Student loan debt is a huge problem in this country — a one trillion dollar problem, in fact. This problem was compounded Monday, when Congress’ inaction led to increases on government-funded student loan interest rates. The interest rate for Stafford unsubsidized student loans doubled from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. While the interest rate hike won’t affect current loans, it will affect the seven million people who are predicted to take government-funded student loans this year —which include Stafford unsubsidized loans, Stafford subsidized loans and Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students loans. Considering the already outrageous amount of student loan debt accumulated by the public and the necessity for higher education, the last thing Congress should do is allow interest rates to rise.
In 2007, subsidized interest rates were to be gradually reduced from 6.8 to 3.4 percent over a course of four years by the College Cost Reduction Access Act. The act expired in 2011, but was extended by one year in a House of Representatives compromise and then for another year in 2012 after former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama lobbied for it. This brought the act’s expiration date to July 1st, when the interest rate reverted back to its original 2007 rate of 6.8 percent.
Unsurprisingly, any chance of Congressional action before the interest rate hike was thwarted by arguments between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats originally wanted to keep the subsidized interest rates the same for another two years — a proposal that died in the Senate — but since then they have introduced another plan that would tie interest rates to that of a three-month Treasury note. This is similar in principle to House Republicans’ Smarter Solutions for Students Act, which would peg the interest rates for all Stafford and PLUS loans to the 10-year Treasury note. Thus, interest rates would vary from year to year in both plans.
However, neither one of these plans does enough for students. Both would virtually guarantee higher interest rates across the board in the long run. Moreover, the Department of Education is currently raking in huge profits off of student loans — $50.6 billion this year alone — as a result of student loan interest rates being considerably higher than that of the money borrowed to finance the loans. This is unacceptable. Many Americans have no option other than taking out loans if they want to be able to afford a college education, and no financial argument justifies turning a quick profit off of people who are trying to enrich their lives by going to college.
Congress has to act quickly if they want to take back this week’s addition to the student debt crisis, as students return to classes for the 2013-14 academic year in two months. Regardless, their chronic inability to act before a deadline has come and gone is no excuse for making higher education even more difficult to afford.