In Our View: Congress Takes an Incomplete

College isn't right for every student, but it's a no-brainer investment for nation



The latest lesson out of Washington, D.C., is that Congress is so dysfunctional it can’t perform even the simplest of tasks.

Despite last year’s campaign promises from both parties, lawmakers allowed a July 1 deadline to pass without taking action on the subsidized Stafford student-loan program. Because of that inaction, new loans taken out for the coming school year will have double the interest rate of previous loans, up to 6.8 percent from the earlier percentage of 3.4.

For thousands of students who are trying to pay their way through college, this will have real and lasting consequences. An increase in interest rates could make higher education suddenly unaffordable for some students who already have invested years toward procuring a degree. The increase serves as a financial hit to 7 million undergraduates, including 100,000 in Washington.

The cynics among us might say that this is a welcome-to-the-real-world moment for many students, and there would be some validity in that.

There has been much talk in recent years about the burden of paying back student loans and the high default rate on such borrowing, a situation that engenders little sympathy for those who are unable to meet their obligations. It’s never too early for students to learn about responsible borrowing and about the financial realities of whichever degree they are pursuing.

But the problem with the increase in student-loan rates is that it will be felt most by those who have the intellectual capacity for college but might not have the financial resources — the kind of people who are crucial to building and maintaining a strong middle class in this country.

Receiving a college education is neither a necessity nor a right. College is not for everybody. But it is essential that as many people as possible have the chance to pursue a degree should they have the desire to do so. It’s not that everybody should go to college; it’s that everybody should have the opportunity if they have the ability.

The state Legislature recently addressed the skyrocketing costs of college, freezing tuition for at least one year. Now it’s time for Congress to do its part.

By failing to act — despite being aware of the looming deadline and despite the rhetoric of last year’s election — both parties have failed the American people. President Obama suggested linking Stafford loan rates to financial markets; Republican legislators adopted that idea while adding a cap on the interest rates; Democrats presented a plan that failed to overcome a procedural hurdle in the Senate.

In the end, nothing was accomplished, which serves as another example of the gridlock that is a hallmark of Congress these days.

There’s still time for Congress to act, and indications from Washington, D.C., are that the issue will be a priority when lawmakers return to work next week. They will have until their August break to pass a plan that assists students in time for the 2013-14 school year.

Considering that all members of the House of Representatives and one-third of the members of the Senate are up for re-election next year — and that college students and their parents are an important constituency — we’re guessing that a deal will be forged to keep loan rates right where they have been.

And then we’ll wonder what took them so long.