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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 21, 2006

Democrats vow to ease debt load

By Brady Averill and Rob Hotakainen
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON Alarmed by a rapid rise in student debt, Democratic leaders in the coming Congress are promising to lower payments on new college loans by cutting the interest rate in half.

During the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress, Democrats plan on reducing the interest rate from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent. They contend that would help the typical undergraduate student borrower who graduates with $17,500 in debt pocket $5,600.

Across the nation, debt loads are rising for students, the highest being in New Hampshire, where the class of 2005 graduated with an average debt of $22,793, according to The Project on Student Debt. The average debt in Hawai'i was one of the lowest $14,290 for graduating seniors at four-year institutions, 49th in the nation.

Nikki Schwartz, a University of Minnesota student, has already racked up $66,000 in debt after five years of college and figures she'll owe $200,000 when she finishes graduate and law school. She's working 20 hours a week at the Cheesecake Factory to help pay $520 a month in rent and utilities while she goes to graduate school.

"I would love to see the interest rates go down," Schwartz said.

While the plan to lower interest rates has broad political appeal, it would cost an estimated $18 billion over five years and is likely to test Congress' new commitment to hold down spending as a way to lower deficits. Many Democrats are promising to back pay-as-you-go budget rules that would force members of Congress to identify tax increases or spending cuts to fund any new spending.

Some Democrats, including Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the incoming chairman of the Senate Education Committee, say the government could save money by making college loans directly, relying less on private lenders.

The plan to lower interest rates is part of a broader Democratic effort to make it easier for students and parents to pay tuition by increasing Pell grants from $4,050 to $5,100 per year and expanding tax credits, among other things.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the incoming chairman of the House education committee, said Congress must help middle-income Americans who are being squeezed by declining paychecks and rising bills for college tuition, housing, healthcare and energy. In the past five years, he said, the median household income in the United States has declined by $1,300, while tuition at a four-year public college rose by 57 percent.

"The price of tuition should never stand between a qualified student and a college degree," Miller said at a news conference in Washington last week. "Yet the Department of Education has estimated that roughly 200,000 people each year delay or forgo a college degree because they can't afford one. This is unfair to them. And because college graduates open businesses and create jobs, it is bad for our economy and our country's future."

The plan to increase Pell grants is drawing support from both sides of the aisle. A group of lawmakers recently sent a letter to Rob Portman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, asking for an unspecified increase of the maximum grant.

Raising the maximum Pell grant might lessen the debt burden, although many students who have to take out loans aren't eligible; Pell grants go to the neediest students.

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