Congress Should Freeze Student Loan Rates to Avoid Increasing the Cost of College for Millions

With just three days until interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans are scheduled to double from 3.4% to 6.8%, Congress should not make college more expensive, either by letting rates permanently double or by making permanent changes that leave students worse off than doing nothing at all. Instead, Congress should freeze interest rates to avoid increasing the cost of college for millions of students and families already struggling to cover rising costs. The Reed/Hagan bill (S.1238) introduced today with more than 30 other senators would freeze rates for one year and pay for itself by closing a tax loophole. It’s scheduled for a Senate vote on July 10.

By contrast, the bill Senators Manchin, Burr, Coburn, Alexander, and King announced they will introduce today would be worse for students than doing nothing at all. It would let rates for subsidized Stafford loans more than double by 2018 and set no limit on how high rates on all new loans could rise.

There has always been a cap on federal student loan interest rates. As we, alongside other organizations that advocate for students and young people, recently wrote to Congress, a rate cap is essential to ensure that student loans remain affordable and that high interest rates don’t deter students from starting or completing college during periods of high and rising rates.

Nevertheless, some have objected to maintaining an interest rate cap, suggesting that the availability of income-driven repayment plans eliminates the need for any cap. But that’s simply not the case.

Still others have claimed that an interest rate cap isn’t necessary because federal consolidation loans would still have a maximum rate of 8.25%. However, the potential to consolidate is not a legitimate substitute for capping how high rates can rise. Consolidation comes with risks, which vary depending on the borrower’s specific circumstances. For example, consolidation can increase the total cost of the loan by lengthening the repayment period, and it can make it harder to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. We described these and other consolidation risks in our last post.

A recent alternative Democratic proposal would cap rates and keep subsidized loan rates below 6.8%, but rates on unsubsidized loans would be expected to exceed 7% by 2016. Because 82% of undergraduates with subsidized loans also have unsubsidized loans, keeping rates low on one while increasing rates on the other may not reduce costs for low- and moderate-income students, and could even increase them.

The table below compares how four recent long-term proposals compare to the current rates and scheduled rates for undergraduate subsidized Stafford loans over the next decade. Under three of the proposals, rates on subsidized loans would rise sharply—exceeding 7%, more than double the current rate, by 2018. The difference can be substantial. For a student borrowing the maximum allowable in subsidized and unsubsidized loans over four years, the difference in the rates can cost them over $5,000 more if they repay in 10 years, and over $7,000 more if they repay under an income-driven plan (for details, see our recent analysis here).

Projected Rates for Undergraduate Subsidized Stafford Loans

(based on CBO fiscal year projections for 10-year Treasury notes)

 

Years Rates Projected to  Exceed 7% (2013-2023)

Years Rates Projected to  Exceed 8% (2013-2023)

Cap on How High Rates Can Rise (Yes/No)

Scheduled Rate (6.8%)

NONE

NONE

Yes

Current Rate (3.4%)

NONE

NONE

Yes

Coburn/Burr/Alexander

2016-2023

2018-2023

No

Kline/Foxx

2013-2023*

NONE

Yes

Manchin/Burr

2018-2023

NONE

No

Alternative Dem

NONE

NONE

Yes

*Rate is projected to exceed 7% beginning in 2017 and would apply to all loans taken
out after July 1, 2013, 
because under the Kline/Foxx bill, the rates for all loans
vary each year throughout the life of the loans.
 

Both today’s students and tomorrow’s deserve affordable student loans, not so-called solutions that let rates double and rise even higher without any upper limit. Instead, current rates should be temporarily frozen so that Congress and the Administration have time to come up with a plan that makes real sense for both students and taxpayers and helps make college affordable for all. Both the Reed/Harkin bill, supported by a majority of the U.S. Senate and the Administration, and the new Reed/Hagan bill, do just that by extending current rates and fully covering the cost by closing unnecessary tax loopholes.

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