Well, finally! Hard-right congressional leaders and the Obama White House have agreed that interest rates on student loans should not double to nearly 7 percent, as they let happen early in July. Instead, college students will be billed at a rate that will steadily rise higher than 8 percent.
This is progress?
Temporarily, yes, because the new law drops this year’s rate to 3.8 percent. But, for the longer run, obviously not. Even capping the interest rate at 8.25 percent, as the White House demanded, is too high, for it still saddles students with a crushing debt of some $20,000 to $40,000 for a four-year degree, just as they’re getting started on their economic path.
But worse, lawmakers are playing small ball again, avoiding the big issue they should be addressing. Bickering over interest-rate percentages shrivels the public debate to its most picayune and meanest point, which our so-called leaders seem to specialize in these days. They focus on the price of everything, without grasping the value of anything. And the value of a college education — not only to America’s youth, but most significantly to our whole society’s economic and democratic future — is clearly established.
So the big question to be asking is this: Why isn’t higher education free? Les Leopold, director of the Labor Institute, notes in a July 2 AlterNet piece, “For over 150 years, our nation has recognized that tuition-free primary and secondary schools were absolutely vital to the growth and functioning of our commonwealth.”
Providing free education, from kindergarten through high school, paid off big for us. Today, though, that’s not enough, for open access to a college degree or other advanced training is as vital to America as a high school diploma has been in our past.
Forget interest rates, young people should not be blocked by a massive debt-load from getting the education that they need to succeed — but also that all of America needs them to have for our mutual prosperity and democratic strength.
Let me frame the question in terms of a real-life choice: Is making higher education available to every American more important to our national interest than letting Wall Street profiteers make a few more billions of dollars each year?