Last week, when members of Congress headed home for barbecues, Fourth of July parades and fundraisers, they allowed the interest rate on student loans to double. Time remains to undo the damage, but it was another example of Congress' depressing inability to serve the American people.
Higher education is expensive. Full-time Sonoma State University students who live on campus in the fall will pay an estimated $23,295 for the academic year. More than half of the school's students will take out loans, and by the time they graduate, the average borrower will owe about $20,000.
The situation is even more grim for students nationally. Two-thirds of 2011 graduates owed an average of $26,600.
On July 1, the rate on federally subsidized Stafford loans jumped from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. The increase applies to new loans, so it will not really affect anyone until students return to campus and sign their loan documents in a month or two. The change also does not affect unsubsidized Stafford loans and Plus loans.
Yet the increase will affect the most financially vulnerable students. Subsidized Stafford loans serve low- and middle-income families that could not otherwise afford college.
A study by the House Joint Economic Committee estimated the higher rate will cost an average borrower $2,600 in interest payments. That, along with the annual increases in tuition and fees, could price college beyond the means of some families.
Officials knew this was coming. Before November's elections, candidates of both major parties said they would not let it happen. Then they were unable to reach bipartisan agreement and left Washington with their work undone. House Republicans at least passed a bill but not one that Senate Democrats would support.
Is it any wonder, then, why Americans' confidence in Congress is at an historic low? The public is frustrated with gridlock, especially concerning something with such broad support as keeping college costs down. College enrollment per capita has increased over the past 40 years, and the rate of growth has accelerated in the past few years as the recession hit young people hard.
Contrary to the spin coming from some circles, a college degree remains a tremendously valuable investment. Students who choose a good major and have the discipline to follow through to graduation will have much greater success in life. Unemployment rates for people with a college degree run substantially lower than for people with just a high school diploma, and degree-holders' average lifetime earnings are more than<QA0>
$1 million higher.
Members of both parties tried to blame the other for this debacle as they left town. They also pledged to fix things quickly upon their return. They had better, for the sake of students and the nation. An educated populace is in America's best interest, and all qualified young people, regardless of family finances, should have a chance to earn a degree. They will become the doctors, engineers and business leaders of tomorrow, if they can afford the tuition.