As Congress worked on a compromise this week on federal student loan interest rates, students and college administrators in Washington state say loans are one of their many concerns about the cost of college.
The associate director of financial aid at Western Washington University said any changes in student loans would have the greatest impact on the neediest students. A bipartisan agreement was reached on Tuesday to prevent a doubling of interest rates.
"Our most needy students borrow the annual maximum," said Jim DeWilde at Western, during a telephone conference called by U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens.
Doubling the interest rate from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on subsidized Stafford loans would have increased student payments by about $32 a month on loans totaling about $20,000.
DeWilde said that could really add up over the 10 years people generally take to pay off their loans and that money used in other ways could really make a difference in a student's lifetime, even adding up to thousands of dollars in retirement savings.
About 5,500 Western students took out around $24 million in student loans last year. About 1,400 students at each of the surrounding community colleges borrowed millions more.
College administrators told Larsen that students are getting hit financially from all directions. They face higher tuition, not enough financial aid, fewer work-study jobs and more difficulty finding jobs after graduation.
Jack Wollins, financial aid director at Whatcom Community College, said student borrowing has increased dramatically since the recession started, in part because many current students have already exhausted their eligibility for some forms of financial aid because they are returning to college after previously earning a degree.
Wollins echoed DeWilde about the crux of the problem: "Students with the least resources tend to borrow more."
Steve Epperson, financial aid director at Skagit Valley College, said an interest rate increase could be especially hard for community college students.
Students earning two-year vocational degrees likely would be paying back their loans while earning lower salaries than those earning bachelor's degrees, he noted.
A student noted that whether or not interest rates go up, students will keep taking on debt because they have few other options for paying for college.
"As students, we're between a rock and a hard place," said Patrick Stickney, Associated Students vice president for government affairs at Western.
Larsen said it's important for Americans to recognize the value to society and the economy of investing in higher education and giving more people access to that education.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the compromise to prevent a loan interest rate increase will help more than 100,000 students across Washington state.
"I want to thank the millions of students across the country who made their voices heard at rallies, in letters or calls, on Facebook, or on Twitter. This advocacy was absolutely critical in pushing this deal to come together," Murray said.