RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The interest rate on government-backed student loans is going to double this coming Monday. That's because most of those loans have been capped at a very low rate, a cap that expires on July 1st. Lawmakers say a deal to keep the rates down is still possible when they get back from the 4th of July recess. If there's no agreement on Capitol Hill soon, though, the seven million students expected to take out new Stafford loans could be stuck with a much bigger bill when they start paying the money back.
NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.
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CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Incoming freshmen at the University of Maryland have a lot to howl about. They've been accepted at a pretty good school. Their parents are happy, and orientation is a blast, until you ask: Did you take out a federal student loan to pay for college?
COLLIN BRIBER: Probably, but I don't know anything about that yet, really.
SANCHEZ: Collin Briber thinks his parents signed him up for at least one Stafford loan, but he had not heard that the interest rate on that loan is going to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent after July 1st.
BRIBER: Honestly, this is the first I'm hearing about the loans going up. Yeah.
SANCHEZ: Never mind that it's been one of the more heated debates in Washington this year. Nella Lipton, a business major, says she's tried to keep up with the news because she's taking out $10,000 in Stafford loans this school year.
NELLA LIPTON: And it's kind of sad, because you hear about everybody defaulting on their loans when they graduate, but I'm just hoping that with my major, I'll be able to get a job.
SANCHEZ: It upsets her that politicians would add to the stress by not having done something sooner to keep the interest rate from rising.
LIPTON: And they're sort of putting the burden on a younger generation, and once we are old enough to vote and once we're part of the economy and we, like, default on our loans, it's going to be a big issue, and they're going to regret it.
PETER MCPHERSON: Student loans interest rates shouldn't be a political football every year, or every couple of years.
SANCHEZ: That's Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public Land Grant Universities. He says the political impasse over student loan interest rates is serious.
MCPHERSON: We need some way to stabilize this process in a way that maintains relatively low interest rates, but also has stability.
SANCHEZ: McPherson, a former deputy secretary with the Treasury Department, says of all the competing plans lawmakers have considered, the Republican plan and President Obama's plan make the most sense over the long term. Both tie student loan interest rates to the 10-year Treasury rate, which is the market rate the U.S. government pays when it borrows.
MCPHERSON: Just a little over 2 percent.
SANCHEZ: The president's plan would add another percentage point to that, pushing it up to about 3.4 percent, a rate that students would be able to lock in for the life of their loans.
MCPHERSON: I think that's probably a realistic way to approach it.
SANCHEZ: Under the Republican plan, the interest rate for new Stafford loans would start at 5 percent and be allowed to float every year, like an adjustable mortgage rate, but would be capped at 8.5 percent. The president's plan offers no such cap. Why President Obama and Republicans continue to bicker - considering that their plans are similar - is disappointing, says McPherson, but not surprising.
MCPHERSON: In Washington, we have a hard time doing anything short of the crisis, the cliff, the next moment. But I think in these plans, one could find an acceptable answer.
SANCHEZ: Getting students and their parents to understand all of this, says McPherson, is not easy. These proposals are complicated, which brings us back to the University of Maryland campus, less than 10 miles from Capitol Hill. Kyle Siefring, a political science major there, is applying for his first Stafford loan this school year. He says politicians seemingly couldn't care less about the interest rate students have to pay, for good reason.
KYLE SIEFRING: College students don't vote like other people do.
SANCHEZ: But there's a bigger problem, says Kyle.
SIEFRING: College students aren't the most financially literate people. They see a bill, and they just think about how they're going to pay it. And it's something that they can kind of, like, slip under the table and not necessarily face the consequences right away. It's just something that they can kind of kick down the road.
SANCHEZ: Just like what politicians in Washington tend to do, says Kyle. Congress and the administration are reportedly close to agreeing on a plan to keep interest rates from doubling, but not before the July 1st deadline. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.