Overton: Widening the gap

BY JON OVERTON | JUNE 26, 2013 5:00 AM

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Climate change, terrorism, government infringement on civil liberties, the ever-increasing national debt, sluggish economic recovery, outsourcing of U.S. jobs, and a dysfunctional political system.

Yes, this generation of college students certainly will have its hands full combating these monolithic problems in the near future. And Congress seems to think we don’t have enough on our plates.

Unless lawmakers act by July 1, interest rates on federally subsidized student loans will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, according to a report from the Congressional Budget Office. These loans make up one-fourth of all new student loans.

If interest rates on subsidized loans jump, it will come at a particularly bad time and hit the most vulnerable students extremely hard.

Subsidized loans are given to undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need. By raising interest rates on these specific loans, aimed at those from lower-income backgrounds, the national government is simultaneously profiting from and indebting financially disadvantaged students who have already had to deal with constantly growing tuition.

Raising the interest rates on loans for low-income students will make it more difficult for them to afford college, thus making it harder for them to obtain higher wage jobs, decreasing social mobility.

A report from the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank released this year found that while low-skill and high-skill jobs have grown, openings in middle-skill jobs have shrunk thanks to outsourcing, mechanization, and the decline of manufacturing. In essence, without a college degree, individuals from families with lower incomes will struggle to enter the middle class.

Considering the ever increasing lumps of cash students and their families must pony up to attend college, the so-called great equalizer is starting to look more like a barrier to enter the middle class, and passing it seems to also require choosing the right degree and having the proper connections.

Screw principles and poor people — we need to pay down the debt and the federal government is making a killing off federal student loans — $50 billion, the CBO reported in May.

While that’s certainly a pretty penny, the damage raising interest rates can cause isn’t worthwhile. And make no mistake; this will affect a substantial portion of Iowa’s college students.

Data from the Iowa College Student Aid Commission show that in 2012, 66 percent of public-university students in Iowa graduated with debt and of those in debt following graduation, the average was more than $27,000.

The University of Iowa is well-known for having strong programs across the academic spectrum. A degree in the artsy-fartsy stuff, for which the UI is particularly well known, probably won’t be terribly lucrative. These programs, including creative writing, printmaking, and others. which are extraordinarily valuable in their own right, will surely suffer. As the cost of college grows more and more, practicality will certainly trump what students want to do with their lives.

The effects of a growth in interest rates will also go far beyond students in the arts. A 2010 study published in Labor Economics found evidence suggesting that graduating in a lousy economy (such as the one we have now) negatively affects long-term wages and job placement. So don’t worry, business and medicine majors — you get to suffer with the rest of us.

All in all, if interest rates do rise, it’s just another problem we get stuck with thanks to that ineffectual institution we all love to hate, Congress.

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