Youth Activists Tell Senate to Stand With Students; Senate Sits This One Out
With a rallying cry of “Don’t double my rate,” a broad coalition of student debt activists and youth-advocacy groups like the Young Invincibles, The United States Students Association (USSA), U.S. Public Interest Research Groups, and Campus Progress descended on Capitol Hill hours before the Senate took a vote to consider a Democrat-crafted bill that would prevent the Stafford loan interest rate from doubling in July.
Despite the young activist effort, 45 Republicans voted to block cloture—putting close to 8 million young Americans in rate hike limbo.
Prior to the vote, throngs of young organizers swarmed Senate offices to deliver information packets to urge their senators to support the bill, while Senators Jack Reed, Sherrod Brown, and Tom Harkin addressed the importance of passing the bill in a press conference.
If Congress doesn’t figure out a way to pay for the bill before the looming July 1 deadline, interest rates on Stafford loans will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, adding an average of $1,000 per year to the debt burden of close to 8 million students.
“If the Stafford loan rate doubles this year, it will make college more expensive next year and add to my overall debt level,” said Clarise McCants, a Howard University junior.“That additional money could be used instead towards my dream of earning a graduate degree.”
McCants spoke about her experience as a first-generation college student from a low-income, high-crime neighborhood. She took out $13,500 in Stafford loans to make up for the tuition her Pell grants didn’t cover.
In meeting with Senate Republicans and Democrats—or, more often, their legislative assistants—young advocates learned that while many legislators support keeping rates low, the devil is in the details.
“It seems like everybody agrees on the main principle,” said Leighton Watson, a freshman at Howard University who joined Young Invincibles for a meeting with one of Al Franken’s legislative assistants, “but then it’s how it’s paid for and what other issues get attached to it.”
Democrats wanted to pay for the interest rate cap by closing a tax loophole that favors lobbyists, while Republicans want to cut the Affordable Care Act’s Prevention and Public Health Trust Fund, which works to prevent chronic diseases in communities.
“My colleagues on the other side have chosen to use the student loan interest rate as another opportunity to attack health care,” said Sen. Reed, who added that Republicans don’t insist on paying for all of their proposals, including the Bush tax cuts.
Quibbles over how to pay for the $6 billion interest rate freeze ultimately trumped providing debt relief to millions of students who depend on Stafford loans to finance their postsecondary education. From the Senate viewing gallery, advocates watched some of the senators they had just met with trickle into the chamber at a leisurely pace, clapping colleagues on the back and shooting a quick yea or nay hand signal to the chair.
The nays had it, with a mere 45 votes.
Campus Progress, other youth-advocacy groups, and student activists were disappointed with the Senate’s block on cloture but remained optimistic about the fight ahead. After the vote, the groups climbed back onto the bus to continue strategizing.
The fight to hold Congress accountable to young people continues.
Emily Crockett is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @emilycrockett.
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