Anxiety over student loans as US lawmakers play politics

BOSTON, Massachusetts (AFP) - Recent Northeastern University graduate Greg Dube hopes to launch a bright engineering career soon, but like many young Americans, he is haunted by a looming financial burden: some US$150,000 (S$187,000) in student loan debt.

"I think I'm going to end up paying back more than double that in total," said the 23-year-old, predicting it will take 20 years to repay his loans - if he's lucky enough to find a decent job.

Millions of students take out loans to pay for the skyrocketing cost of college in the United States.

Federal interest rates are as low as 3.4 per cent for financially needy students, but that rate is set to double by July 1 if Congress does not act, adding hundreds of dollars per year to a borrower's costs.

About US$20,000 of Mr Dube's tally is in such federal loans, but the rest of the borrowing was from private banks, which sometimes charged more than nine percent interest. The first bills are due six month after graduation.

"That's the most daunting," Mr Dube told AFP.

"That's almost my deadline for finding a job."

Two thirds of students finish university in debt, with an average loan bill that topped US$26,600 in 2011. In all, more than 37 million Americans are paying off student loans.

Student debt has more than tripled since 2004, to US$986 billion as of March 31, more than the accumulated nationwide credit card debt and auto loan debt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

President Barack Obama used the issue to his advantage in 2012, courting young voters on the campaign trail as he pressured Republicans to avoid the rate hikes.

It worked, and Congress froze for 12 months the 3.4 per cent rate of the subsidised Stafford federal loans.

But with partisan bickering a perennial blood sport in Washington, the brinkmanship is back, and students could be faced with higher college costs unless action is taken in the coming weeks.

While he has been less confrontational this year, the president nonetheless stood with college students at his side in the White House Rose Garden on Friday, recalling how low-interest loans helped put him and First Lady Michelle Obama through college and law school.

Mr Obama wants to peg student loan rates to the 10-year Treasury note, plus overhead charges of 0.93 per cent for low-income students and 2.93 per cent for other students. The plan would lock in the rates for the life of the 10- or 20-year loan.

Republicans want a similar market peg, although without a lock-in but with an 8.5 per cent cap.

The Republican-led House of Representatives passed such a bill last month, but Mr Obama called it "not smart."

"It eliminates safeguards for lower income families," he said.

"It could actually cost a freshman starting school this fall more over the next four years than if we did nothing at all."

Senator Johnny Isakson said neither party's plan will get the necessary 60 votes to overcome blocking tactics from the other side, and predicted that "we'll come together and make a compromise."

Among supporters of the subsidised rate, experts agree it is imperative to maintain low interest levels for those preparing to enter the labour market.

"It's important that loans stay affordable and people can afford college so that they can go on to buy a house and to buy a car and be productive economic engines of growth," said Ms Anne Johnson, director of Campus Progress, the youth division of the Center for American Progress.

US college costs have soared over the past decade, to as much as US$40,000 per year for top schools.

Ms Renea Gooch knows the long-term costs better than most.

Having graduated with a degree in molecular biology at the height of the financial crisis in 2008, she said that even now that she's got a good job, her debt burden of more than US$100,000 has weighed her down.

"I'm in my mid-30s and I still live with roommates," she said.

"There's no way I could possibly afford to get married at the moment. I can't really think about having children either, which is kind of scary considering my age."