Bring Back Affordable Student Loans! By Rep. Jim Matheson. Utah.

House Representative Jim Matheson.  Utah.
House Representative Jim Matheson. Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY — There has been significant discussion in Congress about access to affordable higher education, the role of the government in attaining it and the priorities our nation places on a highly educated workforce.

This topic caught my attention in no small part because of what is happening here in Utah. As you may know, leaders in our state have established a visionary plan called Prosperity 2020, which has a goal of reaching 66 percent of Utahns with postsecondary degrees by 2020.

Why does this matter? Prosperity 2020 says it accurately: Utah’s well-educated and trained workforce will propel Utah to enduring prosperity. Simply put, we succeed long-term when our citizens are well-educated.

I believe education is the best investment we can make — in our children and in our collective future. I’m not alone in this; it is deeply rooted in our nation’s history. And it is not a partisan issue.

In 1944, FDR signed the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, or the GI Bill, providing among other benefits, a way for service members to get an education through tuition and living expenses for college, high school or vocational school.

The task before us today is to set our country on a path to economic prosperity, to recognize the importance of higher education and to acknowledge that hardworking Americans are the ones who are falling short of being able to afford college. These families are ours and those of our friends and neighbors. They are parents and students who have planned for the future — who work and save and make sacrifices of time and money.

Our country reinforced the same priorities in 2008 when President George W. Bush approved an updated Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act. This legislation was passed for returning heroes because as a country we know education opens doors. We want to see our citizens, and in turn our country, expand abilities, reach new goals and attain unprecedented success. This is the American dream.

The cost of a college education makes the American dream tough to reach for many families in our state and across the country. College costs are growing faster than the cost of inflation — something that is deeply concerning to all of us, myself included.

Economist Sandy Baum suggests some of the reasons for rising tuition may include “declining state appropriations … difficulties in improving efficiency and productivity, expansions in services offered to students, rising costs of technology and increases to institutional financial aid budgets.”

In my mind, the rising cost of tuition deserves its own debate. That being said, the answer should not be allowing the federal government to regulate costs, which would be an overreach of power. I also oppose the idea of limiting access to school for students and families by cutting student aid, or making it more expensive — an argument some have suggested would incentivize schools to lower cost to attract more students.

The task before us today is to set our country on a path to economic prosperity, to recognize the importance of higher education and to acknowledge that hardworking Americans are the ones who are falling short of being able to afford college. These families are ours and those of our friends and neighbors. They are parents and students who have planned for the future — who work and save and make sacrifices of time and money.

These students and their families rely on a little help — from student or parent loans — to pay for school, and we need to make sure they have access to what they need now.

Student loans were traditionally financed through two channels — private loans called “guaranteed loans” and federal loans called “direct loans.” On the open market, students could apply for a private loan with fluctuating rates much like those for a house or a car.

However, unlike similar loans made to adults with credit, employment or steady financial support, student loans were made to kids entering college who had no assets or ways to “guarantee” the loan.

In order to compensate for a student’s lack of assets, the U.S. Department of Education backed the loans, paying any debt to private companies in case of default. Federal student loans, called “direct lending,” made up the remainder of the loans held, where students borrowed directly from, and repaid directly to, the U.S. Department of Education at a set, usually lower, rate. Just as with private loans, direct loans were guaranteed by the government in case of default.

In 2009, after years of testing and pilot programs under both President Clinton and President Bush, Congress eliminated private lending. The rationale for this change was that since both types of borrowing were guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Education, and repaid with taxpayer resources in case of default by a student borrower, direct loans with a lower interest rate were a more prudent financial decision.

According to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, switching to a solely direct loan program has been efficient and saved American taxpayers nearly $28.6 billion to date.

Today, Utah students and their families who borrow for an undergraduate education do so directly from the U.S. Department of Education. They borrow in the form of grants, like Pell Grants awarded based on need, or through capped, federally subsidized direct loans. Here in Utah, 75 percent of students rely on grants and loans to finance their education.

In Congress, we stand at an important crossroads this month with regard to the future of student loans. Without bipartisan action, the federal loan rate is set to double — from 3.4 to 6.8 percent — on July 1, 2013.

For the past couple of years, the federal borrowing rate has been capped at 3.4 percent to make certain that students and families could continue to afford higher education as our country recovers from recession and tough economic times. Last summer, Congress came together to extend the 3.4 percent rate for a year, and I believe we must come together to do the same thing now.

As I noted earlier, the importance of education is not a political or a partisan issue. Just as local initiatives like Prosperity 2020 have determined, we must be highly educated to compete and thrive in a 21st Century world. I have lent my support to a proposal in Congress that would extend the 3.4 percent interest rate for an additional two years, and I have committed to work with anyone serious about finding a permanent solution to keep rates low and affordable for students and their families.

I still believe in the American dream of opportunity and success and I believe that  there is no more crucial investment in the future than educating our citizens. I hope in the weeks to come my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will join in making commonsense decisions to extend low loan rates and to keep our state and country on the path to prosperity.