A Big, Tiny Deal on Student Loans

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After a bit of a false start last week, it sounds again like the Senate is on the brink of a bipartisan compromise that will link rates on federal student loans to overall interest rates. Given all the hubbub that’s surrounded the loans, that’s big news. Given the actual change that would take place, it’s tiny.

Based on reports so far, the plan seems to be to eventually peg all undergraduate loans – both the officially “subsidized” and “unsubsidized” – to 10-year Treasury bill interest rates, adding 2.05 percentage points. Today, that would make the interest rate 4.57 percent. However, it appears that the compromise would put rates at 3.85 percent this fall. That’s no doubt a sweetener to appease student interest groups, whose goal is to get the cheapest loans possible regardless of the rest of the economy, and who don’t think a deal pegging student loans to T-bills is so hot.

To be fair, the deal isn’t hot. It’s barely room temperature. But that’s because it still gives away far too much, not too little. Taxpayer-backed loans that go to almost anyone have been a sweet-sounding disaster, encouraging people to consume education they aren’t willing or able to complete; prodding people who are college-ready to demand things that have little or nothing to do with education; and fueling rampant price inflation throughout the system. And, like last week’s abortive deal, this one appears to eliminate the different rates for the “subsidized” loans – those geared to truly low-income students – and the “unsubsidized” loans that have no income cap. In other words, the student aid system that is already heavily skewed toward the better-off seems likely to become a bit more so.

If this compromise eventually gets signed by the president, it will likely be hailed as a big, bipartisan deal. And maybe politically it would be. But as policy? It would barely register.

[Editor’s note: See this Cato essay for more on higher education subsidies.]