Student loan rates to double without Congress' action

HERALD STAFF, WIRE REPORTJuly 2, 2013 

WASHINGTON -- College students taking out new loans for the fall term will see interest rates twice what they were in the spring -- unless Congress fulfills its pledge to restore lower rates when it returns after the July 4 holiday.

Subsidized Stafford loans, which account for roughly a quarter of all direct federal borrowing, went from 3.4 percent interest to 6.8 percent interest on Monday. Congress' Joint Economic Committee estimated the cost passed to students would be about $2,600.

"In the grand scheme of all the loans that I already have, I suppose it's not out of control," said Angie Platt, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student who expects to graduate with at least $60,000 in debt.

"It's just another thing to add on. It doesn't help me; that's for sure," the Lakeville, Minn., native added.

Efforts to keep interest rates from doubling on new Stafford loans fell apart last week amid partisan wrangling in the Senate. Democratic senators and the White House both predicted that a deal would be reached in Congress to bring the rates down again before students return to campus.

But if an agreement remains elusive, students could find themselves saddled with higher interest rates this year than last.

"It's kind of surprising; that's a big jump," said Rebecca Ehlers, an Iowa State University senior majoring in math.

Billie Joe Hamilton, financial aid director at the University of South Florida, said there is not much universities can do to help students battle increasing loan costs.

"There is really no way for us to help other than informing them of the changes to the loan," Hamilton said. "It is important to understand that an increase in interest doesn't impact the student until they begin their payment for the loan, but it certainly increases the cost over

the repayment period."

Hamilton said rising borrowing costs may hinder students who need loans to pursue higher education. Hamilton said she does not know if it would stop students from enrolling, but it may cause them to pause.

Student debt does not have as large of an impact on the economies of Tampa, Manatee and Sarasota as one might think, Hamilton said. While some students end up in debt by borrowing more than they should, students who invest in higher education by borrowing responsibly come out ahead.

"It is a high-return investment," Hamilton said. "I wish all students could get through without debt, but to say it is a negative is not always the case."

The average debt at the University of South Florida is between $21,000 and $22,000 for undergraduates.

Hamilton said the University of South Florida will continue to work with students as legislation around loans change.

Millions who use federal student loans to pay for their education have some time before they make that decision. But not much.

"The only silver lining is that relatively few borrowers take out student loans in July and early August. You really can't take out student loans more than 10 days before the term starts," said Terry Hartle, a top official with colleges' lobbying operation at the American Council on Education.

But that is little consolation for students looking at unexpected costs waiting for them on graduation day if Congress doesn't take action before it breaks again for the month of August.

"I'm upset by it," said Kolton Gustafson, a George Washington University political science major heading into his senior year. "I wish there was a larger reaction to it."

"Many students are saying and thinking, `I'll pay it later,"' the Grand Junction, Colo., native added. "That's why you don't see more people fighting back."

Students only borrow money for one school year at a time. Subsidized Stafford loans taken before Monday are not affected by the rate hike, nor are federal PLUS, Perkins or unsubsidized Stafford loans slated for the coming year.

"We're telling members to advise students that interest rates are going up," said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Subsidized Stafford loans go to needier students and often are coupled with other types of lending.

He said he doesn't anticipate that the rate increase will prevent students from attending classes in the fall. The effects, he said, won't be felt until after students graduate, when they have to start paying back the loans.

"This doesn't decrease the dollars available to pay for college. It increases the cost of the loan," he said.

Both political parties tried to blame the other for the hike and student groups complained the increase in interest rates would add to student loan debt that already surpasses credit card debt in this country.

Lawmakers knew for a full year the July 1 deadline was coming but were unable to strike a deal to dodge that increase. During last year's presidential race, both parties pledged to extend the 3.4 percent interest rates for another year to avoid angering young voters.

But the looming hike lacked sufficient urgency this year and Congress last week left town for the holiday without an agreement. Instead, the Democratic-led Senate pledged to revisit the issue as soon as July 10 and retroactively restore the rates for another year -- into 2014, when a third of Senate seats and all House seats are up for election.

At the White House, a spokesman predicted a deal could be reached before students return to campus.

"We are confident they will get there and that the solution will include retroactive protection for students who borrow after July 1 so that their student loan rates don't double," Matt Lehrich said.

Even when lawmakers return, there's no guarantee there will be the votes to restore the lower rates.

"When we pass a deadline and there are not immediate effects, the sense of urgency that accompanies a deadline evaporates and that is what I'm afraid will happen here," Hartle said.

For months, the student loan issue was the subject of partisan sniping -- sometimes within the same party.

Obama's budget proposal included a measure that would have linked student loan interest rates with the financial markets. Fellow Democrats called that unacceptable because there were no guarantees interest rates would not skyrocket if the economy improves.

The Republican-led House, meanwhile, co-opted the president's proposal and passed a bill in May that linked interest rates to the financial markets but with a cap on how high rates could climb.

The Democratic-led Senate, meanwhile, tried for a two-year extension that failed to overcome a procedural hurdle. A Republican measure, similarly, came up short.

Top White House officials told allies to find any deal that could win enough votes and avert the politically and fiscally costly doubling.

An attempt at a bipartisan agreement fizzled last week when the Democratic chairman of the Senate education panel, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, declared it a non-starter and urged lawmakers to extend the rates for one more year -- when they get back next week.

Back on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City -- where Obama campaigned against a rate hike last year -- senior Julia Vander Wilt seemed resigned to the higher costs for her subsidized Stafford loans.

"It's a little bit insane that we're paying so much," the 22-year-old student said. "But I don't know if there's really anything I can do about it."

Associated Press writers Ryan J. Foley in Iowa City, Iowa, and Stacy A. Anderson in Washington contributed to this report.

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