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Thousands of WV College Students Threatened by Congressional Impasse

Angie Bell with the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission says if Congress lets the interest rate for subsidized student loans double, it would hit tens of thousands of West Virginia college students. PHOTO courtesy of the commission.
Angie Bell with the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission says if Congress lets the interest rate for subsidized student loans double, it would hit tens of thousands of West Virginia college students. PHOTO courtesy of the commission.
June 24, 2013

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - If Congress fails to act by the end of the month, tens of thousands of low-income West Virginia college students will face higher loan costs. More than 70,000 state students could see a doubling of the interest rate on new subsidized Stafford loans.

Angie Bell, vice-chancellor for policy and planning, West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, said rising college costs are already tough on low-income students. They are at a disadvantage if they have to depend on loans that charge interest, she said, but even more when the rate goes up.

"We are actually asking lower-income students to pay more for their education than we are higher-income students. And if Congress doesn't do anything, then the rate will double," Bell said.

West Virginia students' debt load is higher and rising faster than the national average. By one estimate, the rate hike would add $55 million dollars to that total over the life of the loans. Some conservative critics have questioned whether taxpayers should subsidize college loans at all.

Bell pointed out that West Virginia's economic future may depend on having a better-educated work force. To even tread water, studies suggest, in the next five years the state will need 20,000 more workers with degrees - and will that be enough for the state to move into a more high-tech economy?

"Not if we grow," Bell said, "not if we become more technologically advanced. We absolutely, positively have to increase our degree production and get students into college. And that includes keeping college affordable for them."

There may be ways to target the subsidy better, she suggested. One proposal would help graduates in low-paying and public service jobs pay off their loans after they leave school. However the program is structured, she added, the "elevator of education" is needed to help people rise in society, with a college education helping people be better neighbors and citizens.

"We'll have higher civic participation rates, better health outcomes, lower incarceration rates, higher voter participation," she forecast. "And their children are more likely to go on to college and grow our society as well as our economy."

A temporary deal last year put the issue off, but that agreement is set to expire. Although senators are discussing a possible compromise, observers are worried that the divided House of Representatives might not be able to reach agreement. Several budget issues are currently stalled there.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV