TOPICS > Education

Presidential Push to Stop Sky-High Student Loan Interest Rates

May 31, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
President Obama is making a push to stop student loan interest rates from doubling July 1. To debate possible solutions, Jeffrey Brown talks with Matthew Segal, president of OurTime.org, and Evan Feinberg, president of Generation Opportunity, groups that advocate for millennials, and Anya Kamenetz, author of "Generation Debt."
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to a July 1st deadline for interest rates on student loans and the economic consequences of growing student debt.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now is not the time for us to turn back on young people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Flanked by students in the Rose Garden today, President Obama again pressed Congress not to allow college loan interest rates to double in a month.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: And that means that the average student with these loans will rack up an additional $1,000 dollars in debt. That’s like a $1,000 dollar tax hike. I assume most of you cannot afford that.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president made a similar push last year before Congress ultimately agreed to a one-year fix. That kept rates on federally subsidized Stafford student loans from jumping from 3.4 to 6.8 percent.

A year later, lawmakers from both parties are eager to avert the same hike, but they’re at odds over how.

MAN: Motion to reconsider is laid on the table.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last week, the Republican-led House passed its answer, a bill that would avoid the impending rate increase, but tie rates on future loans to treasury bonds and allow the rates to float with the market.

House Education and Work Force Committee Chairman John Kline:

REP. JOHN KLINE, R-Minn.: We have an opportunity to provide students with more stability in the long run by putting an end to quick fixes and campaign promises, and we have an opportunity to build upon common ground with the administration to advance a bipartisan solution that’s a win for both students and taxpayers.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a plan not likely to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate, where there’s a push to extend the current government subsidies.

For his part, the president has also proposed tying rates to treasury notes, but he would allow students to lock in their initial rates for the life of the loans.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: The House bill isn’t smart and it’s not fair. I’m glad the House is paying attention to it, but they didn’t do it the right way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Replying in a statement today, House Speaker John Boehner accused the president of playing partisan games, writing: “The differences between the House plan and the president’s are small. But, today, rather than working to resolve the issue, the president resorted to a campaign stunt to try to score political points.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of House Democrats, announced it has taken out adds in six college papers across the country in a bid to pressure House Republicans on the issue ahead of the 2014 midterm elections.

And we examine some of the possible solutions ahead of the July 1st rate hike.

With me are leaders of two nonprofit groups that advocate for the millennial generation. Matthew Segal is president of OurTime.org. He was at the White House this week discussing the issue. Evan Feinberg is president of Generation Opportunity. Last year, he made an unsuccessful run for Congress as a Republican. Also joining us is Anya Kamenetz. She’s the author of “Generation Debt.”

And welcome, all.

Matthew, let me — Segal — let me start with you.

With a specific program before the president and the Congress, what in a nutshell do you think is the best approach right now?

MATTHEW SEGAL, President, OurTime.org: Well, I think, first of all, we need to put this in a larger context and go after the source of the problem, which is the spiraling cost of education in the first place, which is far outpacing the cost of inflation. It’s far outpacing the cost of any good.

And until we really rein in on the cost of education, and look at the states — 47 states have cut higher education — look at the fact that colleges are not necessarily spending their money on learning, but, in fact, on the college experience, investing their money in the wrong sorts of priorities that are for prestige, as opposed to the core competency of the school, and unless we improve the job market so that there’s not such a monopoly on needing to go to college as the only way forward, that’s really where the real conversation needs to happen.

As far as student interest rates are going, this is completely manufactured crisis that we have kicked the can down the road on, and I think ultimately there will be a 23rd-hour deal that has some combination of pretty much having the 3.4 percent rate continue for a year, until we can have the larger debate.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Evan Feinberg, do you agree about the scale of the problem? And what’s your possible solution?

EVAN FEINBERG, President, Generation Opportunity: Well, I agree that college affordability is the really important issue here.

Young people just simply can’t afford college today in today’s economy. But I completely disagree about the cause of that. I think both sides are pandering right now, trying to offer to young people a lower interest rate on their student loans, when they’re really missing the entire problem that government’s meddling, government’s involvement, government subsidizing and guaranteeing so much of the cost of higher education is what’s made it so expensive in the first place.

So I think both parties right now are really — there isn’t a huge difference between the two of them. This is pandering.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re seeing the subsidy that — whatever the interest rate is, as a subsidy that is part of the problem?

EVAN FEINBERG: Yes.

So the government took over student loans almost entirely as a part of Obamacare, but really the government has been controlling the student loan market for a long time. And by subsidizing and guaranteeing so much of the cost of higher education, government has actually been the problem, not the solution, to the problem of college affordability.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me bring Anya Kamenetz in here just to give us some larger context, I guess, is — what — help describe the system as it exists right now.

ANYA KAMENETZ, Author, “Generation Debt”: Sure.

So, you know, I think Matthew’s got a lot of good points about the cost of higher education. And what we’re missing here is the way that the cost and the ability to finance that cost really fit into each other. So, you know, we talk about a subsidy and Obama talked about a tax. The important thing to remember here is that by taking over the student loan industry, the federal government is actually earning $50 billion dollars a year on making those student loans.

