If Congress doesn't act this month to renew the current interest rate on the popular Stafford loans for college students, the rate will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. Because so many families and students now rely on student loans to help pay for a college education, a higher rate would add to their financial burdens. For some strapped families, it might thwart dreams of a college degree altogether. That should not be allowed to happen.
The partisan standoff in Congress is not about whether to keep interest rates on Stafford loans low. It's about how to pay for them.
Democrats have proposed to eliminate the huge oil subsidies that the federal government gives the five largest oil companies, which have had record profits in recent years. They also want to close some lucrative tax loopholes that mainly benefit rich corporations, and one that that allows wealthy individuals to earn tax-free income from businesses classified as S corporations.
Republicans, however, continue to reject cost offsets that would eliminate such needless tax expenditures favoring the richest beneficiaries. Instead, they demand deeper cuts in unrelated social programs to offset the cost of subsidizing student loans.
Until last week, they had proposed to pay the $6 billion cost to keep interest rates on Stafford loans low for another year by cutting preventive health-care services promised to women next year under the Obama administration's health care reform law. Last week, House Republics offered an equally unfair alternative: another cut in benefits received by federal employees -- whose benefits already have been cut and their pay frozen the past several years -- along with stiffer, earlier pay-back terms on Stafford loans for part-time college students who are working while going to college.
The GOP seems always to favor tax breaks for people and organizations that already are doing very well (and who happen to be large campaign donors) while making it harder for ordinary workers and strapped families who already have a hard time financing college costs.
Republicans' upside-down view of the world fails to acknowledge some core facts. About two-thirds of American students now rely on college loans to help pay for college. Their average college debt, fueled by spiraling tuition costs and regular cutbacks in state spending on higher education, is now $23,300. Seventy percent of Stafford loans go to students whose families make less than $50,000 a year; the next 24 percent go to families with incomes of $50,000 to $100,000 annually.
Jeopardizing Stafford loans is short-sighted in the extreme. It plays recklessly against the educational attainment levels that the United States needs to boost, not deter, to keep competitive in the global economy. And it ignores the financial impact on the families and students who need help from Congress far more than the affluent corporations and individuals that Republicans favor.
In an editorial board meeting at this newspaper Monday, Gov. Bill Haslam -- a Republican who pursues economic growth -- emphasized the urgency of raising the percentage of Tennesseans with college degrees from our lamentably low rate of around 20 percent, to the range of 30-plus percent that help other states attract new businesses. He and other Tennesseans should be urging Tennessee's congressional Republicans to provide responsible, timely funding for Stafford loans and the even more neglected Pell grant program for lower-income college students.