More than 7.4 million college students, including 1.5 million African Americans, with subsidized federal Stafford loans could see their interest rates double in July unless Congress reaches a compromise on keeping them down. Since President Obama started pushing the issue two weeks ago, both sides of the aisle now agree that it's a bad idea to let interest rates hike up from 3.4 percent to 6.8. There's dispute, however, over how to pay for a one-year freeze on the current rate, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates would cost $6 billion.
The House voted on a bill to extend the low interest rate, offsetting costs by cutting from a preventive-health fund in Obama's health care law. But that package won't pass in the Democratic-controlled Senate, which plans to vote on a version of the bill paid for by eliminating a corporate-tax loophole that lets wealthy individuals pay less in Social Security and Medicare taxes. The two sides will have to hash out the differences before July.
John Wilson, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, says that the interest-rate issue is one piece of the broader problem of college affordability, with tuition fees increasing at a rate of 8.3 percent a year at four-year public schools. The total outstanding student-loan debt is expected to hit a record $1 trillion this year, surpassing the amount of credit card debt for the first time.
Wilson recently spoke with The Root about why he thinks the impending interest-rate hike is so urgent, and the efforts that the administration is making around college affordability in general.
The Root: The doubling of student-loan interest rates affects all students with subsidized Stafford loans, but you say it's particularly critical for many black students. Why?
John Wilson: Because African-American students, and other minority students, already have a disproportionately difficult time affording college. Anything that adds to that financial burden, as a doubling of the student-loan interest rate will, is going to make things even more difficult. This change is going to add up to $1,000 of additional debt for the average student.
Subsidized Stafford loans are also need-based loans that are targeted to low- to moderate-income families, and $2.5 billion per year goes to HBCU students alone. Back in 2008 it was just $2 billion, so it's gone up 25 percent. College has become more expensive, and students have had to borrow more to make ends meet. Adding difficulty to the repayment burden is not the way to go.
We also know that the top 10 HBCUs in enrollment account for one-third of the HBCU loan debt. So this whole issue is especially important for institutions like FAMU, North Carolina A&T, Jackson State, Southern University and Texas Southern, which are going to be especially sensitive to the student and family reactions to this.
TR: You mentioned that the impact of the higher interest rate is an additional $1,000 per student, but that's over the lifetime of the loan. On a monthly basis, a typical student-loan payment would rise by about $8 per month. In that context, is this debate perhaps not as urgent as it seems?
JW: I don't think this issue is living in the minds of the students, or in the minds of the families who are struggling to pay for college, as $8 more a month. We [at the Department of Education] have a big college-affordability campaign right now, and this just adds to the college-affordability issue. It's simply getting too expensive every year to go to college.
It underscores the significance of President Obama and [Education] Secretary Duncan standing behind the Pell Grant program. Just before Barack Obama took office, Pell Grants were costing about $17 billion nationwide, and there were 6 million recipients. Now there are almost 10 million recipients, and Pell Grants are about $44 billion. If the president and the secretary had not done that, then the stress over this conversation about loans would be off the charts.
TR: Besides trying to maintain the 3.4 percent interest rate, what other new efforts is the administration pursuing around making college more affordable in general?
JW: In the affordability campaign, we are encouraging colleges and universities to keep their tuition charges under control. We're encouraging college and students to be creative with approaches such as blended learning approaches online. Some course content you can take online, and it's cheaper that way. Creative solutions like that may be one way to make college more manageable from a financial standpoint and keep us on pace with the 2020 goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.