Courtney on front lines of White House fight over student loans

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported different totals for Ms. Colao’s loan burden. In rechecking her figures Monday, she said she owes a combined total of more than $30,000, of which more than $15,000 are in Stafford loans. The story and photo cutline have been corrected to reflect these figures.


Washington — Like thousands of Connecticut college students who graduate this spring, Vittoria Colao’s hopes of a new life are weighed down by the burden of huge college loans.

Colao, 21, says she owes more than $30,000 in loans, money she borrowed to pay for four years at St. Joseph College in West Hartford. More than $15,000 of that debt, Colao said, is in federally subsidized Stafford loans.

Graduating with a degree in psychology and a teaching certificate in a few weeks, Colao, who’s from Torrington, hopes to become an elementary school teacher.

“That has been pretty much my dream since I was a little kid,” she said.

But Colao said she knows paying for the education that allows her to fulfill that dream on an elementary teacher’s modest salary will be “hard and rough,” for many years.

The financial plight of U.S. college student like Colao is about to get worse because interest rates on Stafford loans are about to double.

President Obama has taken on the financial burdens of America’s students. On Friday, he asked Congress to approve legislation that would prevent the interest rate of Stafford loans to rise on July 1 to 6.8 percent.

Figures released by the White House Monday show that 73,718 students in Connecticut have subsidized Stafford loans.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, has introduced legislation, supported by 129 House Democrats, that would permanently freeze Stafford loan interest rates to the current 3.4 percent.

Courtney said the president’s “embrace” of his plan “would take it to a much higher level.”

Political realities, however, prompted the White House to seek a one-year freeze on the interest rate, not the permanent fix Courtney wants.

Courtney accepts the limitation.

“My bill stakes out a position that is ideal, but the reality of this Congress is … we’re not doing anything long term,” he said.

Courtney said it made no sense for other interest rates to drop — on mortgages and business lending — and have them rise for students.

Legislation similar to Courtney’s has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. It’s likely the Stafford loan bill can get through the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. But its future in the Republican-led House is less clear.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has pulled out all the stops to promote the interest freeze.

On Friday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said “debt from college loans is now more than credit card debt — something is wrong with this picture.” He urged Congress to act fast “before more American families decide they can’t afford to send their children to college.”

Republicans say there’s no money to keep Stafford loans low. The Congressional Budget Office estimates a one-year freeze of the rate would cost $6 billion.

The low Stafford loan interest rate stems from legislation approved by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2007 that reduced rates over four years to 3.4 percent. But the law mandated the rates revert to 6.8 percent in July.

The average Stafford loan debt is about $20,000. Nearly 8 million students apply for the loans every year.
This week, Obama plans to campaign on the need to keep Stafford loan interest rates low during visits to three swing states.

The president will travel to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Iowa.

Among the Republicans opposed to a freeze of Stafford loan interest rates is Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who said in a recent speech in North Carolina that she did not understand — or sympathize with — students who graduate with debt.

“I went through school. I worked my way through. It took me seven years; I never borrowed a dime of money. … I have very little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt or even $80,000 of debt,” said Foxx, a former college professor who heads the higher education panel on the House Education & the Workforce Committee.

Colao, the senior at St. Joseph College, said she sometimes worked three jobs to help pay for college, in the kitchen of the Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in her hometown, and as a resident assistant and a clerk in the bookstore of her college.

Yet periodically she was forced to borrow money, “with a sinking feeling,” she said.

Courtney read Foxx’s comments on the House floor last week, and sharply criticized them.

“It’s a sad statement when today’s Republican Party turns its back on a program that has helped millions of Americans fulfill their dreams that is named after Republican Senator Robert Stafford of Vermont,” Courtney said.

Coincidentally — or maybe not — the first stop on Obama’s campus tour is Foxx’s alma mater, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She enrolled in the school in 1968, when the average annual cost for tuition, room and board for a public university was $1,245.

According to the National Center for Education statistics, the cost for tuition, room and board at a public college in the 2009-2010 school year was $14,870.

Most Connecticut schools are more expensive, and all of the state’s universities and colleges have had tuition increases in the past several years.