And by providing that easy financing, that easy credit to students, it makes it that much easier for the states to turn around and pass the cost or shift the cost from the states on the federal government via this means of student loans. So you really have a very nasty vicious circle, where tuition continues to grow. Affordability, we see, is a really huge problem, particularly for students from lower-income quadrants.

Accessibility is not working. Pell Grants aren’t working the way that they should. And none of this is really the way that we would design it if we were to start over from scratch.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Matthew, pick up on some of that, because in terms of the interest rate itself, you still think the government should play — as opposed to what Evan Feinberg was saying, you still think the government should play some role in that subsidy?

MATTHEW SEGAL: Well, I think it’s important to clarify that more student loans is nobody’s solution. Student loans are not a good thing.

In fact, ideally, I believe and many young people believe that college is and higher education is a public good and that we as a society all benefit from it, so we have to make it affordable.

And the way we’re going to make it affordable are through Pell Grants, are through state funding and through making sure that colleges use their endowment money and their tuition money to go into learning and scholarships and aid, as opposed to this arms race to the top, if you will, that people in the college administrator world are putting into the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which I like to call the “U.S. News & World Report industrial complex,” because it perverse-incentivizes schools to try to build mega-buildings and football fields, as opposed to actually worrying about learning, which is obviously the necessity and core competency of the school.

But I think in terms of the government subsidizing loans, yes, we’re going to have massive income inequality to a certain degree unless we do incentivize younger people who are from low-income backgrounds to be able to take out loans that are not going to be subject to usury and hiked rates from private lenders who, you know, are making college a big business for them. And should college be a booming business?

That’s where there’s a philosophical disagreement among Democrats and Republicans or just people from different political spectrums.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you want to respond?

EVAN FEINBERG: Well, I think Matt’s talking about the college industrial complex, which is a very real problem, as the government continues to put more and more resources into higher education.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you — wait. You agree on the industrial complex, but you think it’s partly caused by government?

EVAN FEINBERG: Yes, sure.

Anya mentioned that the government profits off of all these loans. I’m not sure that most young people are excited that the government is a huge bank that makes huge profits off of student loans and in the process is driving up the price of education. Right now, we’re debating the difference in the rate on a government loan, rather than the size of that loan in the first place.

And as government keeps putting more and more resources into it, it grows the cost. If we gave everyone in America, every young person got $100 dollars to buy an iPhone tomorrow, what would Apple do? They’d raise the price of iPhones because they knew everyone in the country had $100 dollars more to pay for an iPhone.

The problem here is that the government is putting money, so much money, some so many guarantees, so many rules and regulations on higher education, it’s driving the price through the roof.

JEFFREY BROWN: Anya, do you see — you look all around the country at different things, the experiments going on. Do you see interesting things that might help us find ways through all this?

ANYA KAMENETZ: You know, I really do.

And there was a really fantastic announcement just made yesterday by Coursera, which is one of the massively open online course platforms. They currently have over three million students enrolled in versions of courses from colleges like Harvard and MIT that are absolutely free. Coursera has got Penn and Stanford.

And they just announced partnerships with 10 major state university systems. And all of those university systems — these are in states coast to coast and they’re enrolling over a million students — are looking at ways to share resources, to collaborate and to use technology to really build the infrastructure for what we’d all like to see, which is radically more affordable and more accessible high-quality learning experiences that can cut through the cost fog.

It’s true that the role of easy finance and the ability to borrow has driven up the cost and made — muddied the waters a little bit. But we all think — or many of us believe, especially on the Democratic side, that there is a role for subsidizing education as a public good. The question is, what is the best way to do that?

And I really believe that technology offers a fascinating way forward for a college education that is more like what our parents experienced, which is, in the 1970s, a young person could go to college, a state university, and they could pay for that with a part-time job. And that’s what we’d all like to get back to.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me — I’m guessing that you would all agree that the student debt problem is hurting the economy, something we heard in our earlier segment.

MATTHEW SEGAL: It’s massively hurting the economy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, do you think the rest of the population understands that? Do you want to start?

MATTHEW SEGAL: No.

I think the problem is we have a student loan debt crisis that people think is just for students, when, in fact, 50 percent of the people with outstanding student loan debt in this country are over the age of 30. By the way, people who are seniors have student loans, and they will deduct it, because you cannot forgive student loan debt or restructure student loan debt in bankruptcy court, because there are very few, if not negligible, protections for student borrowers.

They will take it out of your Social Security. So, I think the fact that there has not been a vociferous student lobby in this area that is advocating for their rights and needs around college affordability and better loan pathways is a very big problem for the economy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just in our last minute, is this an area we can agree on?

EVAN FEINBERG: Absolutely.

Eighty-four percent of young people 18-29 are delaying major life decisions because of the poor economy and because of the massive student loan debt they’re under. Fifty percent are coming out of school and can’t find full-time work. We have got a real crisis with the millennials.

I think it’s a government-caused crisis. The government meddling in student loans, meddling in the economy has made it very difficult for our generation to have the kind of opportunity that our parents and grandparents had. It’s a major crisis. But we agree on that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, to be continued.

Evan Feinberg, Matthew Segal, and Anya Kamenetz, thank you all very much.

MATTHEW SEGAL: You bet. My pleasure.

ANYA KAMENETZ: Thank you.