By Teresa Welsh |
President Obama's proposal to extend the 3.4 percent interest rate on subsidized federal loans is likely to garner support from college-age voters as well as former college students—both graduates and dropouts—currently paying off their student loans. But the type of loans affected by the president's proposal—new subsidized loans—do not accumulate interest until after students leave college. So students struggling to afford college would not get any relief now—they would just face somewhat lower loan payments down the road.
There is no doubt that many college students and their families are being squeezed by rising college costs. And there are good reasons for the federal government to provide financial assistance to help low-income students afford college. But charging below-market interest rates on student loans is an inefficient and likely ineffective way to encourage college enrollment and completion because students don't pay any interest until after they leave college.
Some degree of pandering to various groups of voters is to be expected in any presidential election year, so it is not surprising that likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney has thrown his support behind the interest-rate reduction. But President Obama could focus his pitch to college students on his other, more significant proposals aimed at reducing college costs. In particular, the president's proposal to provide prospective college students with much better information about institutions of higher learning—including their graduation rates and the earnings of their graduates—has the potential to force colleges to compete on quality and price rather than on amenities that drive up costs.
Even if this "College Scorecard" proposal can help drive down costs in the long run, it surely does not have the same appeal to voters as promising more money in their pockets right now. But if Obama and Romney want to buy the votes of struggling college students, they should at least propose the more efficient path of increasing the grants that students receive when they attend college, not decreasing the interest they pay after they leave.
About Matthew M. Chingos Fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution
Gary Peters Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
Amy Laitinen Senior Policy Analyst at Education Sector
Brian Darling Senior Fellow for Government Studies at the Heritage Foundation