On Friday, I accompanied the National Political Director of Rock the Vote, Amanda Brown, to the White House to watch President Obama sign the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act into law. We arrived at the White House in the early afternoon, swiftly moved through security, and proceeded to the West Wing where we were cordially greeted by White House staff. After giving up our cell phones, we were ushered into the Roosevelt room, where we mingled with Senators, advocates, and students who supported the bill. Along with meeting Senators Brian Schatz (Hawaii) and Angus King (Maine), I had the pleasure of meeting my own homestate Senator, Dick Durban (Illinois). After chatting it up with the group, the White House staff directed us into a small corridor that connected the Roosevelt room to the President’s office. There, we waited for the President to open the door and welcome us into the Oval Office. He greeted us with a pleasant “Hello there!” and shook each of our hands as we introduced ourselves. Thereafter, we surrounded the desk and watched the President sign his name on the bill, one pen at a time. Over the cacophony of cameras snapping photos, the President made jokes mentioning that it felt really good to sign a bipartisan bill. It isn’t something he’s done in a while, “hint, hint,” he urged. We concluded our visit by taking a photo with the President and doing an interview with White House staff.
The student loan bill is a bipartisan bill that links student loan rates to the market’s interest rates. As the economy improves, the present rates which are 3.9% for undergraduates and 5.4% for graduate students, will also increase but will be capped at 8.25%. When Congress failed to come to a consensus in late July, student loan rates doubled to more than 6% with no foresight on what the interest rate forecast would look like in coming years.
As a graduate student with undergraduate and graduate loans, the outcome of this bill and subsequent congressional conversations directly affect me. This bill is not ideal – as a self-interested student, I want the lowest interest rate possible. As the economy starts improving, my rates will increase and that’s unsettling! An interest rate increase only becomes warranted when the job market shows the same improvement that economy shows. And in the last few months we haven’t seen that correlation. Instead, what we’ve seen is an increase in economic growth and recovery coupled with relative stagnation in the job market. Fortunately, the interest cap is helpful because it allows students like me to envision our worst-case loan-debt scenario and make risk-adjusted financial decisions accordingly. From a historical perspective the student loan bill is symbolic for two reasons: First, it creates a space for long overdue conversations about the student debt crisis, college affordability, and educational equality. Second, this example of bipartisan support and congressional collaboration represents a glimmer of hope for citizens who have found themselves disenchanted with the democratic process because of partisanship and months of gridlock on the Hill.
Tags: Angus King, bi-partisan, bill, Brian Schatz, Congress, Dick Durban, economy, Hawaii, illinois, job market, Maine, Oval Office, President, President Obama, rock the vote, student debt, student loan, U.S. Senator, white house