Congress Chooses Political Expediency Over Student Welfare. Again.

Knowing that allowing the 3.4% interest rate on student loans to double as of July 1st would be political suicide, Congress pushes the decision out one year and keeps the lower interest rate in place.

Victory for students? Nope. Victory for Congress. You betcha.

While saving the average borrower around $1,000 a year, it is likely to cost students a lot more than that over the long term. The agreement that lawmakers passed Friday will keep interest rates at 3.4 percent for another year.

Anthony DeLaRosa, a 23-year-old University of Colorado graduate, says it’s a big victory. “I think the reason that students should support this, first and foremost is the fact that the 3.4 percent interest rate is being extended,” he says, “something that students pushed for very, very hard over the last several months.”

By passing this agreement, Congress sent a message to the Republican attack dogs that said, “We’re keeping the agreement in place for a year, but we’re really going to make them pay.”

DeLaRosa works for the U.S. Student Association, a lobbying group. He says 7.4 million students who rely on subsidized Stafford loans can now breathe easier. But, this is no victory, given the rest of the deal. “In the last year, Congress has actually trimmed tens of billions of dollars in student aid,” says Joel Packer, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding.

Packer says lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats alike — have actually made it more costly for students to borrow, and those costs dwarf whatever savings students can expect from lower interest rates.

For example, graduate students will now have to pay the interest on their loans while they’re still in school. All students will have to start paying back the money they borrowed immediately after graduation — the six-month grace period during which the government paid the interest is gone.

“That’s disappointing because Congress shouldn’t pay for one education program by cutting another — in this case it’s actually cutting the same one,” Packer says. That’s not all, he says. Lawmakers have limited the number of semesters needy students can receive a Pell Grant and made it harder to qualify for the maximum award. “So they’ve made a whole variety of changes.

Overall, about $4.6 billion came out of students’ pockets to pay off the federal deficit,” Packer says. The total cost to students, according to some estimates, $18-20 billion extra over the next 10 years.

This all began a year ago, during the pitched political debate over the federal budget, the deficit and what federal government programs to cut. The student loan program was clearly not exempt, says Getachew Kassa, legislative director for the U.S. Student Association. “This was disheartening. When we started this campaign as a coalition of student advocates, we said that ‘No way in hell are you going take money from education,’ “he says.

But that’s what lawmakers did, says Kassa, a University of Oregon graduate. So even with interest rates remaining low, Kassa says the bigger story here is that students appear to have lost more than they gained. “In the past year, we’ve had deals where students have basically been robbed. I think the real question to ask is, where does this stop?” he says, “because sooner or later, you take a little bit here, a little bit there — you have nothing else to take away from.”

So, unfortunately the headlines will read, “Congress comes together to keep student loan interest rates low.”, and both Republicans and Democrats will take credit for keeping interest rates from doubling, while the real headline should read, “Congress stays in office by screwing students with increased education costs.”

But he says students will be back in nine months, yet again fighting to keep interest rates at 3.4 percent for another year — and fighting to keep Congress from cutting student aid even more.

About Steve King

iPeopleFINANCE™ Chief Operating Officer. Former CEO of Endymion Systems, Inc. a $36m Information Systems Services company. Co-founder of the Cambridge Systems Group, the creator of ACF2, the leading IBM Mainframe Data Center Security product; acquired by Computer Associates. IBM, seeCommerce, marchFIRST, Connectandsell alumni. UC Berkeley alumni. View all posts by Steve King

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