Delegation seeks to cut federal profit on student loans
By Josh O’Gorman
STAFF WRITER | July 12,2013
As Vermont’s congressional delegation seeks to roll back student loan interest rates, a larger discussion is emerging to address how much profit a lender should make from a student.
July 1, the interest rate for a federally subsidized Stafford loan — named after the late Sen. Robert Stafford of Vermont — doubled from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. Since then, President Barack Obama, the U.S. House of Representatives and a bipartisan coalition of senators have all offered plans to reduce the interest rate or return it to its pre-July 1 rate.
Tuesday, Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., took to the floor of the Senate to read some of the 700 emails he’s received from Vermonters and others nationwide who are calling for a return to the lower interest rate.
“What is happening in Vermont and across the country is a real crisis,” Sanders said. “We have a crisis where working-class families are being forced to reconsider investing in their child’s education and a better future.”
The Senate is working on a compromise that would tie student loan rates to market interest rates, a scenario that could see students paying more than 6.8 percent as the economy improves, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Wednesday, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., introduced legislation to roll back the interest rate to 3.4 percent. The “Keep Student Loans Affordable Act” (H.R. 2574) would be financed by closing what Welch called a “loophole” in the tax code governing individual retirement accounts.
“It’s outrageous, unnecessary and cruel that Congress has failed to do its job and is sticking it to the middle class in this country,” Welch said in a statement. “Every year, college education slips further and further out of the reach of working families and their children.”
Colleges in the area have yet to feel any immediate impact from the interest rate increase.
“They’re just happy they got a loan,” said Julie Rosmus, financial aid director for the College of St. Joseph. “Freshman, especially, are just learning about loans and aren’t that savvy about interest rates. The way the economy is, they’re happy they can get a federally subsidized loan because it’s not tied to credit.”
“We haven’t heard from students directly but we have heard from some parents,” said Kathleen O’Meara, director of financial aid for Castleton State College. “This won’t affect the college, unless we start seeing students withdrawing from college, which we don’t anticipate seeing.”
Kevin Coburn, director of communications at Green Mountain College, said he hasn’t heard any outcry from his students because the issue received a lot of publicity in the months leading up to July 1.
“The interest-rate discussion is really a proxy for the discussion of the affordability of college overall,” Coburn said.
Scott Giles, CEO of the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, noted that even before the doubling of student loan rates, the government was making a tidy profit from students.
“Families who are already stretched to the limit, they are going to take a second look at if they can afford this investment,” Giles said. “The government borrows at no more than 2 percent, so why are they charging 6.8 percent? The doubling of the interest rate is really just rubbing salt in the wound.”
According to Sanders, the U.S. government will make about $180 billion in profit from student loans during the next 10 years.
“I think that is wrong because the government is profiting from low- and middle-class families who need the loans the most,” Sanders said. “Some students are graduating with a mountain of debt that has an onerous effect on their lives.”
One such person is Melissa Weber, 25, of Wallingford. Weber currently works as an occupational therapist in the psychiatric unit at Rutland Regional Medical Center. She’s also $180,000 in debt after receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
“In order for me to live on my own and support myself, I have to pay the monthly minimum, so I’m only paying on the interest,” said Weber, whose monthly payment is $1,000, forcing her to work a second job at a bed and breakfast in Wallingford.
“It definitely impacts my goals,” she said. “I want to own a home, but it’s like I’m already paying a mortgage.”
Giles says such profiteering at the expense of students is unnecessary, and points to loans made by VSAC with interest rates as low as 5.6 percent.
“If the state of Vermont can make loans at 5.6 percent, the federal government can do the same thing,” Giles said.