Unless Congress takes action, college students and graduates might have to pay thousands of extra dollars in loan repayment.
As a college student without a steady income, this is highly concerning. President Obama put it bluntly in a recent speech at the University of Michigan: “That would not be good for you.”
It’s true—it wouldn’t.
Congress initially cut student loan interest rates in 2007, when they voted to chop the subsidized Stafford loan rate in half—from 6.8 percent to the current 3.4 percent. But these provisions were only put into place for five years and will expire on July 1, causing the loan rates to double to the original rate of 6.8 percent.
While the interest rate has been lower for the past five years, total student loan debt carried by Americans has skyrocketed to new heights, surpassing credit card debt for the first time in American history and, by some estimates, already topping $1 trillion. According to the Department of Education, six years is now an acceptable amount of time to finish an undergraduate degree, meaning a potential two more years of loans for some student borrowers.
With the kind of increase in student debt we’ve seen recently, today’s graduates are taking drastic measures to repay their loans. A simple Google search of “student loan debt” reveals tales and statistics that seem like folklore. One graduate was allegedly willing to sell a kidney to pay off his student loan debt so he could start his professional life with a clean slate. Others have turned to services like Seeking Arrangement to find well-off people willing to help pay their loans in exchange for companionship.
Yet some members of Congress don’t seem too concerned about students, but rather with how the interest rates are affecting the federal government. At a recent Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Innovations in College Affordability, Sen. Mike Enzi (R, Wyo.) said that if Congress doesn’t increase the loan rate it will cost the government $2.4 billion dollars.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the HELP committee, acknowledged that there are gradations in student borrowing, but wondered about some students’ actions.
“How many students, emancipated students, are borrowing money for lifestyle purposes, rather than for college purposes,” he said. They take on these huge debts not really understanding what that means. Not understanding that this is not dischargeable in bankruptcy by the way, it’s around your neck forever.”
And this is one of the major problems with student loan debt: It’s not dischargeable in bankruptcy, except in very rare cases. (Specifically, about 0.04 percent of cases.) That means students have a greater chance of dying from cancer than having their student loan debt discharged in bankruptcy.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama outlined his goal of having the most college graduates by 2020. Yet from 1992 to 2004, college enrollment dropped from 59 percent to 53 percent of students from middle income families and from 54 percent to 40 percent for students from low-income families. Congress should be working to reverse these trends and, in order to do so, needs to prioritize investing in higher education.
Keeping the interest rates on Stafford loans low is a simple way to prove that America is still invested in higher education and will show that Congress wants to make college and other further education as affordable as possible.