- - Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Amanda Robbins, a rising sophomore at George Washington University, borrows $4,500 each year in subsidized Stafford loans to a pay a portion of her tuition at one of the nation’s most expensive schools.

She said she had casually followed Congress‘ handling of the interest rates but was “shocked” that they were actually allowed to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1 after lawmakers hit a political impasse.

“It affects me directly, and it’s going to be expensive down the road. It’s going to take so much longer to pay off my loans,” Ms. Robbins said. “It’s kind of a scary thought, starting a career out of college with tons of debt.”

The increased student loan interest rate, which Congress is expected to take up again Wednesday, has troubled local students and universities. Republicans oppose a Democratic proposal to keep loans at 3.4 percent and pay for it by ending special tax breaks, while Democrats have rejected a GOP plan to tie the rates to financial markets and have scheduled a vote on a measure that would keep the lower rate in place for another year. The rates are retroactive if an agreement is reached.

For Ms. Robbins, borrowing at the higher rate for the remainder of her time in college would increase her debt a total of $612 over four years. The average Maryland student would spend an extra $955 over four years, and the average Virginia student would spend an extra $1,011, according to WhiteHouse.gov.

George Washington University, which charges nearly $60,000 annually in fees, tuition and room and board, said the doubled rate is mitigated by the fact that its tuition is fixed up to five years for every freshman class and that most students receive aid through institutional grants.

Catholic University officials said financial aid advisers will ensure students understand that the interest rate is higher.

“We don’t anticipate the increase changing students’ willingness to borrow, especially at a higher-cost school,” said Joe Dobrota, director of financial assistance. Annual tuition and room and board at Catholic costs $52,852.

Mr. Dobrota said Catholic University plans to alert students to the higher rate in the section of the student portal where they manage their scholarships and aid. “We don’t use the charged adjective ‘doubled,’ however,” he said, referring to the interest rate increase.

The doubling affects only new loans in the subsidized program, which make up about a quarter of the federal student loan program, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

“The additional cost, while real, is extended over the life of the loan,” Mr. Dobrota said. “The extra cost is tempered by being spread out over time, and if you repay the loan early you won’t have to worry.”

But other college officials still have complaints.

A key aspect of federal financial aid has been that it is a reasonable loan that can be repaid after the borrower becomes employed, said Forrest Maltzman, senior vice provost for academic affairs and planning at George Washington University.

“Curtailing this is neither good for our students or the country,” he said.

“Frankly, it makes our jobs more difficult when these decisions are made this close to the start of the school year,” Mr. Dobrota said. “It’s disappointing [Congress] can’t decide these things earlier.”

Georgetown University President John DeGioia wrote an editorial for the American University Radio website expressing his frustration with the increase, saying it showed “a lack of belief and commitment in the power of higher education for our young people.” Like GW, Georgetown charges nearly $60,000 annually for tuition, fees and room and board.

The Institute for College Access and Success, a D.C.-based nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that focuses on college affordability, said Virginia and Maryland fall below average for the amount students borrow. D.C. students have an average college debt of $28,241, placing them at ninth in the nation relative to the 50 states.

Pauline Abernathy. the institute’s vice president, emphasized the importance of “not just how much students borrow but how they borrow.” Though the federal interest rate increased, federal loans have more protections if students become at risk for default, she said.

“With higher federal student loan rates, students might turn to private loans thinking they are more affordable, when in reality they aren’t,” she said, warning that those who take out private loans are at greater risk of losing a car or a house if they default.

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