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Published: Saturday, 5/5/2012

COMMENTARY

Student-loan rates shouldn't be made a political football

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

No Wonder we hold Congress in such low esteem. Too often, lawmakers choose political posturing over public welfare.

Policy making is, first and foremost, a game of partisan one-upmanship. Gaining the most political points for your side is the goal.

Engaging in thoughtful, bipartisan negotiations to advance national interests is no way to win. That's business as usual in Washington. We get it.

But on Main Street, our patience is wearing thin. The politically expedient maneuvers that pass for meaningful work on Capitol Hill seem irrelevant to the increasing hardships we endure.

Making affordable student loans a political football in an election year was the last straw for some fed-up Americans. Count me among them.

Low- and middle-income families need a break to pay for college costs that have gone through the roof. Instead, they get election-year politics. Does anyone care that college has grown beyond costly?

Millions of undergraduates rely on low-interest student loans to fund their education. There's no other way. Keeping interest rates low, to lessen already oppressive student loan burdens is critically important to them and their families.

If this weren't an election year, extending student-loan rates would not have generated much controversy -- and certainly not the present showdown between Republicans and Democrats. Both parties agree that federally subsidized Stafford loans, whose interest rates are set to rise to 6.8 percent on July 1, should stay at the current rate of 3.4 percent.

But in a contentious presidential election year, both parties chose to play for votes in proposing how to cover the cost of temporarily keeping the lower interest rates. The GOP proposed that the $6 billion tab be paid for with cuts to a wellness fund mandated under health reform they deride as "ObamaCare."

Democrats blasted the idea as an attack on women's health, and proposed paying the bill by raising taxes on wealthy individuals or ending oil and gas subsidies. Can campaign commercials reprising perennial putdowns of "tax-and-spend" Democrats or "slash-and-burn" Republicans be far behind?

Meanwhile, young people who are trying to get ahead in life with a college education are falling deeper in student-loan debt. What they collectively owe surpassed U.S. credit-card debt two years ago.

I thought college tuition and fees were high when I went to school in the Stone Age. But the expense of acquiring a four-year degree today has reached a level that would have been unimaginable two or three decades ago.

And college costs are still climbing. The challenge of paying the ever-ballooning bill overwhelms applicants and their parents.

Add a depressed economy, stagnant wages, job cuts, and depleted bank accounts to the equation, and finding the middle-class means to afford college is inconceivable. I shudder to think what college will cost when it's time for my little darlings to navigate the world of debt and diplomas.

Fast-rising costs pushed American student-loan debt over the $1 trillion mark for the first time this year. How much worse will it get in a few years without relief? According to the College Board, two-thirds of full-time undergraduates receive financial aid in the form of loans, grants, scholarships, work-study jobs, or tax credits and deductions.

Many students face a mountain of debt after college, and scarce job opportunities. For some borrowers, repayment of student debt will be a long ordeal that could stretch until their kids are ready for college.

If the economy doesn't rebound soon, more college graduates, struggling to find good-paying jobs, will have trouble managing their debt. An educated work force is essential if we are to compete in the global marketplace and generate economic growth at home.

We get it on Main Street. It's why we scrimp, save, borrow, and beg to send our kids to college. Despite sleepless nights over the unthinkable expense, we believe education beyond high school is worth the investment.

We know it pays dividends to the nation by improving the quality of the work force, stimulating economic expansion, boosting individual incomes, and producing higher tax revenues. We invest in higher education for long-term achievement that has nothing to do with election-year triumph.

But the latter consumes Washington's leaders. It's why they resorted to a political brawl over a relatively innocuous effort to extend lower student-loan rates to more than 7 million college students.

It's why we hold them beneath contempt.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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