GOP, White House Lock Horns Over Student Loan Interest Rates

WASHINGTON – Students who have accumulated thousands of dollars in college loan debts find themselves caught in a crossfire involving Congress and the White House that ultimately may throw them even further into debt.

In just the most recent example of Capital City dissonance, lawmakers and President Obama have been unable to reach an understanding on setting college loan interest rates in the federally run program. Failing to reach an accord by July 1 will result in a doubling of rates, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, for more than 7.4 million students with federal Stafford loans.

The White House claims failure to act will saddle the average student who has taken out loans to fund his or her higher education with an additional $1,000 in debt. Tuition and fees at public universities have more than doubled over the past 20 years as state financial support has declined. The average student who takes out loans to pay for four years of college graduates now owing more than $26,000.

The debate has degenerated into a back-and-forth over who should get the blame if the issue goes unresolved. Neither side has exhibited any inclination to back down.

“For weeks, President Obama’s been running around ginning up college students and late-night television audiences over an impending interest rate change on college loans — pointing the finger at Republicans,” said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). “But not only are Republicans supportive of solving this problem, we’re the only ones who’ve actually passed legislation to do so.”

But that legislation, passed by the House in late May, “isn't smart and it's not fair,” according to President Obama.

“It fails to lock in low rates for students next year,” Obama said. “That’s not smart. It eliminates safeguards for lower-income families. That’s not fair. It could actually cost a freshman starting school this fall more over the next four years than if we did nothing at all and let the interest rates double on July 1.”

If this discussion carries a hint of déjà vu, there’s a reason. Republicans and Democrats bickered over student loan rates for months last year during campaign season before reaching a compromise that offset the $6 billion cost of extending the 3.4 percent rate, initially set in 2007, by limiting the period students remain eligible for federal assistance and altering regulations on pension program funding.

The House-passed measure would reset student loan rates on an annual basis, tying it to the interest rate of a 10-year Treasury note, plus an additional 2.5 percentage points for Stafford loans.

Students would not be afforded the opportunity to lock in rates at any point during the process. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that rates on Stafford loans would reach 5 percent in 2014 and 7.7 percent in 2023. Ultimately, the Stafford loan rate would be capped at 8.5 percent. Graduate student loans along with those taken out by the parents of students, known as PLUS loans, would have a 10.5 percent cap.

Supporters, primarily Republicans, maintain the House bill will cut the deficit by $3.7 billion over 10 years.

Meanwhile, the Democrat-controlled Senate is poised to consider an alternative that would simply extend the current 3.4 percent rate for two more years, offsetting the $8.3 billion cost by closing various tax loopholes.