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Outside editorial: Congress must keep student loan rates low - and address problem of college affordability

Posted: May 8, 2012 - 12:00am

The following editorial appeared in the San Jose Mercury News:

Democrats are pushing hard to keep student loan rates from doubling to 6.8 percent in July. President Barack Obama has been talking about it almost every day, and this week two California congresswomen — Zoe Lofgren and Anna Eshoo — visited San Jose State and Foothill College to rally support.

Republicans say they want to keep the rates low, too. But, predictably, this has devolved into an election-year battle, with both sides trying to embarrass the other — continuing Washington’s failure to address the crisis in college affordability.

If rates on subsidized Stafford loans are allowed to rise, as many as 7.4 million students will pay about $1,000 more this year; San Jose State estimates the rate hike will affect more than 8,000 of its students.

This can’t be allowed to happen. If the parties can’t agree on how to pay the $6 billion cost of lower rates — Republicans want to take it from preventive health care, while Democrats want to close a tax loophole benefiting the wealthy — they should add it to the deficit. It would be at least as valuable an investment in our nation’s future as the hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts the GOP has passed without paying for them.

However this gets resolved — and it must — Congress has to more broadly address the alarmingly rapid rise in college costs. Student loan debt now tops $1 trillion, and many students are being shut out of higher education altogether by tuition hikes at the same time businesses clamor for more educated workers.

Sharon Noguchi’s front-page article in Sunday’s newspaper made the dilemma painfully clear. It told the stories of Bay Area high school seniors who worked incredibly hard to get admitted to college but won’t be able to attend because their families can’t afford it, even on a sliding-scale basis.

California is ground zero for this disaster. The cost of attending a California State University campus has risen fourfold in 10 years. University of California tuition has more than doubled since 2005. Even families who have been able to save may be priced out by these dramatic jumps, particularly in the past couple of years.

For families teetering financially — there are many more of them these days — finding thousands of extra dollars a year for tuition is impossible. And with half of recent graduates jobless or underemployed, taking on loads of student debt seems imprudent.

Meanwhile, Republicans have voted to slash Pell Grants, and there is no concerted national effort to reduce the cost of college. It costs about $30,000 to attend a UC campus for a year, including room and board. If that keeps rising as it has, a child born this year could pay more than $400,000 for four years at UC. Who will be able to afford that? Will salaries for educated workers make it possible to repay that debt?

Over three decades we have made little progress increasing college graduation rates, while other nations zoom past us. We need a national strategy — not annual piecemeal tinkering — to ensure that everyone with the ability to succeed in college has the opportunity to attend and to contribute to our economic competitiveness.

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