It must be nice to have money, or an unlimited pool of financial resources to draw from. Some members of our eternally dysfunctional Congress apparently must believe that all college students fall into those two categories. It's hard to understand why Congress decided to double the interest rate on the popular, federally subsidized Stafford student loan last week.
The vote hike, which ups the interest rate on the popular Stafford loan program from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, means the seven million undergraduates attending colleges across the country can expect to take home an average of $26,600 in student loan debt in addition to their diplomas. Now, Congress could pass an extension that would save the average student about $2,600 when its members return from their holiday break. But the mere act of doubling the rate now when the economy is still struggling strikes one as clueless. Especially when recent college graduates are struggling to find jobs. The unemployment rate for college seniors who graduated in 2011 is 8.8 percent, according to the national Project on Student Debt, which is more than a point higher than the national jobless rate.
In Massachusetts, at least, legislators are planning to address the problem. A new subcommittee of state representatives and senators, which convenes next week, is expected to plan a series of public hearings on the topic this fall. And the State University System of Massachusetts, which includes the Massachusetts of Liberal Arts in North Adams, has already voted to freeze institutional fees for the 2013-14 academic year.
These are nice steps, and important steps, but they don't address the central problem. Sure, college isn't for everyone, but the chance to receive some form of higher education used to be considered an essential part of the American experience. Now some students have to determine if they can afford to go because the debt load is so enormous. Lately, the debt has become more widespread, even in the Berkshires. At both MCLA and Bard College of Simon's Rock, 69 percent of graduates leave school with debt, which comes out to be about $30,000 at both institutions. At Williams, the average student graduates with $8,801 in debt, which is much more manageable. But almost half of the graduating class at Williams -- 44 percent -- leaves school owing money.
And that debt takes a long time to go away. State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, the chairman of the new Joint Committee on Student Loans and Debt, and vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, and his wife still pay more than $750 in student loan payments after graduating from the University of Massachusetts several years ago. A state legislator may be able to afford that payment every month. A recent college graduate simply can't.