Interest Rate Compromise Not Cause for Celebration

This week, the Senate passed legislation to change the way interest rates are set on federal student loans. It’s expected to pass the House next week and soon become law. While it would lower rates for borrowers this year, it is more of a missed opportunity than a cause for celebration, as we said in our statement last week. That’s because it is expected to cost students and families more over time than if Congress had done nothing at all after interest rates doubled on subsidized Stafford loans.

Over the next 10 years, the legislation is expected to cost borrowers $715 million more than if current rates were simply left in place, and current rates are already projected to generate $184 billion in profits for the government. It lowers rates for today’s students only by requiring future students to pay far more. Within a few years, new loans for undergraduates, graduate students, and parents are all projected to carry higher fixed rates than they do right now.

Still, the Senate-passed bill is better than the earlier bill passed by the House, which would have set truly variable rates – meaning the rates on existing loans would change every year while in repayment – and charged borrowers even more to pay for deficit reduction.

Several other proposals removed any cap on how high rates could rise, but Senate Democrats successfully fought to include caps in the final compromise. An amendment offered by Senators Reed and Warren would have lowered those caps to where interest rates are today: 6.8% for all Stafford loans and 7.9% for PLUS loans for parents and graduate students. Notably, that amendment got 46 votes, but not enough to prevail and prevent the final bill from passing with the higher caps.

As many in Congress have pointed out, the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is a crucial opportunity to revisit student loan policy, including but not limited to interest rates, in the context of higher education reform as a whole. We urge Congress and the Administration to make college more affordable – not less – for both today’s students and tomorrow’s.

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