As Congress has struggled to reach a consensus on setting federal student loan rates, both parties have urged college students and 20-something former students to take a side on the issue by using the Twitter hashtag #DontDoubleMyRate.
That expansive messaging effort has led to confusion about the legislation, prompting a surge of phone calls to college and university financial aid offices. One of the biggest misconceptions is that all student loan holders will see a doubling of their interest rates — or even their entire monthly payments.
But the July 1 increase in the rate is on just one type of federal student loan, and alumni and many students will not be affected by the change. But the more than 7 million who are expected to take out one of these loans this year eventually could see a loan bill that’s about $20 more per month — a burden, for sure, but not the crippling problem that lawmakers in both parties have portrayed it to be, according to financial aid experts.
“There is a lot of misinformation about this, and a lot of it, I think, might be deliberate to cause angst among students so they will push for this,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com, a collection of Web sites dedicated to college admissions and financial aid. “It sounds dramatic to double the interest rate, but it’s really not. This will not push someone over the edge unless they were already teetering there.”
At issue is the Stafford loan — named for former senator Robert Stafford (R-Vt.) — that is available to nearly all undergraduate students enrolled at least part time at a college, university, community college or an accredited institution. The fixed interest rate is 6.8 percent.
About half of these loans are subsidized to help students with financial need, such as a low-income student or a middle-income student at an expensive college. In 2007, lawmakers started to drop the interest rate on these loans. It has been at 3.4 percent for two years. That lower rate expired July 1, returning the rate to the standard 6.8 percent.
About one-third of college students receive the subsidized loans, which added up to $40.5 billion during the 2011-12 school year. Fewer students received unsubsidized loans, though their loans totaled $46.9 billion. The government also distributed $11 billion to parent borrowers.
The lower rate was supposed to expire July 2012 but it became a campaign issue; both President Obama and Mitt Romney supported continuing it. Lawmakers extended the rate for a year without delving into the deeper issue of changing the way the government sets all of its student loan rates — not just those for the subsidized Stafford loan.
“We should address all student loan interest rates instead of hyper-focusing” on the subsidized Stafford loans, said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “There’s a much larger issue here.”
Obama has advocated for setting interest rates based on the government’s cost of providing the loans.
The Republican-led House passed a bill in late May that would establish a variable rate for all loans that is tied to market pricing. For the coming school year, that probably would mean a rate of less than 5 percent — likely more than the subsidized 3.4 percent rate but less than the current 6.8 percent rate. In future years, the rate could go as high as 8.5 percent.
Critics of the bill say it could cost all students more later and it disadvantages lower-income students at the present time. Obama has criticized the plan, saying that it is poorly crafted and unfair to students.
The Senate was unable to take action before the July 1 deadline, but leaders hope to get a bill passed before the August recess — and before students lock in on loans for the coming academic year.
A bipartisan group has supported a bill that would tie interest rates to the market but without a formal cap that Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has insisted upon. Meanwhile, Reid and other Democratic leaders are pushing a bill that would freeze the subsidized rate at 3.4 percent for another year. Reid met with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Tuesday afternoon.
A vote on that bill is expected Wednesday, and senators took to Twitter to rally Tuesday afternoon. They hashtagged everything #DontDoubleMyRate.