When an individual as professionally and financially successful as the President of the United States had to take 13 years to pay off his student loans, it is evidence that our higher education financing system has problems. As he told students yesterday at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill,
“Check this out, all right. I’m the president of the United States. We only finished paying off our student loans off about eight years ago. That wasn’t that long ago. And that wasn’t easy–especially because when we had Malia and Sasha, we’re supposed to be saving up for their college educations, and we’re still paying off our college educations.”
President Obama took to college campuses across the country yesterday to raise awareness of a fight brewing over student loan rates. Some pundits are cynically describing his comments as a shrewd election year ploy to court young voters, one of the main demographic groups that propelled him to the White House in 2008. But the President is actually pointing out a crisis that may have dire implications for millions of students across the country: student loan interest rates on new subsidized Stafford loans are set to double in July 2012, from 3.4% to 6.8%, unless Congress extends the student loan interest cap it instituted in 2007, under then President George W. Bush, a Republican. If the tax cap is allowed to expire without renewal, President Obama said, “That’s basically a tax hike for more than 7 million students across America.”
White House is Only the Latest to Join the Movement
The President’s college tour, and his video address this past weekend [Listen here], are aimed at raising popular support for a bill initiated in the U.S. House of Representatives by Connecticut Congressman Joe Courtney that would extend the low interest rates. In March, Congressman Courtney stated that “We’ve got 110 days to fix this problem. Middle class families, every single day, are struggling in terms of making sure their kids have a chance to succeed in life.”
The White House has also expanded its social media presence by creating a new, specific Twitter hash tag to unify a broad-base movement, #DontDoubleMyRate, and President Obama reached out to college students by calling on them to
“Stand up, be heard, be counted. Tell them [Congress] now is not the time to double interest rates on your student loans. Now’s the time to double down on smart investments to build a strong and secure middle class. Now’s the time to double down on building an America that lasts.”
The groundswell of support for continuing the low interest rate that the President hopes to create with this college tour joins a chorus of demands for higher education and student loan reform, including the movement to support another bill introduced the U.S. House of Representatives in March 2012. H.R. 4170: The Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012 calls for the reduction or elimination of student loan debt, which in the past few years has reached staggering amounts, totaling more than credit card debt.
Similarly, the Occupy Education movement, which calls for public school reform and has begun to address higher education costs and financing, held a National Day of Action on March 1 because they believe that the current system limits educational opportunity in the United States. According to Brooklyn College student Biola Jeje, the Day of Action was important because, “As higher education increasingly becomes a necessity for any type of career advancement, people who need it the most are being shut out due to high costs. Student loan debt is an issue that not only affects students but working families trying to provide a stable source of income in these tough economic times.”
The Value of Bipartisan Support
Support for the extension of the low interest rates has a broad base of support. Students are already on target in their support of this bill: in March, a petition was created and letters began pouring in to Congressional offices, urging the nation’s elected officials to block any attempt to raise student loan interest rates and extend the tax reduction. Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is also on board. He said, “Particularly with the number of college graduates that can’t find work or that can only find work well beneath their skill level, I fully support the effort to extend the low interest rate on student loans.”
This surprising moment of rare political agreement in our era of divisive and often ugly attack ads, failures to cooperate, and even party infighting shows is that, for once, the chorus of often conflicting public voices has realized and admitted at least one important truth: in order for higher education to fulfill its promise as a path toward personal and professional success for millions of Americans, we need to put our money where our mouth is and improve financial support for our students.