At Florida International University — where, like other state schools, tuition costs more than double what it did a decade ago — senior Stephani Galindo is frustrated. Even with scholarships and the help of need-based federal Pell grants, Galindo has had to borrow about $20,000 to finance her education.
And on July 1, unless Congress acts, the cost of borrowing is about to go up — by a lot. The interest rate on federally subsidized Stafford loans, currently at 3.4 percent, is set to double to 6.8 percent.
“I already have so many loans, because my parents didn’t save any money for me for school,” said Galindo, 20. “I’m smart, too, I’ve got some scholarships, but it’s not enough, not at all.”
The possible rate increase is prompted by the expiration of a temporary period of lower rates created by 2007’s College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which passed Congress with broad bipartisan support. The law gradually reduced rates from 6.8 percent to the current 3.4 percent, but with the caveat that rates would reset back to 6.8 percent this year.
The potential rate increase comes as students and families are increasingly finding college unaffordable, and the financial hits are coming from all directions: federal Pell grants can no longer be used for summer classes; state financial aid programs such as Florida’s Bright Futures scholarships have been scaled back; double-digit tuition increases have become the norm.
But not all undergraduates would be affected by the rate increase. Subsidized Stafford loans are awarded only to low-to-moderate income students, while unsubsidized loans (which anyone is eligible for) are already set at 6.8 percent, and so would not be affected by the July 1 deadline.
Anyone who took out a loan before July 1 — whether you’re still in school or have graduated — would also be unaffected, as student loan rates are fixed at the time you borrow.
But the issue has become a hot potato in political circles.
Both parties in Congress, mindful of the sour economy and the current election year, have voiced support for extending the current lower interest rate on subsidized loans. But as is typical in the current gridlocked political environment, the two sides haven’t been able to agree on how to pay the $5.9 billion price tag.
Raising the rate would affect more than 7 million U.S. students. The White House estimates that the higher interest charges would add another $1,000 in debt for the average undergrad.
President Barack Obama, who finished paying off his own student loans only eight years ago, has said it’s a “no-brainer” to keep the lower interest rate in place.
Speaking at a Virginia high school last month, Obama said “You guys shouldn’t have to pay an extra $1,000 just because Congress can’t get its act together. . . . This is something that we need to get done.”
Democrats want to increase payroll taxes on some privately held companies. Republicans countered with several spending-cut proposals, including reductions to a fund aimed at promoting disease prevention and public health. The House of Representatives, with mostly Republican votes, approved that plan in April, but it’s going nowhere in the Democratic-run Senate.