President Barack Obama arrives at UNC-Chapel Hill on Tuesday with a message that may resonate with young voters worried about their economic future.
Obama kicks off a tour of three university campuses in three states – North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa – to urge Congress to prevent interest rates on many student loans from doubling this summer. If Congress does not act, the rates will rise from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent July 1 for an estimated 7.4 million U.S. undergraduates who have federal loans.
That would be “a tremendous blow,” Obama said in his weekly address over the weekend.
In North Carolina, the higher interest rate would affect 160,000 students, adding $980 over the life of the average student loan, according to the White House.
Student debt now surpasses credit card debt in the United States, with the average senior owing $25,000 upon graduation.
“And for many working families, the idea of owing that much money means that higher education is simply out of reach for their children,” Obama said in his address. “In America, higher education cannot be a luxury. It’s an economic imperative that every family must be able to afford.”
April Brown, a sophomore education major at N.C. Central University, borrows about $8,000 a year, and she intends to go on to graduate school. Her sister will start college in the fall, squeezing her parents’ savings further.
As an aspiring high school history teacher, Brown expects to find a job, but many of her friends are worried about employment prospects. The rising tab for college may turn more young people away from higher education, she said.
“In the end, people will not go to school because they know they won’t be able to pay back all this money they’d owe,” she said Monday. “We’ll have a society that’s just not educated.”
Obama has made college affordability a campaign issue and has suggested that universities need to do more to control costs. Keeping the student loan interest rate at 3.4 percent for another year would cost the government an estimated $6 billion.
Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential frontrunner, said Monday he supports the effort to extend the low interest rate on student loans. He made the comment at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania, according to media reports.
But Republicans in Congress aren’t necessarily behind the idea. Last week, U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Minnesota Republican who chairs the House committee on Education and the Workforce, said he had concerns about the president’s proposal.
“Bad policy based on lofty campaign promises has put us in an untenable situation,” Kline said in a statement last week. “We must now choose between allowing interest rates to rise or piling billions of dollars on the backs of taxpayers. I have serious concerns about any proposal that simply kicks the can down the road and creates more uncertainty in the long run – which is what put us in this situation in the first place.”
In 2006, Democrats in Congress promised to cut student loan rates in half. Subsequent legislation lowered interest rates on subsidized Stafford Loans for undergraduates, gradually reducing the rate over a four-year period. But the rate will revert to 6.8 percent July 1.
Interest rates have been a political issue for at least a decade, said Steve Brooks, executive director of the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority. “I wish we’d talk about something a little more substantive than a one-year fix,” Brooks said, adding that 6.8 percent is too high a rate for students.
Borrowing in North Carolina has been lower than the national average. Here, 53 percent of 2010 graduates of four-year public and private colleges finished with debt, according to the national Project on Student Debt, and the average indebtedness of North Carolina students was about $21,000.
That figure may be on the rise.
Tuition in N.C. going up
In the 2012-13 academic year, tuition and fees will jump an average of 8.8 percent for in-state undergraduates across the UNC system as the universities deal with state budget cuts. In the Triangle, the increases will be 8.5 percent at N.C. Central University, 9.8 percent at N.C. State University and 9.9 percent at UNC-CH. In February, when the increases were approved, angry student protesters stormed the UNC system’s administrative building.
At the same time, state financial aid dollars have declined; the UNC system suffered a 15.6 percent cut in state funding last year. A state need-based grant program was reduced by $35 million last year. On Monday, Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, said she would restore that $35 million for financial aid in her budget.
On Tuesday, Domonique Garland, a UNC-CH senior from Greensboro, will introduce Obama at Carmichael Arena on campus. She feels comfortable paying back her loans under the current low rate, but she worries that future students won’t be able to take full advantage of their undergraduate years. Garland was a museum volunteer, an adviser to incoming students and a singer in the campus gospel choir.
“If you’re worrying about the interest rate of your loan, then you’ll be more inclined to go and do part-time work or something else,” she said, “and not have that full experience, which is what gets you to the next level.”