June 5, 2013

Interest rates on student loans will double on July 1 unless Congress acts. Since the phrase “congressional action” has become an oxymoron, this will quickly degenerate into an unnecessary crisis, requiring parents and students to threaten their legislators to get any relief.

Why is action even a question? There is a universal consensus — left, right and center — that it is vital to our nation to educate the next generation. If we want to compete as a high-wage, high-skill country, our children will need the best in college or advanced technical training. And all agree that gaining that higher education is a necessary, if not sufficient, requirement for entering the middle class.

So just as we pay for public education for kindergarten through 12th grade, we should ensure that advanced training or a public college education is available for all who earn it. None of this is even vaguely controversial.

Yet, despite this consensus, we are pricing college out of the reach of more and more families. State support for public universities has lagged. Increasingly, the costs have been privatized, with the bill sent to students and families.

With incomes stagnant for all but the wealthy few, the result, not surprisingly, has been an explosion of student debt. U.S. students and parents now owe an estimated $1.1 trillion in student loan debt, a sum greater than credit card or automobile debt. In 2005, average student loan debt was just over $17,000. By 2012, it was above $27,250, increasing more than 50 percent in just seven years.

With the debt burden rising and good jobs scarce, the result is calamity. Thirty-five percent of millennials — debtors under 30 — are seriously delinquent on their payments. In total, delinquent student debtors on the verge of default owe $113 billion, more than the total sums state governments spent on higher education in 2012.

The young people who do everything we ask of them — study, graduate, go on to higher education — end up deep in a hole. Burdened by debt, they have a hard time affording cars or apartments. Starting a family becomes difficult, a down payment on a home an impossible dream. This not only crushes the dreams of our best young people; it puts a real damper on the economy.

This isn’t complicated. Washington should be moving boldly to make advanced education affordable for all. The federal government should be increasing grants to states for public colleges, on the condition that the states increase their own contributions and act to curb college costs. The government should crack down on private colleges that ripoff students. And of course, college expenses should be subsidized so that successful young people don’t graduate into debtor’s prison.

But common sense is an endangered species inside Washington’s beltway. Interest rates on federally subsidized Stafford loans are about to double to 6.8 percent. Republicans have passed a “solution” that pegs loan rates to the rate of a 10-year Treasury note plus an arbitrary 2.5 percent. (Or plus 4.5 percent for parental PLUS loans). Loans fluctuate each year with interest rates, with a cap of 8.5 percent for student loans and a stunning 10.5 percent for parental loans. Kids will end up paying more, while the government will make billions on the deal for deficit reduction. But we should be subsidizing the next generation to get the education they need, not making money off of them.

President Obama’s plan isn’t much better. He sets the rate at the 10-year Treasury note rate plus .93 percent for subsidized Stafford loans (3.93 percent for parental loans) with no cap. He does call for limiting what students have to pay to 10 percent of their income, insuring that students aren’t condemned to bankruptcy. His plan is “budget neutral.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has offered a plan that makes a lot of sense. She suggests we offer students the same rate that the Federal Reserve charges to big banks (about .75 percent) for the next year, while Congress gets serious about a permanent fix. Senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) suggest that the Congress do the easy thing, simply extend the current rates for two years, paying for it with the closing of various loopholes.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), like Warren, also makes sense. She would allow students and graduates to refinance into fixed 4 percent loans.

Is it any wonder that Americans grow cynical? Multinational corporations and wealthy investors stash literally trillions abroad to avoid taxes. The big banks rake in trillions in subsidies and discounted loan rates to rescue them from their own excesses. But Congress finds it impossible to make it affordable for the next generation to get advanced education and training.

As always, common sense won’t come to Washington unless citizens mobilize to force it on Congress. With graduations marked by student demonstrations across the country and pickets outside of Sallie Mae, the giant student loan bank, that movement may have begun. Student loans may be to this generation what the draft was to the boomers – the government folly that afflicts them personally and rouses them to act.

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