Student-Loan Interest Rate Fight Rages On In Congress

Unless Congress acts before July 1, the interest rate on federally subsidized student loans for 7 million new borrowers will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.

This refrain has spurred campaign rallies, a flurry of congressional letters and hours of cable TV commentary. This is the reality behind President Barack Obama's Thursday appearance at the University of Nevada, where he once again urged Congress to keep the rate low. "They haven't acted fast enough," he said.

But what sometimes gets lost in the partisan squabbling is a deep problem: Over the last 10 years, tuition cuts and other economic forces have prompted students and families to pay increasingly higher portions of the cost of college. On average, students now pay 49 percent of the charges at public universities that offer master's degrees, a spike from 37 percent a decade ago, according to a 2011 Delta Cost Project report. They pay more than half the cost to attend public research universities, a rise from 38 percent a decade ago.

While politicians on both sides of the aisle have invoked the looming interest rate hike, pointing fingers at the other side with accusations about the expected harm to students, both parties say they want the same resolution: a low rate for one more year. Anything short of that would be an across-the-board political loss. But they disagree on how to pay for it.

Republicans want to tap money slated for health care. The House of Representatives passed a plan along these lines. But the proposal doesn't stand a prayer of passage in the Senate, where Democrats are hawking a plan to require certain employees making at least $250,000 to start paying Medicare taxes.

On average students would pay an additional $1,000 (or about $7 a month) if the student loan interest rate doubles. But the interest rate issue affects only a relatively small group of students.

The stop-gap measures to keep the rate low now under consideration would amount to a one-year extension of the law that cut the rate as opposed to deeper solutions.

"This is largely symbolic," said Amy Laitinen, an education analyst at the New America Foundation who formerly worked for the Obama administration. "It's a one-year fix, one particular set of loans for new borrowers. It's a small segment of the pool."

And the current predicament of Maine veterinarian Kerri Padget would not be helped. Although her parents worked hard to put her through a private high school, they had little left by the time she was ready for college. "Financially, it was a big concern," Padget said. She attended St. Joseph's College of Maine, whose financial aid offerings resulted in a cost lower than what local public universities would run. Then she went to graduate school in Glasgow, returning to the States to face $250,000 in debt. She now pays $800 a month for her private loans and $350 a month for a federal loan.

"The big issue is, the cost of education is rising," Padget said. "They're trying to put a short-term fix on something small and I don't think it's going to help."

Even the quick fix is no longer an easy win. After a month of relative silence by politicians, Vice President Joe Biden revived the debate with a Tuesday White House meeting with college presidents, where he chided Congress for its inaction. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and education committee ranking member Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) sent heated letters this week. But aside from the rounds of finger-pointing, there have been no closed door negotiations between key members of Congress -- and time is running out, insiders say.

"It's a symbolic one-year fix in the middle of an election year that didn't change anything, but they can't even get it together to do that?" Laitinen asked. "It's scary times."

The White House has not presented its own solution for financing a stopgap measure or provided a reaction to the proposals of others.

On Wednesday, Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) introduced a longer-term plan that would tie the student loan rate to the U.S. treasury interest rate. The plan targets more than just federally subsidized Stafford Loans. But the White House has not taken a position on his proposal.

Jason Delisle, an analyst at the New America Foundation, shopped the plan to members of both parties to no avail, he said. "They have political concerns about it."

Late on Thursday, Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) proposed yet another way to pay for a lower loan rate. In a letter to Boehner, Reid suggested achieving savings from pension reform.

No matter how Boehner responds, the solutions thus far seem to only scratch the surface. "The fact that they can't agree on this symbolic act shows there's very little hope to be able to come up with a real fix to the increasing cost of college," Laitinen said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mentioned master's degree programs at public universities when it's the student tuition burden of Bachelor's programs at universities that offer master's degrees that have spiked.