or ask my parents for money rather than going through all that,” she said.

Devon McMahon, a senior at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, told local media the interest debacle is an example of Washington making it more difficult for students to get their degrees.

“It’s a little disappointing because you’re going to get an education, and I just feel like people make it so much harder to achieve that through loans,” she told CBS.

On Facebook, students have launched a “Don’t Double My Rates” page, with at least a half dozen young men and women saying they’ve contacted their representatives to demand a fix.

On Capitol Hill, another one-year, stopgap measure is emerging as the most likely solution, with Republicans placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of their Democratic counterparts.

“We need the president to lead and help bring Senate Democratic leaders along to resolve this issue,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “We’ve done our job. It’s time for the president and his party to do their job.”

Two competing proposals to avert the crisis emerged in the Senate last week, but lawmakers left town before voting on either.

A bipartisan group of six senators — including Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — put forth a bill to tie interest rates to financial markets with a cap of 8.25 percent.

Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the chamber’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, countered by joining with 37 other Senate Democrats in proposing a one-year measure to lock interest rates at 3.4 percent.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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