Stop the ticking time bomb: Keep college affordable


by Mary Ellen Flannery, official White House photo above courtesy of Chuck Kennedy

Renatae Cuffee dreams someday of becoming the kind of teacher that changes the lives of students. But currently, she’s a junior at Delaware State University, juggling a full-time course load in education, a part-time tutoring job at an after-school center, and the never-ending duties of parenting her own two children.

It’s exhausting, yes. It’s also really expensive.

Unfortunately, it’s about to get a lot worse. If Congress fails to take action, as President Obama has urged them to do, interest rates on federal student loans will double on July 1, to 6.8 percent. Nearly 7.5 million Americans use these low-interest loans to pay for their college education—their ticket to much-needed jobs, home ownership, and the American Dream. Without a rate freeze, they’ll rack up an additional $1,000 in debt each year.

“In America, higher education cannot be a luxury. It’s an economic imperative that every family must be able to afford,” said Obama, who is touring the country this week, visiting state university campuses in North Carolina, Iowa, and Colorado to talk with students and urge them to contact their Congressperson on behalf of rate-freezing legislation.

You can do the same by visiting NEA’s Legislative Action Center. At the same time, if you also have a story about your own debt and struggles to get a college education, please share it using the form at the bottom of this page.

Currently, interest rates are set at 3.4 percent, thanks to the 2007 College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which reduced rates on federally subsidized Stafford loans for four years. It expires this July. New legislation, introduced by U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT), would freeze the lower rate and it has 127 co-sponsors—but not a single Republican.

“For some time, I’ve been calling on Congress to take steps to make college affordable,” said Obama, who has called for doubling the number of work-study jobs, extending the tuition-tax credit, and protecting Pell Grants. “Instead Republicans have voted for new tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires…cutting our future off at the knees,” Obama said.

Lawmakers need to consider the needs of students, who, after all, are their future teachers, nurses, doctors, scientists, and entrepreneurs, said Cuffee. “Even students with part-time jobs can’t afford to sustain their schooling and their living,” she warned. “And, at the end of the day, if they can’t afford to put food on their table or a roof over their heads, college is going to go. One of the main reason students drop out is because they can’t afford it.”

At a time when Americans owe more on student loans than credit cards, and the national student loan is ticking rapidly toward one trillion dollars, there are far too many students who simply can’t afford to go to college—or graduate with debt that lasts a lifetime. In 2010, college graduates owed more than $25,000 on average.

Obama knows how that feels, he said. He and his wife, Michelle, just finished paying off their student debt eight years ago. “I didn’t just read about this. I didn’t just get some talking points about this. I didn’t just get a policy briefing on this,” Obama told students at the University of North Carolina on Tuesday. “We didn’t come from wealthy families. When we graduated from college and law school, we had a mountain of debt. When we married, we got poor together.”

For his part, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, told reporters this week that he agrees with Obama on the interest rate issue. He also said, “It would be popular for me to stand up and say, ‘I’m going to give you government money to pay for your college,’ but I’m not going to promise that.”

In a Boston Globe interview years ago, Romney’s wife Ann told a reporter that Mitt paid for Harvard Business School by selling family-owned stock, and then later accepted a loan from his father to pay for Harvard Law School.

Unfortunately, that’s not an option for most Americans.

Do you have a story to share about college debt? Would you have chosen a different career if you knew your interest rates would be doubled? Are you concerned about the financial realities of sending your own children to college? If you are a current student, what would doubled loan rates mean to you? Tell us your story by filling out the form below and you may be featured in an upcoming Education Votes article.


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