Congress has only one week to prevent interest rates on new federal student loans from doubling to 6.8 percent.

Lawmakers must act quickly. Now is the wrong time to reduce college accessibility and saddle students with the prospect of even higher debt after graduation.

The 2007 College Cost Reduction and Access Act, signed by President George W. Bush, reduced interest rates on federal subsidized Stafford loans for four years. Rates will double on July 1 unless Congress acts.

Fiscal conservatives note accurately that keeping that rates low will be costly — about $6 billion for a one-year extension. Lawmakers are haggling over how to recoup that amount from elsewhere in the budget.

As they quibble, it’s worth noting that the students who will benefit from lower rates are of the generation that is expected to pay dearly for the entitlements, giveaways and government-subsidized perks lavished over the years upon their elders. Creating avenues of opportunity for them is not too much to ask.

The debate about loan rates comes amid growing concern about college costs and rising student debt. With two-thirds of bachelor’s degree recipients owing money and facing a weak job market, there is growing skepticism about whether a college education is worth the expense.

It is.

Young people with post-high-school education are much less likely to be unemployed than their peers with just a high school diploma. And though there are instances of people leaving college with debt loads of $100,000 or more, the median debt for students who have borrowed to finance their educations is $12,800. That is less than the difference in average yearly earnings between college graduates and those with high school diplomas.

But there is also no question something must be done about escalating college costs and debt. Many things, actually. To start with:

* Crack down on marketing practices that lure prospective students and parents into thinking that excessive debt is normal and easy to pay off. Schools should have to inform applicants in real-world terms of the consequences of their debt loads. Example: You would be required to pay as much as $600 a month, beginning six months after you graduate.

* Make schools more accountable for student debt loads. Currently, there is little cause for colleges and universities to worry about the amount of debts their students incur. They receive their money regardless. Government should track student loan defaults, with the potential of penalties for schools responsible for large numbers.

This is especially true of the for-profit and “career” colleges that too often entice low-income students into taking on exorbitant debt to earn degrees or certificates that have little value in the marketplace. These schools enroll about 12 percent of post-high-school students, but make up nearly half of the number of students who default on their loans within two years.

* Place more focus on timely college completions. High schools must do a better job of preparing students for college. Colleges must make spots available in required courses and extend resources to help students succeed. Congress could also consider tying federal loan and grant awards to on-time completions.

* Return to the egalitarian thinking that until recently made state colleges and universities much more affordable for low- and middle-income families. A college education has long been considered a social good, and one in which states were willing to invest much more generously than they are now. Diminished state funding is the number one reason tuition at public colleges and universities is so high.

Burdensome student loans are a big part of escalating college costs. Public universities already have slashed expenses and found efficiencies. Making colleges across the spectrum more accountable for the debt loads of their students would motivate private colleges to do the same, as would greater awareness on the part of student borrowers.

Editorial by The Kansas City Star


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