Students play waiting game while Congress catches up on student loan debacle

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Wednesday morning, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing on the federal student loan program. The consensus among the witnesses who testified at the hearing was that systemic changes are needed. Notably, neither students nor student representatives were among the witnesses called, so here’s our synopsis and response:
 
•    Student loan interest rates

One major question discussed today was not just what the interest rate on federal student loans should be, but how Congress should set that rate. Currently, federal student loans have a fixed interest rate set by Congress. This rate does not change when the cost of borrowing changes in the market. Several witnesses proposed having a market-based fixed rate. Under this proposal, the interest rate available for federal loans would vary from year to year based on market conditions, but would be fixed for borrowers throughout repayment. There was disagreement as to whether such a rate should have a cap. 

Our take: If we change the rate to a market-based fixed rate, we need protections like a cap to ensure affordability over the long-run. Moreover, some bills we’ve seen change interest rates by shifting debt from the government to students, taking billions out of student aid to reduce the deficit – a move that is bad for students and bad for our country’s future.

•    Income-based repayment

Witnesses also supported increasing participation in income-based repayment as a way of promoting college affordability and decreasing default rates. Under income-based repayment, a borrower’s monthly loan payment is a set percentage of her income. One witness suggested improving financial aid counseling so students know about the repayment options available to them before they find themselves struggling to pay back their loans. Another popular suggestion: automatically enroll all students in a single, income-based repayment program.

Our take: Income-based repayment should be a priority, and we need more students taking advantage of the benefits it offers.  Defaulting students into IBR would ensure that would happen. Federal counseling also needs to be improved, and today, Senators Harkin and Mikulski introduced the Smarter Borrowing Act that aims to do just that.

•    Increase college access and completion

Some participants discussed how a college education is a worthwhile investment. College graduates have lower unemployment rates and can expect to earn more over their lifetimes than those who do not complete college. Having an educated workforce improves the overall economy and benefits society as a whole.

Our take: We know that, they know that, so let’s get to work on making college more accessible and affordable. For example, we need to support investments like Pell grants.

With the looming July deadline, the coming months are likely to invite more congressional noise on the topic. We plan to make sure that students and borrowers are a part of that process. 
 
Postolowski is a legal fellow at Young Invincibles - a non-profit, non-partisan youth advocacy organization dedicated to amplifying the voices of young Americans and expanding economic opportunity for our generation.