With Congress deadlocked in an election year scrap over how to keep interest rates low on a popular student loan program, Sen. Tom Harkin sought to turn up the pressure on Republicans, hosting a forum Friday in Davenport where students and financial aid advisers predicted long-term hardships if the rates are allowed to double.
At the same time, Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, made it clear he’s not about to budge on his opposition to the GOP’s plan to pay for it by killing a public health program in the Affordable Care Act. Harkin has proposed a change in the tax code to pay for the interest rate buydown.
More than a dozen students and administrators from area colleges took part in the public discussion Friday afternoon at the Kahl Educational Center, the latest in a string of events that have been held in the state to highlight the impending increase.
The most high-profile event was President Barack Obama’s visit to the University of Iowa last month to call for a yearlong extension of the lower rates.
Nicole Brammer, a 26-year-old student at Scott Community College, echoed what others said when she told how she already had racked up $19,000 in loan debt and still had several years of college left.
“For me, doubling that is really going to hurt,” she said.
Interest rates on new subsidized Stafford loans are scheduled to go from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent for debt taken out after July 1. That, officials say, will add to already heavy student debt burdens.
The president and congressional Democrats early this year called for an extension of the lower rates, and after Obama elevated the issue last month, Republicans in the House introduced their own bill. But their legislation would pay for the $6 billion annual cost by eliminating the Prevention and Public Health Fund included in the 2010 health-care law.
The fund, aimed at paying for preventative and public health programs, is a favorite of Harkin’s. The White House has threatened a veto.
Harkin has proposed paying for the buydown by changing tax laws to require shareholders in certain Subchapter S corporations to pay into Medicare and Social Security. He and other Democrats point to government audits saying some shareholders of these entities mischaracterize some of their income to avoid paying the taxes.
Critics say the change would amount to a tax increase on small business. And they say the move could increase the burden on shareholders who are obeying the law. Harkin says only a small share of the entities would be affected.
Senate Republicans, thus far, have prevented Harkin’s legislation from coming to a vote. But he vowed Friday to stand firm, saying if Republicans didn’t like his funding choice, they could come up with their own.
“But not out of the Prevention and Public Health Fund,” he added.
Already, the $15 million fund was cut by a third to pay for a tax package that got bipartisan approval last year. Harkin voted against it. Eliminating the fund entirely also has raised concerns among public health advocates.
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The congressional infighting got little attention at Friday’s session at the Kahl building. Instead, students and administrators told of high college costs and their fear that if their burden goes up much more, some might not be able to pursue their educations.
Brenda Thomas, a 32-year-old Davenport woman with two young children, told the panel the prospects of high loan debt stopped her from continuing in college six years ago. She instead got a good-paying job, she said, but then lost it. After getting more comfortable with the idea of taking on debt in return for an education, Thomas decided to attend Scott Community College.
“When I heard about the increase, I got scared again,” she said. “I have to get my education, because if I don’t, I’m not going to move forward.”
Other students talked about existing debts of between $10,000 and $20,000. One chiropractic student said his debt was $100,000. An official from Palmer College of Chiropractic said students who come to the college after leaving undergraduate programs enter the institution with already-elevated debt loads.
Students and administrators from St. Ambrose University, Davenport, also took part in the event. Each college said it has significant numbers of students who would be affected by an interest rate increase.
In Iowa, 255,000 students overall would be affected, Harkin’s office said.
The dispute over the interest rate issue is only a symptom of the broader problem of escalating college costs and large student debt loads. The overall student debt burden has crossed the $1 trillion line, making it higher than even credit card debt. In Iowa, the average student debt at the state’s four-year colleges is approaching $30,000.
Both issues are sure to be part of the debate next year when the federal higher education act is up for reauthorization.