The picture of student debt in the United States is not pretty. According to The New York Times, there is more than $1 trillion in outstanding student loans — more than the nation’s collective credit card debt. While the number of borrowers has vastly increased in the past several decades — over two-thirds of undergraduates now take out a loan to pay for school — student debt is aging with the population. Over 20 percent of outstanding debt is owed by people over 50 years old.
A majority of this debt is owed to the federal government. These government-sponsored loans are crucially important for many students. Even at Penn, which has a generous financial aid endowment, over 20 percent of the undergraduate population borrows money through the subsidized Federal Direct loan program, according to Student Financial Services. At universities with smaller financial aid programs, the loans are even more important.
With a crisis mounting and college tuition continuing to rise, the bleeding must be stopped.
In a rare bipartisan effort, Congress recently came together to extend the interest rate on subsidized student loans, prventing the current rate of 3.4 percent from doubling. While the broad base of support for students is commendable, this is merely a stop-gap measure — not a substitute for a long-term solution.
First, the rate extension lasts just a year. Unless Congress takes more drastic action, it will be a mere 12 months before it has to confront the same dilemma. As it stands, the measure just kicks the can down the road.
Moreover, the rate extension in effect shifted the cost burden onto seniors by increasing the premiums for federal pension insurance. In addition, it limits the eligibity for receiving a subsidized loan — which will inevitably decrease the ability of some students to graduate.
To respond to the problem, Congress must enact sweeping reform to the system. It must be sensitive to the needs of current and future students — taking into account the fact that many students depend on subsidized loans — as well as the needs of people who are well past their college years but are still burdened by student debt.
The recent action is a step in the right direction. Student activism in the leadup to the vote on the measure is encouraging, as is the overwhelming support in Congress for the rate extension.
The government now needs to harness that cooperation to find a solution that makes the student debt landscape a little easier on the eyes.