SILVER SPRING, Md. — Addressing a group of low-income and minority high school seniors here, Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s brief remarks about the ongoing student loan debate in Congress may have largely passed unnoticed by the students in the audience, who were celebrating their college picks.
But a group of parents and school officials in the audience murmured knowingly at the subject, and the Maryland Democrat said his conversations with the adults in the room revealed a close level of attention to the debate.
“Unless Congress resolves these issues, student loans will go from an interest rate of 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent,” Van Hollen told the audience. “We’re trying hard to prevent that from happening.”
Van Hollen was addressing a group of students that the nonprofit group CollegeTracks helped apply to college. The organization serves first-generation college-bound students, low-income students and minorities navigate the paperwork and deadlines of the college application process.
“It’s huge. It so vastly increases the cost of college,” Nancy Leopold, the group’s executive director, said about the interest rate of federal student loans.
Van Hollen did not bring political parties or partisanship into his remarks to the students.
He touted the importance of college in terms of the students achieving their “dreams” and for their financial security. And he said their success at college is pivotal to U.S. economic success. “We’re in a very competitive global economy,” Van Hollen said.
He also urged the students to remember federally subsidized loans and financial aid, the “rungs of the ladder” of opportunity, when they obtain high-paying jobs — and corresponding taxes — with their college degrees.
“As you become more successful, we are going to ask of you as taxpayers to contribute back to the system,” Van Hollen said.
Although President Barack Obama, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Republicans and Democrats in Congress have all expressed their support for moving to keep the student loan rate from doubling on July 1, how to pay for the proposal has divided the parties.
House Republicans voted to take $8 billion from an account in Obama’s health care law that they described as an “Obamacare slush fund.”
With equally dramatic language, Democrats hit back that Republicans were imperiling women’s health, with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) describing the money in the account as a matter of “survival” for women.
Speaker John Boehner’s office pointed out that $4 billion was taken from the same account to pay for the payroll tax cut in February.
In an interview after the event, Van Hollen said that taking an additional $8 billion from the health care account was more problematic than the original $4 billion.
He also hit Republicans for only embracing the lower interest rates for political expediency, noting that Rep. Paul Ryan’s House-passed GOP budget assumed the interest rates would double on schedule with current law.