July 7, 2013

Congress to revisit doubling of student loan interest rate

Sen. Angus King of Maine is among the senators who hope to win support for a bipartisan plan.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Congress is expected to resume debate this week on student loan interest rates in an attempt to retroactively fix a rate increase that began July 1 after lawmakers failed to agree on a compromise.

Interest rates doubled from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent this month for millions of students who plan to take out new subsidized federal Stafford loans. While the rate increase will affect less than one-third of all student borrowers, the change would result in those borrowers paying, on average, an additional $2,600 in interest over the life of the loan, according to a recent congressional report.

Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle have pledged to tackle the issue as soon as they return from the Fourth of July recess. Senate leaders plan to take up a retroactive extension bill Wednesday, and Maine Sen. Angus King and others hope to win broader support for a bipartisan alternative.

"We have a terrific plan. We just have to get the Democrats to buy into it," King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said Friday.

But with Senate Democrats divided on a path forward and Republicans likely to oppose the leading Democratic plan to delay major reforms, it is far from clear what the end product will look like or if an agreement can be reached at all.

"The implications are pretty scary and students are hoping Congress can put aside the partisanship and come together on this issue," said Sophia Zaman, vice president of the U.S. Student Association, a student-led advocacy organization active on Capitol Hill. "So far we have been really, really disappointed."

While credit cards are often portrayed as the source of many consumers' debt problems, student loans are actually the second-largest source of consumer debt in the United States after home mortgages. Americans owe roughly $1 trillion in student loans – a figure that has nearly doubled since the recent recession began in 2007.

More than 70 percent of graduates from Maine's public and private colleges and universities in 2011 began their post-collegiate lives with student loan debt. The average debt load among Maine graduates that year was just above $26,046, slightly below the national average of $26,600, according to a report from the Project on Student Debt.

Congress currently sets interest rates for both subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans as well as PLUS loans used by parents and many graduate or professional students. But there is a push in Washington to remove Congress from the picture, in part to avoid interest rates from getting caught up in political gamesmanship.

There are currently three major proposals on the table in Congress dealing with student loan interest rates. Key differences in those proposals could add up to a healthy chunk of change for borrowers, depending on the types of loans they take out and future interest rates.

Senate Democrats' plan: Extend the current 3.4 percent interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans for another year while negotiating longer-term reforms to student borrowing and college affordability. The bill would not change interest rates for unsubsidized Stafford loans (undergraduate or graduate) or PLUS loans.

Senate bipartisan plan: Tie student loan interest rates to the 10-year U.S. Treasury borrowing rate plus 1.85 percent for subsidized/unsubsidized Stafford undergraduate loans, 3.4 percent for graduate Stafford loans and 4.4 percent for PLUS loans. Those rates would be locked in for the life of that particular loan, although rates for subsequent loans would likely vary. There would be no maximum interest rates, but the rates for consolidated loans would be 8.25 percent.

House Republican plan: Tie student loan interest rates to the 10-year U.S. Treasury borrowing rate plus 2.5 percent for all Stafford loans and 4.5 percent for PLUS loans. Unlike the Senate bipartisan plan, loan rates would not be locked in for the life of the loan but would vary with the market. Stafford interest rates would be capped at 8.5 percent, however, and capped at 10.5 percent for PLUS loans.

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