Post-secondary students and their parents are in for a treat as they begin financial preparations for the coming school year.
Under the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act, signed into law last summer, just as new federal student loan rates were set to double, student loan interest rates are now tied to financial markets, which means as the financial markets get stronger interest rates will get higher.
What does that mean for this year’s borrowers? Under the law, the increased value of the 10-year Treasury note, which is the instrument on which future rates will be based, has added another 0.8% to the interest rates charged on federal student loans this year. For the 2014–2015 school year, new undergraduate loans will carry 4.66% interest; graduate loans, 6.21%; and parent PLUS loans, 7.21%.
This means that a first-year student at a technical, community or four-year college who borrows the maximum $5,500 in Stafford loans this year will pay a total of $7,001.25 under standard repayment over 10 years (assuming an unsubsidized loan).
Unfortunately, that loan doesn’t cover the entire year’s expenses: The average cost of a year at a public two-year school was $8,928 in 2012–2013. For a four-year school, total cost of attendance is almost exactly twice that at $17,474. And the price tag gets bigger every year as states disinvest and students bear more and more of the cost of education. More than 70% of college seniors graduated with student debt, which averaged nearly $30,000 in 2013, even after grants, scholarships, payments from savings and other sources of payment.
If college prices and interest rates remain the same over the next four years, the average student borrower will pay around $8,000 in interest if he or she uses the standard 10-year repayment model, up from just under $5,000 under the 2012 rate of 3.4%. If that same borrower elects to make lower payments under Pay as You Earn, he or she will end up paying $46,675.37 for that $30,000 loan over the course of 20 years. Had rates been left alone, that student borrowed would only be looking at $41,836.45 over that time period. And it’s not just young folks who are being hit.
So why does this matter? Ask yourself what you would do with that extra money. It may seem like a small amount when it’s spread out over 10 or 20 years: The monthly standard payment for that $30,000 is only about $20 more than under the 2012 flat rate. But with high unemployment and underemployment, and depressed wages among young workers, $20 can mean the difference between starting to save for retirement or the down payment on a new car or first home. Or the difference between making rent or other bills that month.
Ultimately, though, it’s the $300 or more that student borrowers must send to Uncle Sam every month that is the problem. A college education continues to act as a wage premium, and we continue to tell young people that they should get a certificate or degree so they can be more productive workers. Why, then, are we burdening them (while raking in billions of dollars of profit) with tens of thousands of dollars in debt even while they struggle to get by?
As the Higher Education Act comes up for renewal, Congress must look for ways to lower the price of college and assist current student loan holders, especially those in default or in danger of defaulting. Let’s put our money where our mouth is on higher education and make it easier for all workers to get the education they want.